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Al Jazeera English Falls Short of Expectations

Commentary, Jamal Dajani Posted: Nov 21, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: The new English-language Al Jazeera doesn't have the
fiery, controversial style of its Arab-language counterpart, writes
Jamal Dajani, director of Middle Eastern programming at LinkTV.

SAN FRANCISCO--Al Jazeera's new English-language channel has had a difficult time breaking into the American market. Despite its international presence, news bureaus in Qatar, London, Kuala Lampur and Washington, D.C., and its success in signing up prominent journalists and star hosts such as Sir David Frost, major U.S. cable operators declined to add Al Jazeera English to their programming when it launched Nov. 15. This sad decision is mired in censorship and politics. But, just as sad, it may not matter. Because so far Al Jazeera English is not very good.

Why would cable operators not want to hear about a part of the world so much in the news? Probably because Al Jazeera has received bad press. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused the network of spreading "vicious lies," and U.S. officials have been upset by Al Jazeera's airing of footage of American military deaths, as well as its unstinting coverage of the war's effect on civilians. A recent poll found that 53 percent of Americans opposed the launch of the channel. Two-thirds of Americans thought the U.S. government should not allow the channel to enter into the U.S. market.

That's unfortunate. I've watched Al Jazeera in Arabic since its debut in 1996. It has revolutionized satellite television in the Middle East and become a vital link between people in the Arab World, where most media is state-controlled. By regularly broadcasting dissent and opposing points of view, Al Jazeera provides the broadest spectrum of argument that many Arab viewers have ever seen. In addition, their world-class field journalists deliver the immediate, hands-on international reporting that U.S. networks abandoned long ago. While Western journalists were practicing roof-top reporting in their coverage of the war on Iraq, Al Jazeera reporters were putting their lives at risk reporting from the "eye of the storm," Baghdad. While American networks were showing the cruise missiles being launched from U.S. destroyers, Al Jazeera was showing them landing and wreaking havoc in the land of the two rivers.

I was in Washington, D.C., for the launch of Al Jazeera English and had discussions with some of its excited staff members, who had been nervously awaiting this big occasion. There was the last-minute name change to Al Jazeera "English" instead of "International," and problems with their server and high-definition cameras. But Al Jazeera English went on the air as scheduled, though with much less fanfare than if it had premiered on American cable.

I watch Al Jazeera English on the Internet, where you can get a free taste of it 15 minutes at a time or subscribe for $ 5.95 per month. But if you're hoping to see what made Al Jazeera famous globally, you will be sorely disappointed. Al Jazeera English is worlds apart from its decade-old sibling. With its lack of Arab faces on camera, it's more akin to the BBC and, to a lesser degree, CNN International.

In fact, Al Jazeera, Arabic for the "island," began broadcasting in 1996, a few months after BBC World Service launched a Arabic TV channel. The BBC channel faced censorship demands by the Saudi government, and after two years in operation the BBC shut it down.

Many of the unemployed BBC-trained staff members joined the original Al Jazeera. Yet the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the BBC Arabic Channel seems now to have returned to its origins.

This past Sunday, for example, millions of Arabic-speaking viewers watched the popular show "Al Shari'a (Islamic decree) and Life," a program made famous by its Egyptian-born cleric and his vitriolic attacks on the West. On the new channel, by contrast, English speakers watched "Temples of Doom," which examined the negative effects of tourism and pollution on the Egyptian ancient sites. Although informative, it was similar to many documentaries I've seen on the BBC, PBS, and National Geographic.

The new channel's editorial policy seems more restrained. When a 70-year-old resident died of his wounds after being hit in an Israeli attack on Gaza, the Arabic Al Jazeera reported that he was "martyred." At Al Jazeera English, however, he was simply "killed."

Another major difference is the detached, analytical attitude of hosts. On Al Jazeera English, no matter how hot the topic, their demeanors remain unruffled. This is in direct contrast to the exciting and fiery style on the Arabic Al Jazeera's programs, such as "The Opposite Direction," where host Faisal Qassem excels at fanning the flames of the argument and guests with opposing views frequently have such passionate exchanges that they sometimes appear about to come to blows.

While the well-produced reports about surfing in Rio and dispatches from Zimbabwe did not impress me, it is too early to reach a definitive conclusion. I am hoping that the Al Jazeera English will keep improving.

Meanwhile, I'll keep watching the old Al Jazeera that I am fond of, the one that gives me a real look at the world through Arab eyes.

Video available here.

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