Al Jazeera’s no foe

It's good enough for CBC and many Israelis, so why can't we get the Arab station on our sets?


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The long-awaited Al Jazeera english hasn’t made it to Canadian TV screens, but it’s parading its programming on your computer screen for $8 a month.

So despite lobbying by the Canadian Jewish Congress that has kept the network’s Arab-language station off the air, everyone can now get a taste of the slick reporting its fans say has been the biggest boost ever of democracy in the Arab world.

And, in a fascinating new development, CBC-TV will be offering samplers. A conversation with Tony Burman, CBC’s news editor-in-chief, reveals that our national broadcaster will begin airing content from Al Jazeera English just as it uses reports from the BBC and other foreign broadcasters, both on-the-spot reports and docs.

“Al Jazeera has approached us for that arrangement, and I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t do it,” says Burman, who believes that once a viewership develops online (www.aljazeera.net/english), there will be pressure to air it on cabel.

“Nothing I have seen takes away from my original impression that this is a worthwhile, pioneering and important service,” says Burman, who’s been monitoring the station.

CBC viewers will no doubt experience what I have by clicking onto the forbidden news source: smart, diverse Arab-centred reporting presented with the visual stylishness of MTV.

One afternoon, for example, I watched Darren Jordon quiz Gil Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post and Daoud Kuttab of Al Quds University in Palestinian East Jerusalem about Jimmy Carter’s controversial new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, in which the former U.S. president compares Israel to South Africa.

“If the Palestinians were in South Africa, there would still be apartheid, because the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” Hoffman retorts, claiming that Israel’s peace bids have been rebuffed.

Interestingly, Jordon asks Kuttab if the “A” word has any resonance among Palestinians, and his answer is “not really.” They don’t need the word, Kuttab says, because the UN resolutions and international law ignored by Israel tell the story vividly enough.

Canadians who associate the name Al Jazeera with allegations of anti-Semitism will be surprised to see so many Israelis interviewed. The network airs in Israel, where it has a wide audience. Recently, on the CBC website, Burman linked to an article in the conservative Jerusalem Post containing sympathetic reviews of both the English and Arabic Al Jazeera.

“I have only the utmost respect for Al Jazeera in Israel,” Daniel Seaman of Israel’s Government Press Office told the Jerusalem Post. “They’ve tried their best to be fair, and even if I disagreed with their coverage at times, it was not one-sided.”

Indeed, the Jerusalem Post says the Israeli government has helped the network get through red tape so it can open bureaus and bring the Israeli point of view to the Arab world.

Nevertheless, the reception to Al Jazeera in Canada has been outright hostile. When cable TV companies applied in 2003 to carry the Arabic network here, the Canadian Jewish Congress intervened in the process with dire warnings of a flood of anti-Semitism.

The CRTC ruled that any cable TV company that wanted to carry Al Jazeera had to have someone monitoring the service 24/7, ready to hit the button in case anti-Semitic or other hate speech came out of someone’s mouth. Not surprisingly, the cable companies gave the deal a pass.

The CJC, in its arguments, relied in large part on incendiary comments by Faisal Al-Qassam, host of a two-hour weekly show entitled The Opposite Direction. On May 15, 2001, he read on air a viewer’s e-mail describing Jews as “the sons of Zion, whom our God described as the sons of apes and pigs.”

He also features racists and right-wing crackpots like David Duke and Lyndon LaRouche, the CJC pointed out.

But what the CJC didn’t say is that The Opposite Direction has offended every sensibility in the Middle East. British journalist Hugh Miles, author of Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged The World, points out that guests on the show have debated whether Islam is an obstacle to social progress, discussed corruption in the House of Saud and asked if torture in Arab jails is worse than at the notorious Abu Ghraib. (Eighty-six per cent of respondents thought it was.)

It’s these kinds of call-in shows that have created controversy, Miles tells NOW, not the network’s news reports, which adhere strictly to journalistic standards. Miles expects the new network to become a major global presence. “In many parts of the world, both CNN and BBC are regarded as suspicious and colonial, while Al Jazeera is seen as the noble underdog,” he says. “So I think it’s going to get a pretty sympathetic reaction.”

When will Canadians take their place in the global living room? It may be a while. CRTC rep Caroline Grondin says a cable firm will have to apply to air the network before the broadcast regulator will discuss the issue again.

Rogers Cable PR director Nancy Cottenden, however, says that, although Rogers has received inquiries from viewers wanting the new service (she won’t say how many), it has no plans to make such an application. She says the new network should do so itself. But Al Jazeera spokesperson Katie Bergius says from London that she’s not aware of any plans to do so.

Lurking in the background is the CJC. National executive VP Manuel Prutschi says he’s concerned the anti-Semitic views his group complained of in the Arabic station could creep into the English channel.

But he doesn’t know for sure whether the CJC would object to an English Al Jazeera on cable. “We haven’t had a chance to see it,” he says. He acknowledges that both are easily available in Israel, but suggests the networks are allowed there because Israelis want to know what their Arab neighbours are saying. The CJC’s arena of concern, he says, is Canadian. “Our focus is anti-Semitism.”

But the CJC will have to tread carefully with Al Jazeera English. Only Arabic-speaking Canadians were denied access to their media of choice in the earlier round. If the new network is blocked, all curious Canadians will feel the chill. Few will take kindly to the CJC telling them what they can watch.

news@nowtoronto.com

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