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Posted by on Aug 1, 2011 in International, Media | 1 comment

Why We Need Al-Jazeera English

Today Al Jazeera English will be carried on cable systems in New York City for the first time. In good NYC tradition, only by subletting space from another channel owner. That’s how the network got carriage in DC, too.

In the U.S. we get our censorship by other means; public interest be damned:

Al Jazeera English was lauded by the United States government and even by a few competitors for its broadcasts from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries earlier this year. But it is finding out that cable and satellite distributors like Comcast, DirecTV and Dish Network wield an enormous amount of control over the channels that viewers in the United States can and cannot see. “It’s all about leverage in this business, and they don’t have any,” said Paul Maxwell, the head of a cable industry consulting firm.

Al Jazeera does not have a parent company with powerful assets, as the News Corporation did when it used the huge popularity of Fox News to gain channel space for a spinoff, Fox Business, a few years ago. Nor does it have proof that millions are clamoring to watch, as most Americans have not been exposed to the channel.

Reflecting what some distribution executives said on condition of anonymity, Mr. Maxwell suggested that the dearth of evident demand was the main reason for Al Jazeera’s being shut out. Still, he said, “I think it should be carried; there is a public interest reason for it.”

Last year, On The Media interviewed (listen, transcript) Wadah Khanfar, the Director General of Al-Jazeera,

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Al-Jazeera has uh, a couple of dozen [LAUGHS] channels, and, and one of them is Al-Jazeera English, which broadcasts all around the world and is available in Washington, D.C. However, it’s had trouble finding a national distributor. Can you tell me why the world needs Al-Jazeera English?
WADAH KHANFAR: Al-Jazeera English has a philosophy of reporting the voice for the voiceless. Al-Jazeera has the most diverse newsroom in the world; we have 50 nationalities from all backgrounds, religions and races. We are trying to create a great model, whereby the Asians are reporting about Asia, through a broadcasting center in Kuala Lumpur. In Europe, we have broadcasting center in London. In Washington, we have a broadcasting center with at least 200 people working in it. So we are a TV station that is truly global, and at the same time trying to enable journalists, regardless of their origin and culture and religion and backgrounds, to practice journalism, based on the principles that the forefathers of this profession created.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that principle is voice for the voiceless.

WADAH KHANFAR: Don’t you feel that sometimes our media is trying to concentrate on stars, superstars and ignoring the margin, ignoring the human being? The amount of commitment that our audience have towards Al-Jazeera, they embrace us, not because we are politically correct, from the point of view of governments, which most of them are authoritarian. No. We are full of pride and determination because the public out there think of Al-Jazeera as their own. They own it. So, therefore, yes, we will continue. But definitely we will face trouble. So what? Let us face troubles. We are journalists. If we choose this profession, we should choose it for a mission, to be committed to the audience, to truth and to allow space for transformation to be correct and right. How could the Arab world build future if 65 percent who are under thirty are ruled by authoritarian regimes – no democracy, aging regimes, corruption, and so on, and so forth? The only voice that has the strength to challenge the status quo and say there is something wrong, please let us fix it, is Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera is on the foremost power of creating democracy and freedom of expression in the Arab world.

Fair & balanced?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can’t afford to play sides within the region. What about sides outside the region? We know that it’s a region that feels very beset by Western powers coming in and mucking about, and you have that cultural frame. Do you think that that cultural, regional frame enables you to report fairly on the actions and the motives of the world outside?

WADAH KHANFAR: Oh, definitely, definitely. Of course, there is nothing called absolute objectivity when it comes to issues related to the human being. However, at least we try to be aware of our biases. Let us take America, the biggest player in the region. We were victims of the American pressure on us. Al-Jazeera Bureau in Kabul was attacked by American jet fighters. Al-Jazeera Bureau in Baghdad was attacked. Correspondents were killed, arrested, tortured. A cameraman spent six-and-a-half years in Guantanamo. But we have never, ever used the screen to settle our dispute with the American administration when it comes to the issue related to the region. Whenever there is an opinion related to the Americans, an American spokesperson from the military or a politician comes on the screen and responds. Unfortunately, we have been accused – the channel that broadcast Osama bin Laden tapes, the channel that broadcast beheadings, the channel that broadcast enmity against the Americans. All these kind of accusations were false.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Al-Jazeera never broadcast bin Laden tapes or beheadings?

WADAH KHANFAR: We did broadcast bin Laden tapes, based on a very clear code of conduct, very clear professional standards, like many other international networks. We have portions of these tapes, followed by contextual analysis and opinions from all over other shores, especially American opinions. The second issue, which is important, the issue of beheading: We have never, ever shown one frame of beheading. Factually, they are wrong and we corrected them, and I wrote to them but none of them wanted to stop criticizing Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera was a scapegoat for a lot of failures and a lot of mistakes in the region.

Above, Khanfar in a TED Talk sharing his profoundly optimistic view of what’s happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond — at this powerful moment when people realized they could step out of their houses and ask for change.