Del. judge eyes secrecy in Al Jazeera-AT&T lawsuit

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A Delaware judge on Tuesday ordered lawyers for Al Jazeera America to submit additional papers explaining why a veil of secrecy should remain over a lawsuit the new cable news network filed against AT&T.

Al Jazeera America filed a complaint in Delaware Chancery Court last month over AT&T’s refusal to carry Al Jazeera’s signal after the startup cable news operation acquired Al Gore’s Current TV. Current had an existing affiliation agreement with AT&T.

Al Jazeera’s complaint was filed under seal, and a public version that was required to be filed under court rules is so heavily redacted that there’s little information to be gleaned from it. The judge ordered Tuesday’s hearing after The Associated Press and other major media outlets challenged the heavy redactions. The judge said Tuesday that he, too, had concerns.

Al Jazeera America began broadcasting last month as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Media Network launched its U.S. outlet only eight months after announcing the new venture. Based in New York with domestic bureaus in 11 other major U.S. cities, Al-Jazeera America has vowed to provide unbiased, in-depth domestic and global news, competing with established networks such as Fox News and CNN. Al Jazeera America also faces the challenge of overcoming suspicions Americans may have about a news organization that is controlled by a foreign government and part of a larger company described by some critics as anti-American.

Both Al Jazeera and AT&T are fighting to keep details of the lawsuit and the affiliation agreement from the public, saying they contain sensitive business information that should remain secret under a recently revised court rule regarding the sealing of records.

Lawyers for the two companies claim that disclosing details of the affiliation agreement could interfere with their ability to negotiate the best deals they can with other business partners.

“Each carrier wants a better deal if they can get it,” said Al Jazeera lawyer Andrew Deutsch.

“We tried to err on the side of caution,” Deutsch added in explaining Al Jazeera’s redactions. “…. The core business terms we think have to remain confidential.”

AT&T lawyer Robert Walters admitted that the company erred “a little bit on the safe side” in its initial redactions. The company revised its redactions in response to objections from reporters, but those revised redactions also remain under seal pending a ruling from the judge.

While he did not rule immediately after Tuesday’s hearing, which included a lengthy closed-door session with only lawyers allowed in the courtroom, Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock indicated that he is not comfortable with the current extent of the redactions.

Questioning Deutsch, the Al Jazeera attorney, Glasscock said it was difficult to understand how details of “a stale deal with a defunct network,” referring to AT&T’s agreement with Current TV, could be sensitive or proprietary.

The judge also noted that many of the redactions did not involve terms of the agreement, but allegations regarding AT&T’s motivation for refusing to carry the Al Jazeera signal.

“Why are those allegations properly shielded from the public?” the judge asked Walters, the AT&T attorney.

Glasscock also noted that the affiliation agreement at issue could have included a provision calling for private binding arbitration in the event of a dispute, rather than litigation in a public court, but that the parties chose not to include such a provision.

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