Does Al-Jazeera belong in the USA?
Is it a hard-hitting news channel or terror television?
In 1996, Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-based Arab satellite station, gained world renown as the first Arab news channel to broadcast dissenting views in the Middle East, pushing the envelope of free speech in the region.
No matter how one views it, Al-Jazeera, which is funded by Qatar, has become one of the world's most competitive news networks and should not be underestimated for its potential to help bridge the divide between East and West.
'A negative perception'
A year ago, in a bid to reach a global audience and perhaps improve its image, Al-Jazeera launched a sleek multimillion dollar English-language channel, Al-Jazeera English. Today, however, no major U.S. cable or satellite company is willing to carry the station. Ghida Fakhry, an AJE anchor, told me political pressure has kept the channel out of our TV Guide.
"The launch was preceded by a negative perception of the channel based on, to a large extent, U.S. administration officials' rhetoric about what the channel is rather than viewers' ability to see for themselves what it is," Fakhry said.
Certainly, former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been a vocal critic. He once described Al-Jazeera Arabic as "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." One website,stopaljazeera.org, which is run by Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group, labels the channel "terror television" and calls on people to contact their U.S. representatives to keep AJE out of the American market (although the Arabic station airs on DishNetwork, a U.S. company).
But Al-Jazeera's reputation in the USA didn't come out of nowhere. The post-9/11 war on terror has been partly a war of information. Al-Jazeera is often viewed as being on the wrong side of this battle by airing video testimonies of terrorists, including from the 9/11 attackers. The station has also drawn criticism — most pointedly in the West — for its coverage of the war in Iraq.
Even so, preventing AJE from becoming part of our news diet means that most Americans are missing out on a unique glimpse of international news, views and events. With our military heavily engaged in the Middle East and elsewhere, we need to look beyond our borders to better understand how others perceive us — even if we may not like what we see or hear.
Besides, the English version of Al-Jazeera has little resemblance to the Arabic station. While the Arabic version is aimed at an Arab audience and often plays on emotions, AJE sounds more like the BBC World and looks more like CNN International with its high-quality presentation and graphics.
What makes AJE distinct, said Dave Marash, news anchor at AJE's Washington bureau and a former correspondent for ABC News Nightline, is its coverage. He said mainstream Western TV networks concentrate their resources on news gathering in North America, Western Europe, Israel and Japan.
"What makes us different is that we focus about 70%-75% of our news gathering resources everywhere else: South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East," Marash told me. "The point of view is very much south looking north rather than north looking south."
Far from promoting terrorist ideologies, one program, Street Talk, a live call-in show hosted by former CNN anchor Riz Khan, advocates global dialogue. On one show, Khan hosted an Arab-American, Jamal Baadani, who is also a U.S. Marine. A viewer from Austria called in, asking how the Muslim Marine could fight in an army that is killing other Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Muslims and Arab-Americans have been fighting for this country since before the Revolutionary War," Baadani replied.
Americans might be surprised to know that the channel makes an effort to provide all sides of an issue, often interviewing U.S. officials — such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., then-White House press secretary Tony Snow and former president Bill Clinton — to present the American point of view.
Another program, Everywoman, tackles complex issues facing women worldwide. Host Shiulie Ghosh opened one show saying, " 'Should we be more open about sex?' Well, it's one of those things that people think a lot about but rarely discuss, certainly not in public and especially not in conservative societies like here in the Middle East."
Not always popular in Mideast
Though Al-Jazeera Arabic is aimed at the Middle East, not all countries welcome its probing reports. Saudi Arabia refuses to allow Al-Jazeera Arabic to operate in its country. It's ironic that content concerns would also keep AJE from operating in the USA.
Even without the massive U.S. market, AJE is available in more than 100 million households worldwide and has attracted an audience in Europe, Asia and Australia. In fact, Israel's top cable company is dropping CNN to add AJE to its lineup. After striking a deal with YouTube, AJE has also strengthened its Web presence. Its website receives about 4 million-5 million visits per week, with an estimated 50%-60% of them originating in the USA.
Why hasn't any major U.S. carrier picked up AJE? With the exception of Comcast, which said it dropped a possible deal for programming reasons, no other major U.S. cable operator has publicly commented.
It would seem that companies believe it does not make good business sense, fearing a political backlash from politicians, interest groups and subscribers who oppose the station. After all, AJE hasn't shaken the bad reputation of the Al-Jazeera brand, which is associated with beheadings and bin Laden.
Fakhry, the AJE news anchor who previously worked for the Arabic station, said the channel has gained a reputation among AJE viewers for "brutally honest" reporting that refuses to sanitize the harsh realities of war. She said AJE does not show beheadings, but it will not shy away from covering a "serious world player" such as bin Laden. "If Al-Jazeera airs any of these views, it is not because it agrees with them. ... It is a news organization doing its job," Fakhry said.
There are many reasons why AJE is worth watching, including its in-depth news coverage and analysis, provocative documentaries and interactive shows. Most important, the channel has the capacity to bridge a widening global gap, especially between the East and the West, by bringing the entire world into our living rooms.
Is Al-Jazeera English a mouthpiece for terrorists or a professional news network doing its job? Politicians and pundits should not be answering this question. Cable and satellite companies ought to broadcast AJE free from political pressures; then Americans can watch it and answer for themselves.
Souheila Al-Jadda is associate producer of a Peabody award-winning show, Mosaic: World News from the Middle East, on Link TV. She's also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.11 years on the air
A quick history of Al-Jazeera:
Nov. 1, 1996: With $140 million, Al-Jazeera launches from Qatar.
1997: Opens bureau in Baghdad.
December 1998: Airs exclusive interview with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Makes an international name for itself by scooping the world from Baghdad as the sole news network with inside coverage of the U.S. and British bombing operation in Iraq dubbed "Operation Desert Fox."
Jan. 5, 1999: Is the first to broadcast a speech by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein seeking the overthrow of Arab leaders aligned with the United States.
Jan. 27, 1999: Algerian government pulls plug on millions of Al-Jazeera viewers watching The Opposite Direction, a live program offering political dissidents a chance to criticize their governments. Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Egypt had protested similar coverage.
Sept. 24, 2001: Broadcasts a statement by bin Laden two weeks after 9/11 attacks urging Pakistanis to fight any "crusader Americans" in Afghanistan. Since then, Al-Jazeera has aired material attributed to bin Laden 24 times, most recently on Nov. 29, 2007.
Oct. 7, 2001: Airs speech by bin Laden ("This is America filled with fear") two hours after the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan.
April 8, 2003: U.S. airstrike hits Al-Jazeera's Baghdad office, killing a reporter and cameraman. Correspondent Majed Abdel Hadi says the office was targeted "because the Americans don't want the world to see the crimes they are committing against the Iraqi people." The United States says that the strike was accidental, and that the station "was not and never had been a target."
April 11, 2004: Four days after the U.S. siege on Fallujah, Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls Al-Jazeera's coverage "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable."
Nov. 15, 2006: Al-Jazeera English (AJE) launches to more than 80 million cable and satellite households worldwide It is the only international English network headquartered in the Middle East.
April 16, 2007: AJE partners with YouTube, introducing Web-only material on which YouTube users can comment and post responses.
Sept. 27: AJE hits the 100 million household mark.
October: Israel's largest cable company, Hot Television, drops CNN for AJE.
Nov. 15: AJE celebrates one-year anniversary with a staff of 700, more than 18 bureaus worldwide, and broadcast centers in Doha, London and Washington.
Researched by Kristin Deasy
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