Friday, November 17, 2006

The Most Important Network Most Of Us Can't See?

Is Al Jazeerah English the most important news network in the world?

I normally don’t cover “the News” in this blog – too real – but the long delayed and long awaited debut of Al Jazeerah English might be a reason for breaking this silence. I’d probably know better if I could see it, but like virtually all Canadians and an extremely high proportion of Americans I can’t. In Canada the English language network isn’t licensed by the regulatory agency – the CRTC – and a license hasn’t been applied for. The Arabic service was licensed - to considerable uproar – in 2004, but there are restrictions imposed on any service provider that are regarded as onerous. Any cable and satellite companies carrying the service were required to monitor the network 24 hours a day seven days a week to censor any “abusive comment” and “alter or curtail” any programming found to be offensive. In order to carry Al Jazeerah English, a new application would have to be made and the potential for similar restrictions means that none of the service providers has yet made such an application. In the United States, while the FCC has no such regulatory reach few carriers – and none of the major services – is offering the network. Only four American services will carry Al Jazeerah English: GlobeCast, a satellite network specializing in international news services, JumpTV and VDC (Virtual Digital Cable), both online subscription services, and Fision a “fiber-optics to the home service” that will begin operating in the Houston area in December. By contrast, Al Jazeerah English is widely cleared in most of Europe including England, France and Germany as well as Israel. (A listing of services carrying Al Jazeerah English can be found on the network’s website.)

So why do I think Al Jazeerah English might be the most important news network in the world? After all it is only reaching an estimated 80,000,000 households worldwide. This is in contrast with outlets like BBC World, which reaches approximately 270 million homes worldwide or CNN International, which claims to reach “more than 1 billion households and hotel rooms in over 200 countries.” However, Al Jazeerah English brings one thing to the table that CNN International and BBC World don’t – a non-western perspective. As much as I love BBC World (and to a lesser degree CNN) they do present the news through a Western industrialized lens and there are a great many influential English speakers outside of the industrialized world who need or would appreciate a different perspective, and Al Jazeerah English is delivering a different perspective. The network claims to have more reporters in the Southern Hemisphere than their competition. In their launch day reporting the network included in an in depth report on the elections in the Congo, and live reports from Darfur, Iran, Zimbabwe and Brazil. There was report on a flare-up of violence along the Gaza Strip in which an Israeli woman was killed and a documentary on the problems faced by a Palestinian ambulance driver. Riz Khan, formerly of the BBC, hosted a show in which he conducted live satellite interviews with both Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. There were no reports on Naomi Campbell’s trial for assaulting an assistant, or People Magazine naming George Clooney the Sexiest Man of the Year, and I suspect that the word TomKat never appeared on their broadcast.

In the end the influence of Al Jazeerah English won’t be on North America where it can barely be seen, and probably not in the industrialized world at all. Where it will be influential and possibly even the option of choice for a lot of people is in those areas of the world that aren’t well served by the international news media. People in those areas are quite likely to see Al Jazeerah English as their station of record because it is concerned with their stories, stories that are largely ignored by the western media or twisted in an effort to give them a slant that will play in New York or London. I am not convinced that even if the network proves to be biased it isn’t valuable to have it available on the North American airwaves if only to, in the words of Robert Burns, “To see ourselves as others see us.” It might be illuminating, if not vaguely scary.

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