The short story of Alwaleed's Bahrain TV venture

It was intended to break the mould, giving airtime to the smaller stories and voices in the Gulf, but Prince Alwaleed’s Alarab TV lost its own voice within hours of blasting into homes with a controversial interview. Arabian Business examines whether the Saudi billionaire’s utopian network will air another episode
The short story of Alwaleed's Bahrain TV venture
By Courtney Trenwith
Sat 28 Feb 2015 02:13 AM

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? Alanis Morissette’s 1996 hit song rings true for Alarab TV, the satellite station funded by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal that was turned off within hours of being turned on.

Prince Alwaleed chose neighbouring Bahrain to base his aspiring network because his homeland does not allow independent broadcasters and Alarab TV was intent on being “objective”. Most television content in the highly conservative Islamic kingdom is religious.

Bahrain was considered a more legitimate option: it was an internationally open market with close proximity to Saudi Arabia, a key target audience and a major source of stories.

But that was in 2011, when Prince Alwaleed announced the venture, which is believed to have cost $200m to set up, with 280 staff including correspondents in 30 countries, cutting-edge technology and an agreement to take content from US media giant Bloomberg.

Since then, Bahraini authorities, feeling the pressure of four years of unrest, have built invisible yet fairly impenetrable walls around access to information. The daily front pages of newspapers are these days dedicated to government stories and there has been little coverage of concerns over human rights that have been aired outside the borders.

Bahrain also has among the closest security and political ties with Saudi Arabia; the influential Middle Eastern giant came to the rescue of its smaller neighbour to help quash a violent uprising in 2011.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman, who took office upon the death of King Abdullah on January 23, is keen to ensure stability.

Prince Alwaleed, a member of the powerful Saudi royal family but who does not have a government role, has often made public his criticism of government policy. In 2012, he told CNN his planned channel was an attempt to fill “an opening for a more pragmatic and logical channel that really takes the centre’s point of view”.

The outspoken prince also owns Rotana Media Group, one of the largest television content producers in the Arab world, which is part-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. It had been reported it also would move its headquarters to Bahrain under the Alarab TV deal.

On its first day of broadcasting from Bahrain on February 1, Alarab TV wanted to make an impression.

There could have been no doubt that its deliberate decision to air an interview with a spokesman from the political opposition group Al Wefaq, Khalil Al Marzouk, would be controversial. Indeed, it became catastrophic.

It is unclear whether Alarab TV’s management misread the boundaries or were aiming to cause a stir. But the sudden black screens came as no surprise to some observers.

“I’m never shocked or enormously surprised when this happens,” the dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Doha, Everette E. Dennis, says.

“It’s disappointing but there’s always these moments in the region when a government authority has concerns about security and freedom of expression; it flares up from time to time [when reports cover] local politics or regulatory issues.”

Alarab TV said at the time that “technical and administrative reasons” were to blame, but that now seems fanciful, given it has not re-aired since.

Alarab TV general manager Jamal Khashoggi all but confirmed the station had been permanently removed from Bahrain when he told Arabian Business on February 18 that Alarab TV was planning to resume programming but “where and when” would be revealed by Prince Alwaleed “later”.

The station’s closure also appeared to be confirmed on February 20 when the Financial Times newspaper quoted a Bahraini official as saying “all contracts have been terminated”.

It was more than a week after the initial suspension before the country’s Information Affairs Authority (IAA) publicly commented on the station, confirming it had been suspended.

It said Alarab TV had failed – in the few hours it had been broadcasting – to do enough to fight “extremism and terrorism” and had not obtained the required licensing approval to commence broadcasting in Bahrain.

The IAA statement also accused Alarab TV of failing “to match the standards of regional and international practice agreements, to take account of efforts aimed at stemming the tide of extremism and terrorism throughout the region and the world”.

It denied the order was in response to the interview with Al Marzouq, whose boss Bahraini authorities have held since December on charges of promoting regime change by force, which he denies.

“The IAA stresses that the decision [to shut Alarab TV] has no impact upon principles of media freedom and is strictly based on the government’s commitment to ensuring the diversity and impartiality of media outlets in the kingdom,” the IAA said in its statement issued on February 9. It did not respond to Arabian Business’ request for further comment.

Observers are not convinced by the IAA’s reasoning.

“The shutdown of Alarab TV is one instance among many of the Bahrain government suppressing media freedom,” says Bret Nelson, program manager at Freedom House, an international non-government organisation that publishes an annual press freedom index.

Bahrain has tumbled in the Freedom of the Press rankings since 2011, from 159 to 188 out of 197 analysed countries and is considered to be “Not Free”.

“Bahrain’s press freedom rating has had one of the largest declines in the world over the past five years as the government has used extreme measures to stifle dissent,” Nelson says.

“Bahrain… [uses] administrative or bureaucratic tactics such as licensing irregularities or lack of proper documentation to shutter media outlets that give airtime or print space to opposition voices.”

Speaking to Arabian Business, Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist who was previously forced to resign from Saudi Arabia’s Al Watan daily after it ran an opinion column that angered religious conservatives in 2010, insisted Alarab TV would “resume [broadcasting] with the same planned reporting standards that make an effective news outlet in our troubled region”.

Those reporting standards, he has repeatedly stated, include “not taking sides”.

“I think a news channel should not have a political agenda... We should just be a news channel that provides accurate, objective information,” he said in an interview.

So from where could this ideal station be legally allowed to broadcast?

Dubai was second on the short list, according to Khashoggi. The emirate has a far more liberal reputation, but it already hosts Al Arabiya, an Arabic satellite broadcaster owned by fellow Saudi businessman Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, through the company’s Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC).

Nelson says it would be challenging for Alarab TV to meet its stated aim anywhere in the Gulf countries because the region has “serious struggles with press freedom”.

Dennis agrees another location within the region would be a difficult transfer.

“The GCC is problematic, I would suggest, because the countries want to work together and support each other and it may be perceived as meddling in the affairs of other states [if Alarab TV was given a licence],” Dennis says.

“There have been offshore broadcasts in North America and lots of others that get around regulatory authority on cruise ships and island locations where there isn’t the issue of national sovereignty involved. That’s possible.”

Four of the six GCC states have fallen in the Freedom of the Press rankings over the last few years. Saudi Arabia and Oman have remained relatively stagnant, but were already among the bottom countries.

Kuwait, the only semi-democracy in the Gulf, has long had the most open media, but its position also has worsened significantly.

“Kuwait has been intent on silencing reporting that is critical of the government over the past few years,” Nelson points out.

Independently owned Al Watan, known to criticise the government, has been a direct target. A court last month upheld a government-enforced decision to effectively shut down the Arabic daily by cancelling the business licence of the company that publishes it.

The court said in its ruling the licence cancellation was legal and not related to press freedom.

The ministry of commerce said it revoked Al Watan’s commercial licence because the company had lost more than 75 percent of its capital. The Information Ministry then cancelled Al Watan’s printing licence because its owner had lost its legal status as a company.

The paper, owned by Sheikh Ali Al Khalifa Al Sabah and managed by his son Sheikh Khalifa, who are both members of the ruling family, had been one of two suspended by a judge for two weeks last year after they reported on an audio recording that discussed an alleged plot to overthrow the Gulf state’s rulers. The other was Alam Al Youm.

Kuwait had imposed a news blackout on an investigation into the tape, saying that media coverage "could undermine the national interest".

Kuwait’s Press and Publications Law forbids criticism of the Emir, the disclosure of secret or private information, and statements calling for the overthrow of the regime, criteria that Nelson says are “used liberally to stifle any reporting that is considered critical of [the ruling] Al Sabah [dynasty]”.

“The government has aggressively enforced the Press and Publications Law, prosecuting citizens for internet-related offenses on social media platforms, and often pursuing these cases in conjunction with other criminal charges,” Nelson says.

Even so, Minister of Information Sheikh Salman Sabah Salem Al Humoud Al Sabah announced on September 30 that Kuwait would launch a television and radio organisation that he said would be independent and compete on the international stage.

Sheikh Salman said the “pioneering” new station would have freedom from government interference, despite also saying it would “market and promote the government’s achievements”.

The statement on state news agency KUNA came a day after the government revoked the citizenship of 18 opponents, including Ahmed Jabr Al Shammari, who ran a privately-owned television channel and newspapers, including Alam Al Youm, which gave space to opposition figures and anti-government points of view.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera Network was the first Arab broadcaster to break the state-controlled mould when it launched in 1996 in both English and Arabic. Its international prominence rose at the beginning of the century when it aired exclusive recordings of the late Al Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden at the height of the terrorist organisation’s fight against the West.

However, its reputation also has taken a battering in recent years over its perceived bias of regional conflicts, particularly its coverage of Egypt during and after the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership. Al Jazeera was accused of acting in line with Qatar foreign policy by siding with the organisation, which has been declared a terrorist group by other Gulf states.

It described the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammed Morsi, who was elected president following the 2011 uprising in Egypt, as “a coup against legitimacy”, emphasising that he had been the country’s first democratically elected president.

Three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested by the next elected government as part of its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

When the region’s other independently owned satellite broadcaster, Al Arabiya, launched in Dubai in 2003, it was considered a direct competitor to Al Jazeera, which had at times been critical of Saudi Arabia.

Dennis says the launch of Alarab TV had promised to add further competition, and subsequently more points of view from the Arab world.

“We always have hope when a new channel goes online and purports to provide a service and to open up channels of communication for people; sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t,” Dennis says.

He says while the current unrest in Bahrain “certainly highlights the stakes and makes it more difficult” to broadcast freely, it is hard to say whether it contributed to the government’s decision to close it down.

“Sometimes in the most repressive regimes you’ll find a relatively free media outlet that moves along very well and is careful and cautious in how it [treats coverage] and it does very well, despite the repressive laws,” he says.

“In other cases, it takes just one angry minister.”

However, government attempts to stifle freedom of the press are not restricted to the Middle East, or any other region.

The US – where democracy and free speech are enshrined in the constitution – experienced the most significant decline in press freedom during the past decade, according to Freedom House. In its most recent report, the US-based organisation says the Obama administration has increased attempts to control official information flows, particularly concerning national security issues, while journalists have been increasingly harassed to reveal their sources and media outlets have been wiretapped.

The US also had fallen on the press freedom index amid “revelations of surveillance” including the bulk collection of communications data by the National Security Agency (NSA).

“Disclosures that surveillance was being conducted by a range of governments - many of them democratic - against ordinary citizens as well as key political figures intensified concerns on a global level about the ability of journalists and others who gather and disseminate news and information to protect sources and maintain their digital privacy”, the report says.

Dennis argues that media freedom in the Middle East has improved in recent years.

“It’s one of the unheralded aspects of the Arab Spring,” he says. “Newspapers in the region are somewhat bolder than they have been in the past, [increasingly] engaging in investigative reporting [and being] somewhat more critical.

“There are setbacks at times but there are also some things to be positive and encouraging about.”

Al Jazeera’s new online video channel AJ+ is a good example, the Doha-based academic says.

Based in Al Jazeera America’s San Francisco office, AJ+ uses a YouTube channel to stream content for a global, English speaking audience. Tapping into the emerging digital scene, particularly among youth, it also streams on social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter, helping to avoid some local media restrictions.

“It’s a very robust, active effort to provide news services,” Dennis says. “This isn’t a kid with a website popping up a few aggregated news items, it’s a serious, journalistic initiative. Perhaps it could be a model for others.”

That is, if Alarab TV’s experience has not already deterred them.

For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.