The United States government thinks the broadcaster Al Jazeera is being used as a propaganda tool by the government of Qatar to help to advance its agenda on the international stage, according to a memo published by WikiLeaks yesterday.
The television news network has always fiercely claimed to be editorially neutral, despite the fact that is owned by Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani, a cousin of the ruling emir, and subsidised by the government of the Gulf state, which last week controversially won the right to stage the 2022 World Cup.
However a confidential cable from the US ambassador to Qatar, Joseph LeBaron, alleges that the television station is being used as what amounts to a bargaining chip in the country's dealings with its neighbour Iran, with which it shares a gas field, and "problematic players such as Hamas, Hizbollah and Syria".
The 2009 note is likely to upset the organisation's editorial staff, who have long battled allegations of anti-US bias. "We expect the trend in favor of using Al Jazeera as an informal tool of [the Government of Qatar's] foreign policy to continue undiminished," the cable reads. "Al Jazeera Arabic news channel will continue to be an instrument of Qatari influence, and continue to be an expression, however uncoordinated, of the nation's foreign policy. Qatar will continue to use Al Jazeera as a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries, particularly those soured by Al Jazeera's broadcasts, including the United States."
Mr LeBaron, who has been in office for two years, contrasts the vast resources afforded to reporters at the network with what he calls the "lack of overall media freedom" in the country, which is free from overt political censorship but has only a handful of "tame and ineffective" independent news outlets. The revelation comes at an awkward time for Qatar, which finds itself in the spotlight after managing to emerge victorious from the much-criticised process through which Fifa selects the host nations of future World Cups.
Al Jazeera was founded in 1996 to provide an Arab-centric counterbalance to a medium dominated by Western rolling news outlets. It has grown to be the most-watched news station in the Middle East, with offices in London and the US. Washington has always viewed it warily regarding it as a potential outlet for anti-US propaganda. It has become the chosen network through which Osama bin Laden communicates with the world via video-taped announcements.
In 2001, Al Jazeera's offices in Kabul were bombed by the US, in what many reporters believe was an intentional attack. In 2003, an American bomb hit the electricity generator at its headquarters in Baghdad, killing one of the firm's reporters.
A leaked memo of a meeting between Tony Blair and George W Bush in 2005 purportedly revealed the men had discussed a bombing raid on Al Jazeera's head office in Doha, although Mr Blair persuaded the president to abandon the plan. The US government has maintained the memo was misleading.
In a footnote which will no doubt intrigue President Barack Obama's domestic opponents, the cable from Mr LeBaron released yesterday added that Al Jazeera's coverage of the White House has softened considerably since President Bush left office.
"The United States has been portrayed more positively since the advent of the Obama administration," it read. "We expect that trend to continue and to further develop as US-Qatari relations improve."
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