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Qatar plans to sell off satellite news channel Al Jazeera

LONDON - Much-criticised Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera, which is owned and financed by the emirate of Qatar in the Persian Gulf, is to be sold off and go public.

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The channel, which has been the source of many damning news reports on the US/UK position in Iraq, is to be put on the market.

"The form of privatisation is to be decided over the coming months, on the basis of the final results of a study being carried out by a US firm which specialises in privatisations," Jihad Ballut, an Al Jazeera spokesman, said.

News of the privatisation of the channel comes as Al Jazeera prepares to launch its English-language channel, which is due to air in May to reach beyond Arabic-speaking viewers in the Middle East and the West.

The new channel will include not only news, but sport and children's programming as well.

Ballut said the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, had first raised the issue of privatising Al Jazeera, whose budget is covered by the Qatari authorities and partly by advertising revenues, in late 2003.

The station's board will draw up a report in the next year to decide on the best method to turn the company into a privately owned station.

"There will be restrictions in the shares we offer and we don't know (yet) if it will be on offer locally, regionally, or internationally," Ballut added.

In theory, the privatisation would not be allowed to affect the editorial policies of Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera made its name covering the war in Afghanistan when it broadcast an interview with Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Since then it has come under fire from Iraq, the Saudis and the West.

The interim government in Iraq closed the satellite broadcaster last year for one month after alleging it encouraged criminals and gangsters.

The Iraqi authorities accused the station of fuelling the wave of kidnapping of foreign workers by regularly and without question screening tapes issued by the hostage takers.

Al Jazeera has not enjoyed a good reputation among the establishment in the West following the war in Iraq, where it was condemned by London and Washington for biased reporting and screening images of dead and captured coalition troops.

It has been claimed that the channel was infiltrated by Iraqi intelligence agents in May last year as part of an effort to subvert the network's coverage. The allegations were made after documents were discovered in Baghdad claiming that the Iraqi secret service controlled as many as three agents working for Al Jazeera.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, has openly accused the station of lying.

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