Today’s news informs us that Al Gore and his partners have sold their "left-leaning Current TV" to al-Jazeera, which is to say to the government of Qatar. Although "The nation’s second-largest TV operator, Time Warner Cable Inc., dropped Current after the deal was confirmed Wednesday," the arrangement still opens many more American homes to the pan-Arab channel.
Any problem here? One, at least: al-Jazeera is wholly owned by the Qatari royal family, whose interests it will pretty obviously protect. It is not, in that sense, a news channel, even if it broadcasts news. Here’s a simple test: is al-Jazeera able to report candidly on events in Qatar? The answer is no.
Moreover, there is this story from the Guardian of London just last September: "Al-Jazeera’s editorial independence has been called into question after its director of news stepped in to ensure a speech made by Qatar’s emir to the UN led its English channel’s coverage of the debate on Syrian intervention."
The Guardian’s story continued:
Al-Jazeera English was set up in 2006 by the Arabic broadcaster of the same name and both are owned by the Qatari state. The network, founded in 1996, gained credibility with audiences in the region for its seemingly independent coverage in the post 9/11 period. Its English channel was launched to offer an alternative, non-western-centric worldview. However, in recent years, Qatar has taken steps to consolidate its control over the channel as the country seeks greater political influence in the Gulf. In September 2011, Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian widely seen as independent, suddenly left as director-general after eight years in the post and was replaced by a member of the royal family, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, a man with no background in journalism.
Henceforth, tens of millions of Americans will receive al-Jazeera English in their homes. It would be nice if the channel carried a little warning label to viewers, clarifying who owns al-Jazeera so that they understand they are getting all the news....that the Qatari government wants them to have. This problem is of course not unique to Qatar: in recent years Russia and China have launched 24-hour news channels in English and several other languages. Now, it may be argued that the British government wholly owns the BBC, as Deutsche Welle is owned by the German government, so why the objection if Qatar, and Russia and China, follow suit? For that matter, Voice of America is owned by the U.S. government.
Every government has the right to present a news channel, and has the right to decide whether that channel will be fully independent of government policy--like the BBC--or will reflect government policy--like al Jazeera. The answer is not censorship, but candor; if al-Jazeera were called Voice of Qatar, and clearly labeled as that nation’s international broadcaster, the situation would be clear to its viewers.
For example, the France 24 web site says "FRANCE 24 is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the public-funded holding company Audiovisuel Exterieur de la France." The Deutsche Welle web site says "Deutsche Welle is regulated by public law and financed by federal tax revenue." The al-Jazeera web site says "Al Jazeera English is an international news channel with over sixty bureaus around the world that span six different continents....Al Jazeera English is part of the Al Jazeera Network - one of the world’s leading media corporations, encompassing news, documentary and sport channels. Al Jazeera started out more than fifteen years ago as the first independent news channel in the Arab world dedicated to covering and uncovering stories in the region." Nowhere is there any notice that al-Jazeera is in fact controlled by the government--and that’s the problem.