Bahrain yesterday announced the closure of a new pan-Arab news channel, owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, which had vowed to practice "objective" journalism.
The government said it suspended the channel within hours of its first broadcast because it failed to obtain a proper license and did not meet anti-terrorist standards. The Alarab network disappeared from TV screens early on Feb 2, a day after its launch. Bahrain initially declined to explain why.
The government's Information Affairs Authority said yesterday that the station does not possess a valid Bahraini operating license. It said Alarab failed to meet standards "aimed at stemming the tide of extremism and terrorism," according to the official Bahrain News Agency.
Alarab officials declined to comment. The network's website was blank except for a logo yesterday. One of Alarab's first broadcast interviews was with government critic Khalil Al-Marzooq, a top official in the largest Shiite opposition bloc in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
Al-Marzooq and other Shiite lawmakers withdrew from Bahrain's parliament in 2011 following protests seeking democratic reforms. He was acquitted last year of "inciting terrorism," a charge that human rights groups called politically motivated.
Bahrain, an island nation that hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet, has faced four years of instability following anti-government protests in February 2011 driven by its Shiite majority. Alarab is headquartered in the landmark World Trade Center in the capital, Manama. The network is bankrolled by Saudi royal family member Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose Kingdom Holding Co investment firm has stakes in many companies including Citigroup Inc, Apple Inc, News Corp and Twitter.
Bahrain is a close ally of neighboring Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, where a minority community of Shiites in the country's east, across from the island nation of Bahrain, have complained of marginalization. The head of media at Bahrain's information ministry, Yusuf Mohammed, said last week that "cooperation with Alarab's administration is ongoing, in order to resume its broadcasts and complete necessary measures as soon as possible".
Jamal Khashoggi, Alarab's general manager, could not be immediately reached for comment yesterday. He is a veteran Saudi journalist who was forced to step down from the helm of Saudi Arabia's Al-Watan daily in 2010 after it ran an opinion column that angered religious conservatives. Prior to the launch of Alarab, he told AFP the channel was "not going to take sides". Khashoggi said "a news channel should not have a political agenda... We should just be a news channel that provides accurate, objective information."
Although its news programs stopped within hours of the launch, Alarab continued to show promotional material. Until just after 1200 GMT yesterday, it was broadcasting a message that programming had been interrupted for "technical and administrative reasons, and we'll be back soon, God willing".
But at about 1204 GMT the promotional material stopped and the screen displayed only Alarab's green and white logo. Alarab was the latest player in the Arabic-language television market, after Qatar-subsidized Al-Jazeera became the first regional news broadcaster 19 years ago. It also aimed to be a rival for Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, established in 2003 and owned by Sheikh Waleed Al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's late King Fahd.
Critics have accused the established broadcasters of reflecting their owners' political views, especially during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. Both long-running channels deny any slant in their coverage. Alwaleed also belongs to the Saudi royal family and is a nephew of King Abdullah, who died on January 23.
In a highly conservative Islamic kingdom, Alwaleed, who holds no government rank, is unusual for his high profile and periodic comments about economic issues. Another of his projects is Kingdom Tower, which is under construction in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and will rise more than one kilometer (almost 3,300 feet) to be the world's tallest building.
Alwaleed first announced plans for the news channel in 2011. Before the launch of Alarab, Khashoggi had said the network could not be based in Saudi Arabia because the kingdom does not allow "independent" channels. He said it took time to iron out the legal arrangement with Bahrain because "our channel in Bahrain is the first independent channel" on the island which is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi declined to reveal Alarab's budget but said the channel would have about 280 staff, including correspondents in 30 countries. Riyadh would be the largest bureau with around 20 employees.