America and its key ally Saudi Arabia are being accused of quietly seeking to muzzle al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite news station that has often incurred Washington's ire for its coverage of Iraq and President George Bush's "war on terror".
According to reports in the US and the Gulf, the Qatari government, owner of al-Jazeera since its foundation in 1996, has ordered privatisation plans for the station to be speeded up. Many al-Jazeera employees fear this could lead to a loss of editorial freedom. A set of proposals is already said to have been presented to al-Jazeera's board of directors.
US officials reject all charges of meddling. Nonetheless, such suspicions are inevitable. Senior US officials, among them the Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, have fiercely criticised al-Jazeera for what they say is biased and inflammatory reporting.
Washington has been particularly irritated by the station's coverage of civilian casualties and destruction caused by US troops in Iraq, and by its airing of messages from Osama bin Laden, the al-Qa'ida leader. In Iraq and some other Arab countries, al-Jazeera offices have been shut down.
At the same time the Qatari government's ownership of the station has strained diplomatic ties between Washington and one of its traditional allies in the Gulf. In what was seen as a sign of US displeasure, the emirate was conspicuously not invited to a summit on Middle East democracy last summer. Though Qatar has pledged to defend the station's independence (not least as proof of its sincerity in promising greater democracy at home), its diplomats in Washington have reportedly been asked to tone down the station's coverage.
With a regular audience of between 35 and 50 million, al-Jazeera is the most popular source of news in the Arab world. It is a rare beacon of uninhibited reporting and free expression in a region where strict state control of the media is the norm.
But it has rarely been profitable and relies on an estimated $100m (£53m) annual funding from its government sponsor. Assuming privatisation goes ahead, the station is likely to be listed on Qatar's stock market, where most of its shares would be available only to citizens of member countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). This could allow Saudi Arabia, the richest GCC member and a prime source of media funding across the region, to gain a major stake in al-Jazeera. The Saudi regime has also been a vigorous critic of al-Jazeera's coverage of opponents of the regime. It has already suspended advertising on the station - adding to its financial problems.
But the quandary is deepest for Washington. Officials maintain that slanted reporting by the station has contributed to the surge of anti-Americanism across the Arab world. But an attempt to silence this inconvenient voice would run contrary to the proclaimed US intention of fostering free speech and democracy in the region.
By Rupert Cornwell in Washington
15 February 2005