ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Sky News Arabia, a joint venture between an Abu Dhabi royal and the British broadcaster BSkyB BSY.L, has launched a 24-hour Arabic-language news channel with a pledge to be impartial in a region where government influence over media is endemic.
The channel went live on Sunday from state-of-the-art studios in the capital of the United Arab Emirates as correspondents sent live reports from the Syrian-Turkish border and election night in Paris.
But the real challenge will be to provide fearless coverage closer to home from the Gulf region, unimpaired by the link to the ruling family - a challenge that pioneering Al Jazeera has struggled with.
BSkyB’s partner in the 50-50 joint venture is Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corp (ADMIC), a private investment company owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahayan, whose other investments include the English football club Manchester City.
The channel has been given an “editorial advisory committee” that it says is unique in the region to safeguard its editorial independence. Its six members will include two from the stable of News Corp, BSkyB’s biggest shareholder: Times executive editor Roger Alton and Sky News executive editor Chris Birkett.
“There is no governmental representation in the structure of our company,” said the head of Sky News Arabia, Nart Bouran.
“... this is partly the reason it (the committee) was set up, to show we have nothing to do with the government and that this is not an official entity.”
The region’s recent experience suggests it will be an uphill struggle, not only against political influence but also to claim a share of a market where others are already jostling to fill a void left by Al Jazeera’s difficulties.
Last year the UAE, whose Sunni rulers closely identify with those in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and are keen to prevent the Arab Spring bringing unrest to their gates, sent troops to join a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Bahrain.
It has also tackled domestic dissidents by stripping some of their citizenship.
Press freedom is limited in the seven-member UAE, where distribution of Britain’s Sunday Times, also part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, was blocked in late 2009 for its coverage of Dubai’s debt crisis.
When the state-linked Dubai World sought to delay interest payments on over $20 billion of debt after its property units were hit by the global downturn, the move and ensuing market turmoil received only muted coverage in UAE official media.
Against such pressure, the power of an editorial committee may be limited, said Christopher Davidson, an expert in UAE politics at Durham University.
“Even if the organisation takes steps to have full editorial freedom and external overview, then the usual problem of self-censorship will soon set in,” he said. “The worry is that members of the organisation will subtly shy away from stories or coverage of topics that may offend the owners.”
Even Qatar’s Al Jazeera, which revolutionised the landscape of state-managed media supporting authoritarian Arab rulers by shining a fierce light on inter-Arab rivalries and Saudi politics, has struggled to maintain its name for independence.
The channel played a central role in uprisings that brought down veteran rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya with its round-the-clock coverage, but paid scant attention to an uprising in Bahrain put down with military help from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Like other Arabic satellite channels, Al Jazeera relies heavily on advertising revenue. When it offered Saudi dissidents a platform to denounce the kingdom in the late 1990s, it saw its income from Saudi Arabia virtually disappear.
Last September, Al Jazeera’s top news executive, Waddah Khanfar, was replaced as by a member of Qatar’s ruling family. Another senior journalist subsequently left, citing bias in coverage of Syria and Bahrain.
An Al Jazeera spokesman declined to comment on the perception that its coverage of the Arab Spring had been skewed.
Al Jazeera’s struggles could provide an opportunity for Sky.
Elie Aoun, president of Ipsos MediaCT, which monitors the Middle East media market, said political upheaval had boosted demand for independent news, and that some Arab viewers now saw Al Jazeera as “broadcasting only one point of view”.
“(Sky News Arabia) will need to have a neutral point of view ... it’s not good to be linked to the policy of any government,” he said.
But others such as France 24, the BBC and, more recently, Russia Today already have Arabic channels that are competing to fill that space.
Officials at Sky News Arabia, which hired around 400 staff after receiving 24,000 applications, declined to say what the channel was costing or its projected revenue.
“The deck is stacked against Sky News,” said As‘ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University and author of a blog that frequently dissects the impact of Gulf politics on Arab media coverage.
“The competition is now more intense because of the dramatic decline of Al Jazeera.”
He also said Sky News Arabia could suffer from BSkyB’s ties to Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp (NWSA.O) - now embroiled in the British phone hacking scandal - holds a 39 percent stake in BSkyB.
The broadcast magnate has a history of public pronouncements of support for Israel, at times characterising its conflict with Palestinians as a struggle against “terrorism”.
“Murdoch is a very dirty word in the Arab world,” AbuKhalil said.
Additional reporting by Regan Doherty in Doha; Editing by Kevin Liffey