Qatar uses Al-Jazeera as bargaining chip: WikiLeaks

LONDON (AFP) – Qatar is using the Arabic TV news channel Al-Jazeera as a bargaining chip in negotiations with other countries, US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks suggested on Monday.

Despite the broadcaster's insistence that it is editorially independent, the channel is "one of Qatar's most valuable political and diplomatic tools," according to the cables.

The Gulf state -- which last week controversially won the right to host the 2022 football World Cup -- adapts Al-Jazeera coverage to suit other foreign leaders, claimed the cables revealed in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

It has also offered to drop critical transmissions in exchange for concessions, the cables suggested.

A US dispatch from November 2009 predicted the station could be used "as a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries, particularly those soured by Al-Jazeera's broadcasts, including the United States."

Al-Jazeera has revolutionised the Arabic-language media and reporting on the Middle East since its foundation in 1996.

Government control over the channel's reporting appears to US diplomats to be so direct that they said the channel's output had become "part of our bilateral discussions -- as it has been to favourable effect between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and other countries".

The US embassy told Washington in February how "relations [between Qatar and Saudi Arabia] are generally improving after Qatar toned down criticism of the Saudi royal family on Al-Jazeera."

The US ambassador, Joseph LeBaron, reported in one cable that the station's coverage of events in the Middle East was "relatively free and open."

But he concluded: "Despite GOQ (government of Qatar) protestations to the contrary, Al-Jazeera remains one of Qatar's most valuable political and diplomatic tools."

In an example of the channel being used for political ends, the embassy in Doha said Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani proposed a bargain with the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The Qatari leader told US Senator John Kerry he had proposed a bargain with the Egyptian president which involved stopping broadcasts in Egypt if Cairo changed its position on Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

"[The Qatari prime minister] 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," according to a cable from the US embassy in Doha in February.

"Mubarak said nothing in response, according to [the Qatari leader]."

The United States appears to have been painted in a better light by the channel since Barack Obama became American president.

"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," a cable in November 2009 said.

There has been no comment as yet from Al-Jazeera on the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.