TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Al-Jazeera Launching All-English Channel for United States

Al-Jazeera Launching All-English Channel for United States

Lisa Minter (
Mon, 4 Jul 2005 13:09:42 -0500

By JIM KRANE, Associated Press Writer

Al-Jazeera is nothing if not bold. It has fought repeatedly with
Washington, which says its exclusive broadcasts of Osama bin Laden
speeches show an anti-American, pro-terrorist bias. Its freewheeling
broadcasts have decimated state-run TV stations across much of the
Arab world, leading some countries to close its bureaus down. So what
does such a network do next? Plan a massive expansion.

By March, the network will launch Al-Jazeera International, a
satellite channel that will beam English-language news to the United
States -- and much of the rest of the world -- from its base in tiny

The ever-contentious Middle East will be its specialty. And the news,
including coverage of Israel, will be served up from an Arab
perspective, Al-Jazeera executives say.

With a touch of the evangelist, perhaps, the station's executives say
their mission is nothing less than reversing the dominant flow of
global information, which now originates on TV channels in the
West. They will be looking especially at Fox News and CNN.

"We're the first news channel based in the Mideast to bring news back
to the West," said Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al-Jazeera
International. "We want to set a different news agenda."

The station's research shows some of the world's one billion English
speakers, including Americans, thirst for news from a non-Western

Outside America, the station plans to compete with CNN International
and BBC World, the two chief English-language satellite news channels,
as well as at Fox News. The new station will be headquartered in Doha
and operate broadcast newsrooms in London, Washington and Kuala
Lumpur, Malaysia.

But breaking into the U.S. market, with its established channels,
might be more difficult. The station's anti-American reputation may
win some early "curiosity" viewers, Parsons said.

Overall, Al-Jazeera executives contend negative American opinions are
based on "irrational and erroneous information from CNN, BBC and Fox
News." For instance, Parsons said, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
lambasted the station for showing beheadings by Iraqi insurgents.
Actually, Al-Jazeera has aired portions of insurgent videos but as of
yet, never a beheading in progress, he said.

Another irritant is Al-Jazeera's often-gory coverage of Iraq from both
perspectives. Before it was banned, the network embedded reporters
with both Iraqi insurgents and with U.S. troops.

Nevertheless, Americans have shown curiosity. Al-Jazeera's English-
language Web site gets most of its traffic from U.S. visitors, Parsons

In the end, Al-Jazeera might coax viewers from an elite segment of
American TV watchers, perhaps those who tune into the BBC, some
observers say.

But most Americans want to be comforted by the news, not challenged by
it, said Jon Alterman, who heads the Middle East program at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

If Al-Jazeera is a tough sell in the United States, it has natural
audiences elsewhere. The world counts 1.2 billion Muslims, most of
whom don't speak Arabic. That means Al-Jazeera stands to find quick
popularity in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Alterman believes Al-Jazeera will help unite the world's far-flung
Muslim communities, giving them a common, alleged truthful news source.

That's not necessarily what the station is after. "We're not a Muslim
channel," said Parsons, a Briton who, like many Al-Jazeera Interna-
tional staff, does not speak Arabic.

Indeed, the station is even less popular with governments in Muslim
countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Tunisia, which currently
ban it.

Those countries' rulers suggest it incites violence by giving airtime
to opposition politicians and radical clerics.

At one time or another, Al-Jazeera has had bureaus closed in 18
countries and its signal blocked in 30. Its revenues still suffer
under an advertising boycott, believed to originate from Saudi
government pressure.

The station has had three bureaus destroyed by bombings, two of which
were destroyed by the U.S. military.

Two staff in Iraq have been killed. Two others were locked in Iraq's
Abu Ghraib prison and released without charge. A third is being tried
in Spain on charges of working for the al-Qaida terrorist group.

Yet because it is based in Qatar, an energy-rich Persian Gulf country
of less than a million, the station has little opportunity to upset
its home government.

"They're in a unique position," said Mustafa Alani, director of
security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in
Dubai. "They can criticize everybody."

Arab viewers who previously had only staid state-run broadcasters to
watch have apparently liked that, flocking to the station since its
1996 debut.

It now reaches more than 40 million viewers, and if it weren't for the
advertising boycott, Al-Jazeera's network would bring in some $35
million in yearly ad revenue, enough to wean it from Qatar government
money, said managing director Wadah Khanfar.

The station is expected to be privatized in a few years. But as long
as it remains close to the Qatari royal family, the boycott poses few
funding worries.

Yet despite its protests to the contrary, Al-Jazeera is already
softening its aggressive coverage of Saudi Arabia and other countries,
Alani believes. The reason? It must regain access to those countries
to boost its English broadcasts, Alani said.

"If you're banned from half the Arab world, your ability to break news
is limited, but some of that will be made up by USA viewers we win
over from Fox and CNN on American cable systems", Alani said.

On the Net:

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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