Bahrain on Monday permanently closed a Saudi billionaire's pan-Arab news channel after less than 24 hours on air, in what an analyst called a worsening of press freedom.
The Alarab News Channel had vowed to practise “objective” journalism in a politically charged Middle East region where leading regional broadcasters have been accused of bias.
“It has been decided to halt the activities of Alarab, the channel not having received the necessary permits,” a statement from the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority said on Monday.
Shortly after its launch on February 1, programming was interrupted after Alarab aired an interview with a Shiite opponent of the Gulf kingdom’s Sunni rulers.
Alarab was taken off the air for “not adhering to the norms prevalent in Gulf countries”, the pro-government Bahraini daily Akhbar al-Khaleej reported at the time.
“It shows also in fact that, in the Gulf, the situation for freedom of expression, freedom of the press… is deteriorating,” said Mohammed El Oifi, a specialist in Arab media at Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris.
He told AFP that the interview gave “the impression that he had not respected the hospitality of Bahrain” by giving voice to an opposition figure, something “very sensitive”.
Bahrain is a close ally of neighbouring Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, where a minority community of Shiites in the country’s east have complained of marginalisation.
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 reached for comment on Monday.
Before the launch he told AFP Alarab had taken time to iron out legal arrangements with authorities on the island because “our channel in Bahrain is the first independent channel” there.
The veteran Saudi journalist 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.
‘Accurate, objective information’
He said the channel was “not going to take sides” and should just provide “accurate, objective information”.
Although its newscasts stopped within hours of the launch, Alarab continued to show promotional material. A message said programming had been interrupted for “technical and administrative reasons, and we’ll be back soon, God willing”.
But at about 1204 GMT on Monday 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-subsidised 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.
Alarab’s owner Prince Alwaleed bin Talal belongs to the Saudi royal family and is a nephew of king Abdullah, who died on January 23.
In a 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, under construction in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. It will rise more than one kilometre (almost 3,300 feet) to be the world’s tallest building.
Alwaleed first announced plans for the news channel in 2011. His office did not immediately respond to a request on Monday for comment.
Before Alarab went to air, Khashoggi had said it could not be based in Saudi Arabia because the kingdom does not allow “independent” channels.
Khashoggi declined to reveal Alarab’s budget, but said it would have correspondents in 30 countries, with the largest bureau in Riyadh.