The pan-Arab Al Jazeera channel is planning to change its legal status to become a "private organisation devoted to public interest".
The legal makeover from its current standing as a public entity will allow the Doha-based TV station, set up in 1996, to embark on an ambitious expansion plan and will provide it with more flexibility in its administrative as well as editorial functioning, Qatari dailies The Peninsula and Al Sharq reported.
Following the change of status, the network credited with transforming the media landscape in the Arab world will work on launching a host of regional channels that include Al Jazeera Balkans, Al Jazeera Turkey and Al Jazeera Swahili.
The channel will also be able to get involved in wider media activities, including providing social networking, mobile and internet-based news services, the dailies observed.
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The broadcaster, launched on November 1, 1996, has reportedly been given the go-ahead to alter its legal status through an amendment formalised by Law 10/2011 which was ratified by the Emir, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, in May, the dailies said.
The new name proposed for the group is reportedly ‘Al Jazeera Media Network'.
Legal experts told The Peninsula newspaper that the change of status could mean that Al Jazeera shareholders and staff members may have to sign new contracts.
"Although it is difficult to get investors because it is a very expensive enterprise, going private would mean Al Jazeera would have private shareholders," one legal expert said.
"Al Jazeera is truly a phenomenon in the world of media, and especially in Arabic media", the unidentified expert said. "However, going private could also mean some job cuts even though that is highly unlikely."
According to the expert, the meaning of the phrase ‘private organisation devoted to public interest' is that the channel would not deal with issues that are harmful to national security or stability of the country.
However, the decision was challenged by Khalid Al Syed, the editor-in-chief of The Peninsula who, in a front-page editorial, wrote that the move raised several questions.
"First, the purported reason for the change is not convincing since Al Jazeera already enjoys the freedom and flexibility to report on controversial issues like no other channel in the Arab world. The need to change its legal status to enable flexibility, therefore, makes little sense," he wrote.
"Then, how can a media outlet become a ‘public utility'? What do they exactly mean by ‘public utility'? And how will Qatar as a nation benefit from this public utility? This is the first time that we have heard of a media company, which is profit-based, being turned into a public utility. Besides, it will become a private institution.
"Our question: What happens to the billions of dollars spent by the Qatar government on Al Jazeera? Will it just be considered as a donation then?"
Future about finances
According to Al Syed, the reason Al Jazeera is seeking these changes is to bypass the new media law expected anytime now.
"If the government allows Al Jazeera this status change, will it also allow other local media outlets the same opportunity? Maybe, by taking this decision, Al Jazeera is challenging the government to give a similar opportunity to other media outlets."
Another motive, Al Syed suggested, could be an attempt by the broadcaster to avoid being questioned in future about finances by an elected parliament.