- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
Pulling together several diplomatic cables from Qatar, the Guardian reports that U.S. diplomats are accusing Qatar of "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."
One cable, from July 2009, reports that the channel has "proved itself a useful tool for the station’s political masters" and states that "Al Jazeera’s more favorable coverage of Saudi Arabia’s royal family has facilitated Qatari-Saudi reconciliation over the past year." Another states that that "the United States has been portrayed more positively since the advent of the Obama administration" and suggests the Al Jazeera coverage be "made part of our bilateral discussions – as it has been to favorable effect between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and other countries."
That Al Jazeera has a political bias is not exactly earth-shattering news, nor is the fact that the station generally refrains from criticizing the Qatari government while seriously pissing off other governments in the region. Qatar is hardly the first authoritarian regime to discover the benefits of sponsoring a global media outlet whose coverage is broadly aligned with its ideology and interests. But that’s not the same thing as using the network as a "bargaining chip". That part of the Guardian story is a bit of a stretch, as evidenced by its highlighting of this February 2010 account of a meeting between Qatari Prime Minsiter Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ) and Sen. John Kerry:
Qatar is worried, said HBJ, about Egypt and its people, who are increasingly impatient. 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.
Something tells me Thani wasn’t seriously offering Mubarak one Al Jazeera-free year in return for helping to create a Palestinian state. That’s what we in non-diplomatic circles call a joke.