Tuesday, February 15, 2005

DOHA, Qatar — The U.S. government might view Al Jazeera as little more than an anti-American mouthpiece, yet the journalists who work at the satellite TV station consider it the only bastion of free press in an authoritarian Middle East. The prospect of being sold to the highest bidder has many worried.

An order by the ruler of this small Persian Gulf country to come up with a privatization plan for the pan-Arab station ” owned by the Qatari government since its start in 1996 ” has many wondering who will buy and what the station will look like.

“Our editorial policy is the red line,” said the station’s director, Wadah Khanfar. “The moment we feel the privatization issue will interfere with our editorial policy, the project will be abandoned.”

Not everyone is so sure. At the station’s headquarters here, many employees have begun expressing worries about the channel’s future ” and how privatization might affect the newsroom, said a senior editor, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Few details are known about the privatization plan or why the Qatari government is pushing it.

The idea has been under discussion for more than a year, Al Jazeera executives say, but gained momentum when this kingdom’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ordered the government to produce a plan on how to turn the channel into a private shareholding company.

Mr. Khanfar said a final report on privatization was presented recently to the station’s board of directors. He would not reveal details, except to say that the board would meet within the next few weeks to discuss the report.

It is widely expected that the station will be listed on Qatar’s stock market, with most shares available for purchase only by Qataris and citizens from the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries ” Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates ” with a minority stake open to foreign investors.

As members of the GCC, Saudis ” who already own many of the Arab world’s media companies ” would be eligible to buy under those rules.

The station has a wide viewership across the Arab world, but has been criticized by some Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, mostly because ” unlike Arab state-run media ” it airs the views of local opposition figures and their criticisms of their countries’ rulers.

The station’s offices have been closed in some Arab countries, including Iraq.

“Pressure has not stopped since Al Jazeera’s foundation,” Mr. Khanfar said.

The network also has been criticized by several senior U.S. officials for its coverage of the war in Iraq and for broadcasting videotapes and audiotapes purportedly from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his aides. Al Jazeera says it is merely presenting both sides of the story.

In Washington, a State Department official said the U.S. government hasn’t been pushing for the station’s privatization and doesn’t have a position on who should own it.

The Bush administration has taken issue with the station’s reporting, with U.S. officials calling it biased and irresponsible. Many Al Jazeera employees say the opposite is true.

Intense and almost constant U.S. pressure on the Qatari government to rein in the station is thought by many employees to be related to the privatization issue, the senior editor said.

The Bush administration, on occasion, has privately called in Qatari diplomats for talks in Washington to try to influence the station’s coverage, said an Egyptian official with knowledge of one such meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The [Qatari] government has been helpful,” Mr. Khanfar said. “It was under pressure, but it never pressured us. It funded us and took a step back. … The government is the trustee for the independence of the channel.”

What role Qatar’s government might play once the company goes public, however, is not clear. The government has said that Al Jazeera’s independence is part of its efforts to introduce political reforms and move toward transparency and democracy.

Qatar funds the station with about $100 million a year, and Al Jazeera generates other revenue from advertisements, sponsorship deals, program sales and subscriptions in Europe and North America, although Mr. Khanfar said it remains a money-losing enterprise.

“I doubt that there are any 24-hour news channels that are making a profit. We’re no different,” he said.

The station is thought to have the Arab world’s biggest market share, estimated at 35 million people, but also faces de facto advertising boycotts from some countries, including Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s largest advertising market at $1 billion.

As it moves toward privatization, the station also has plans to add an English-language channel, a documentary channel and a children’s channel, all before the end of the year ” the emir’s deadline for presenting the privatization plan to Qatar’s Cabinet.

Mr. Khanfar said recruiting for those new ventures has begun.

“Al Jazeera is here to stay,” he said.

• AP diplomatic writer Barry Schweid in Washington contributed to this report.

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