February 3, 2015 – 7:34AM
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Reem Khalifa and Adam Schreck
Manama, Bahrain: A new pan-Arab news channel backed by a billionaire Saudi prince was suspended from broadcasting from its home in Bahrain on Monday, just hours after it went on air and carried an interview with a prominent opposition activist.
The Alarab television station said on its official Twitter feed that coverage was halted for “technical and administrative reasons,” and it hopes to be back on the air soon.
The unexpected stoppage, apparently on the order of Bahraini authorities, came just hours after Alarab surprised many viewers by featuring Bahraini opposition activist Khalil al-Marzooq as one of its first guests.
He said the authorities were working with Alarab management “to swiftly resolve the matter,” and he expected the channel would resume broadcasting soon.
A brief front-page article in the pro-government Akhbar al-Khaleej newspaper said the channel’s broadcasts had been suspended because they did not conform to Gulf norms. It did not cite its sources.
Viewers tuning into the channel on Monday morning were only able to see prepackaged promotions for the network, not news programming.
Mr Al-Marzooq is a former deputy parliament speaker who is a senior member of al-Wefaq, the country’s main Shiite political bloc. He was cleared of allegations of instigating violence and having links to a protest faction that authorities blame for bombings and other attacks in a closely watched case last year.
He was invited by Alarab to discuss Bahrain’s decision on Saturday to revoke the citizenship of 72 people. The list included Turki al-Binali, a 30-year-old who is one of the Islamic State’s leading ideologues. It also included several Shiite activists living in exile.
Al-Wefaq welcomed Alarab’s launch in a statement on Monday and said it had submitted a request to launch a Bahrain-based channel of its own.
Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and is part of the US-led coalition striking the Islamic State group. It is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, and its royal family has close political and security ties to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries kingpin.
Bahrain has faced four years of instability following widespread anti-government protests in February 2011 that were dominated by the country’s Shiite majority, which seeks greater political rights from the Sunni monarchy.
Bahraini authorities, backed by security forces from neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, crushed the initial uprising, but street protests, petrol-bomb attacks and other low-level unrest continue.
The channel’s decision in late 2011 to locate its headquarters in Bahrain rather than a larger media hub such as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was seen as a key endorsement of the country’s prospects, despite its political unrest.
Alarab’s general manager, Jamal Khashoggi, told reporters in December that the network “will cover all views” and would not shy away from sensitive topics in Bahrain.
Alarab is backed by Saudi royal family member Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose Kingdom Holding Company investment firm has stakes in several well-known companies, including Citigroup, Apple, News Corp and Twitter.
The network enters a crowded news landscape in the Arab world, with regional competitors including Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, as well as Sky News Arabia and Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya, both of which are headquartered in the United Arab Emirates.