Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Al Jazeera English: Coming soon to a Canadian television near you?

Today, Al Jazeera English (AJE), the English-language news network of Doha, Quatr-based Al Jazeera, the Arabic world's answer to CNN, formally applied to the CRTC for carriage on Canadian cable and satellite networks. And not coincidentally, former CBC News editor-in-chief Tony Burman, AJE's managing director, was in Toronto to talk-up AJE at an event I attended this evening organized by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

First, the CRTC application, announced today. Burman says if successful, they hope to have AJE on the airwaves by the fall having, he said, already received unofficial indications form the major Candian carriers they'll carry the network post-CRTC approval. First the CRTC will study the application, and then will ask for public feedback. On that front, AJE has launched a Web site, www.iwantAJE.ca, to help rally the public to lobby the CRTC.

And in good news for journalists like myself, at a time when media outlets are laying off reporters, if AJE's application is approved Burman said they plan to open a Canadian bureau – making it the only international broadcaster to have a Canadian bureau. Last I heard, even the NY Times covers Canada from Denver.

On to Burman's presentation, and the q&a. Before sharing my thoughts, I'll share my notes on his (I also made an attempt at live-Twitter coverage, @BCerInToronto):

*He started out with a joke, noting that, much like Sarah Palin can see Russia from her home in Alaska, he can almost see Iran from his new apartment in Doha, Quatr, joking his gives him some special insight into events in the county.

*The idea behind AJ and AJE is to give voice to the developing world and bring their perspective to the news, speak truth to power and give voice to the voiceless.

*AJE is widely available in Israel and is the largest non-Israeli network in the country, a regular stop for Israeli government spokespeople, and the first Arab network to bring Israeli spokespeople directly to the Arab world. Why, he asked, is AJE available in Haifa but not in Halifax?

*AJE is regulated by Ofcom in the UK, and has never run afoul of their standards.

*AJE is a public broadcaster, much like the CBC and the BBC, and is funded by the Qatari government. Burman said like the CBC there is a firewall between the network and the government, and he's never seen any interference by the government in the network's editorial content.

*AJE has 69 bureaus around the world, and 150 journalists in the U.S. Its focus is in the Southern hemisphere, with large presences in Africa and South America.

*AJE was the only international broadcaster in Gaza during the recent war, and the only broadcaster to cover the war from both sides.

*AJ was created by the Quatari government to open the stifling media censorship in the Arab world, and was held up by the U.S. as the poster child for building Arab democracy. That changed, he said with 9-11.Particularly, he said, when AJ ran afoul by reporting during the Afghanistan war in 2001 that civilians were casualties of the U.S. attack, contrary to what the U.S. military had been insisting. Shortly later, AJ's Kabul bureau was bombed.

*From then on, Burman said, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal set-out to smear and brand AJ as a terrorist network. Sure, he said, Bin Laden sent his tapes to AJ – it's the largest network in the Arab world, he's after audience. The Unibomber sent his letters to the NY Times, but that doesn't make the Times a terrorist paper.

*Burman said Barrack Obama's decision to give his first TV interview to the Arabic world to Al-Arabiya, a network he said has a fraction of AJ and AJE's viewership, was viewed as puzzling and a mistake by the Arab world. The Arab world, he said, is hopeful but doesn't share the optimism the Western world has for Obama.

*He said he predicted a year ago internally at AJE that Obama would win the election in a landslide and he was viewed as crazy. People couldn't understand how the same people that elected George W. Bush twice could ever elect Obama.

*Addressing the complaints of hateful and controversial speech on AJ, Burman said these incidents are isolated and overblown. Much of it has come from an AJ channel that he describes as akin to C-Span, which shows live and unedited speeches and sermon. It's a product, he said, of AJ's free-speech inspired birth. But such views as sometimes heard aren't indicative, he said, of AJ or AJE's editorial perspective or mandate.

*There's aspects of American life of interest to the international community not usually covered by the US media. He expressed disappointment the CBC often covered the U.S. like an American network, rather than like a Canadian network with a Canadian perspective.

My Thoughts

I've never had a chance to watch AJE, but I say if we can have the option of watching Fox News, why not AJE? I think they would bring a very interesting perspective to international events, and perhaps for the Western world, an educational one. If AJE is in Haifa, indeed, why not in Halifax?

I think Burman somewhat glossed over some of the controversies in AJ's past, but it is the CNN of the Arab world and I think denying the option of AJE's perspective to the Canadian public is silly. I'll check it out if its on Rogers in the fall.

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4 comments:

Skinny Dipper said...

You can watch a mini-sized version on www.livestation.com. There is no need to download the livestation file unless you want to watch other stations. Even then, if you do download, you will get a pop-up when you start your computer.

Northern BC Dipper said...

I haven't seen seen Al Jazeera English on Television, but I do tend to read their online news, and for the most part, it's like BBC's and CNN's.

Of course, the fun part can be to examine how each new services covers the same event, but we aren't talking major differences here.

The more news stations, the better, I think.

Anne said...

During the Gaza crisis it was nice to be able to go to the Al Jazeera website and get their coverage from inside Gaza as well as inside Israel. I'm all for a Canadian AJE.

Altavistagoogle said...

Why watch it in English when you can watch it in the original Arabic? Are you a news junky or a news junky? http://wwitv.com/news_tv_live/index.html