Manama: Pan-Arab Al Jazeera channel is planning to change its legal status and turn into a "private organisation devoted to public interest."

The change from 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.

Launching regional channels

Following the change of status, the network credited with changing 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 be able to get involved in wider media activities, social networking sites, mobile and Internet-based news services, the daily said.

The Arab 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 ratified by the Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani in May, the dailies said.

‘Al Jazeera Media Network'

The new name will be ‘Al Jazeera Media Network' and the changed status would ensure that the channel becomes a truly international media organisation.

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," a legal expert said.

The channel has a wide network of offices and correspondents.

"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."

‘Private organisation devoted to public interest'?

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 Sayed, 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? Or do they want to utilise Law 21/2006 which gives more autonomy to the management of a public utility."

According to Al Sayed, 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 reason, according to the editor-in-chief, could be a drive by Al Jazeera to avoid being questioned in future about its finances by an elected parliament.

"The big question here is how can a company that was financed by government money become a private institution? What is the legality of this action?"

Al Sayed wrote that he had high hopes for Al Jazeera, "especially after the role they played during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt."

"I thought Al Jazeera will become the voice of the Arab people similar to the radio station, Sout Al Arab, during the era of [Egypt's President] Jamal Abdul Nasser. I was hoping that our Emir will make a present of Al Jazeera to the Arab people and there will be something like an Advisory Council to support the board members of Al Jazeera, and that Advisory Council will have representatives from the different countries in the Arab world," he wrote.

"Al Jazeera would thus become an institution of the Arab people and the real voice of the Arab world. That would stop future regimes from saying that Al Jazeera is biased or has its own agenda since the people managing it would represent the Arab world and not just one country. Al Jazeera would be the free media zone, where all Arabs would be given the chance to have their voices heard."