US embassy cables released yesterday by Wikileaks describe al-Jazeera as ‘a useful tool for the station's political masters’ and claim that the channel altered its output to suit the interests of Qatar’s foreign policy. These allegations, which al-Jazeera has denied, are neither new nor surprising, even if they’ve never come from such an authoritative source before.
A confidential cable sent from the US Embassy in Doha to Washington in February this year quotes a conversation between the Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ) al-Thani, and US senator John Kerry, in which HBJ says that he told the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, that Qatar would stop al-Jazeera broadcasting if Cairo would change its position on Israel-Palestinian negotiations:
Mubarak, continued HBJ, says Al Jazeera is the source of Egypt's problems. This is an excuse. HBJ had told Mubarak "We would stop Al Jazeera for a year" if he agreed in that span of time to deliver a lasting settlement for the Palestinians. Mubarak said nothing in response, according to HBJ.
The Guardian has called this ‘a clear example of the regional news channel being exploited for political ends’, but it’s plain that the Qatari prime minister was making a rhetorical point, not a serious promise: even if he were to switch off the channel’s signal to please Mubarak – instantly and permanently destroying the station’s credibility – everyone knows it isn't within Mubarak’s power to deliver any kind of settlement for the Palestinians.
According to another cable:
Anecdotal evidence suggests, and former Al Jazeera board members have affirmed, that the United States has been portrayed more positively since the advent of the Obama administration. We expect that trend to continue and to further develop as U.S.-Qatari relations improve, particularly to the extent that Al Jazeera coverage is made part of our bilateral discussions - as it has been to favorable effect between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and other countries.
This looks bad for al-Jazeera, Qatar and the US, undermining as it does both governments’ claims to be committed to freedom of expression.
Meanwhile, ‘al-Jazeera's more favourable coverage of Saudi Arabia's royal family’ is said to have ‘facilitated Qatari-Saudi reconciliation over the past year’. This is a fair point: there was, for example, next to no coverage on al-Jazeera of the murder committed by Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir al-Saud in London earlier this year. But you don’t need leaked US embassy cables for this insight; it should be obvious to anyone who regularly watches the channel.
Qatar is a vulnerable target in a highly unstable region and if there is a US-led war with Iran then Doha will be in the front line. Despite US guarantees of protection most of the population will flee to Saudi Arabia, where they can expect to be received at a price – such as a change of leadership to a more pliant branch of the al-Thani. With around 28,000 princes eligible to be the new emir, there’d be plenty of choice. Such a prospect understandably focuses the minds of the current Qatari leadership and may well explain why al-Jazeera’s criticisms of the Kingdom have tailed off in recent months.