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What is Al Jazeera Trying to Keep Secret in Its Settled Lawsuit Against AT&T?

Phillip Dampier June 10, 2014 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

al-jazeera-americaAT&T U-verse television customers: Al Jazeera America is coming soon to your television lineup whether you want the network or not.

Just days after the final closedown of Current TV — purchased by Qatar-based Al Jazeera as a platform to launch Al Jazeera America, a new U.S. based news network — AT&T suddenly threw the network off its lineup.

Both companies accused each other of violating the contract. AT&T said it never signed on to carry Al Jazeera America, it signed a contract to carry Current TV. Al Jazeera said it bought Current TV and had an iron clad contract with AT&T to carry whatever programming came from the channel.

Whether called Current TV or Al Jazeera America, it wasn’t on AT&T’s lineup after launching last August. Al Jazeera promptly sued AT&T for violating its contract in its complaint: Al Jazeera America LLC v. AT&T Services Inc.

What made the case unusual is that Al Jazeera filed a confidential lawsuit in the Delaware Chancery Court. In most program disputes, the players are only too happy to supply the media with their respective sides, including copies of any legal complaints.

When the media requested a copy of Al Jazeera’s lawsuit, it arrived heavily redacted to a four line summary Bloomberg News called “nonsense.”

A group of five journalists and Bloomberg filed their own complaint with the court requesting to unseal details of the case, arguing if the Qatari news channel wanted to use the U.S. court system, it had to follow court procedure and respect America’s First Amendment.

Top secret.

Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III agreed with the journalists, ruling the American public was being kept in the dark about the case with redactions so severe, no one could learn about the disputed contract terms, much less read a complete description of the dispute.

Desperate to avoid having to make the case public, Al Jazeera quickly appealed Glasscock’s decision, but that appeal was dismissed by the Delaware Supreme Court last week as having been accepted improvidently.

That decision appears to have rung alarm bells back in Qatar and Al Jazeera’s owners announced it would drop the case completely after reaching a quick settlement with AT&T. They claimed their actions would wipe the public record clean of the lawsuit, erasing the complaint and related papers from the public record and preventing Bloomberg and other journalists from getting access to the lawsuit.

chanceryDespite the court order to unseal the lawsuit, the Delaware Court of Chancery granted a 10-day stay to allow the parties to finish their settlement and seek an order to expunge the record of the lawsuit.

That brought a hostile response from the journalists. David Finger, a lawyer for some of the media challengers, said Al Jazeera’s argument around the unsealing order “lacks any basis in law.”

“If the complaint was improperly filed under seal (as this court has already found), the public had the right to review the complaint at the moment of filing,” Finger’s letter states. “That right cannot be taken away retroactively.”

Finger also argued the right to public access is not squelched because an action is close to settlement and the Chancery Court has rejected arguments to the contrary in past cases.

The strenuous objections from Al Jazeera are only bringing more attention to the case. AT&T has decided to steer clear of the controversy, only stating it had reached an agreement in principle to add Al Jazeera America to the U-verse lineup.

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