BREAKINGVIEWS-Al Jazeera shake-up may signal shift for Qatar Inc

Wed Sep 21, 2011 5:10am EDT

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own)

By Una Galani

DUBAI, Sept 21 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Al Jazeera -– the island -– has become less of an island. It isn’t entirely clear why Wadah Khanfar resigned as the director of the Qatari state-owned and funded network after eight years. But the quiet frenzy of speculation surrounding the departure of the man widely credited for putting the outspoken broadcaster on the map underscores Qatar's awkward membership of the Kings’ club.

The surprise changing of the guard in the midst of the Arab spring has raised fears that Doha may be reining in Al Jazeera, notwithstanding vague denials from Khanfar that he gave in to outside pressure. It is also a sharp reminder that an authoritarian government, albeit a popular and benevolent one, was bankrolling the trail blazing, and sometimes controversial, coverage of the protests that rocked the Arab world.

In one sense, Qatar’s decision to put a member of the ruling family at the helm is in keeping with the practices of its royal neighbours. Gulf leaders have a tendency to put their most prestigious institutions in the hands of insiders. Al Jazeera has become a tool of immense political influence, as highlighted by disclosures in Wiki leaks that Khanfar had modified the channel’s coverage of the Iraq war following pressure from the United States.

By consolidating the ruling family’s power at the top, it will now be even harder for Al Jazeera to claim it is free from bias, and more difficult to dismiss the complaints of foreign governments. Compared to Libya and Egypt, the channel’s coverage of Bahraini Shi’ite calls for greater rights has been seen as timid and driven by the policies of Sunni-ruled regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

But the reshuffle may be in the best interests of Qatar, which has recently discovered that its immense wealth gives it international clout independently from its broadcaster. The World Cup, military participation in Libya, investments abroad, and a pledge of aid to Egypt all have raised Doha's standing. They are also less threatening to the stability of its powerful neighbours -– and of Qatar itself.

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CONTEXT NEWS

-- The head of Arab TV channel Al Jazeera said Sept. 20 resigned from the network after eight years, but gave no reason for his departure at a time when the Qatari state-owned network has played an important role in protests rocking the Arab world.

-- "I have decided to move on," the network's director-general Wadah Khanfar said in a resignation note emailed to Al Jazeera staff and also publicised on social media site Twitter.

-- "For some time I have been discussing my desire to step down with the chairman of the board. He has kindly expressed understanding and has accepted my decision."

-- Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem al-Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling family and an executive of state-run Qatargas, will replace Khanfar.

-- Since it was launched in 1996, Al Jazeera has become the highest-profile satellite news broadcaster in the Middle East.

-- Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Lebanon, Ghassan Bin Jiddo, resigned in April, apparently in disagreement over its coverage of the revolts, which have also engulfed Syria and Yemen.

-- Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables described the channel as a tool in Qatari diplomacy. The channel has played an important role in raising the prestige of the small, wealthy Gulf Arab state.

-- Khanfar said on his Twitter account, “Entertained by all the rumors of why I have resigned.”

-- Cablegate on Al Jazeera: here

-- Reuters story: Head of Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera resigns [ID:nL5E7KK4GP]

-- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can -- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can click on [GALANI/]

(Editing by Pierre Briançon and David Evans)

((una.galani@thomsonreuters.com)) Keywords: BREAKINGVIEWS ALJAZEERA/

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