Tue, Dec 07, 2010 - Page 7 News List

Cables hint Qatar uses al-Jazeera for foreign policy

The Guardian, LONDON

Qatar is using the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations by adapting its coverage to suit other foreign leaders and offering to cease critical transmissions in exchange for major concessions, according to US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks.

The memos flatly contradict al-Jazeera’s insistence that it is editorially independent despite being heavily subsidized by the Persian Gulf state.

They will also be intensely embarrassing to Qatar, which last week controversially won the right to host the 2022 soccer World Cup after presenting itself as the most open and modern Middle Eastern state.

In the past, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, has publicly refused US requests to use his influence to temper al-Jazeera’s reporting.

However, a cable written in November last year, predicted that the station could be used “as a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries, particularly those soured by al-Jazeera’s broadcasts, including the United States” over the next three years.

Doha-based al-Jazeera was launched in 1996 and has -become the most watched satellite -television station in the Middle East.

It has been seen by many as relatively free and open in its coverage of the region, but government control over its reporting appears to US diplomats to be so direct that they said the channel’s output had become “part of our bilateral discussions — as it has been to favorable effect between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and other countries.”

In February, the US embassy in Qatar reported to Washington how “relations [between Qatar and Saudi Arabia] are generally improving after Qatar toned down criticism of the Saudi royal family on al-Jazeera.”

In June last year, the US embassy concluded that the channel “has proved itself a useful tool for the station’s political masters.”

In a clear example of the regional news channel being exploited for political ends, the Doha embassy claimed Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, told US Senator John Kerry that he had proposed a bargain with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which involved stopping broadcasts in Egypt in exchange for a change in Cairo’s position on Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

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