Al-Jazeera Launching English Network

Al-Jazeera is continuing to be a thorn in the American government’s side. It has fought repeatedly with Washington, which claims its broadcasts of Osama Bin Laden speeches show an anti-American, pro-terrorist bias. Its broadcasts have destroyed state-run stations across much of the Arab world, leading some countries to close their own channels down. Now Al-Jazeera is spreading its wings to the English speaking world.

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

The Middle East will continue to be its specialty. And the news, including coverage of Israel, will continue to come from an Arab perspective, Al-Jazeera executives say.

The station says its stated goal is to reverse the almost 100% flow of information from the West to the rest of the world.

“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 many of the world’s one billion English speakers, including Americans, want news from a non-Western perspective.

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

But breaking into the U.S. market, with its established channels, will be more difficult. The station’s anti-American reputation may score some “curiosity” viewers, Parsons said.

Many Al-Jazeera executives suggest negative American opinions are based on “irrational and erroneous information.” For example, Parsons said, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld heaped scorn on the station for showing beheadings by Iraqi insurgents. Actually, Al-Jazeera aired a portion of insurgent videos but never a beheading, he said.

Another problem area is Al-Jazeera’s often-gory coverage of Iraq from both sides. Before it was banned, the network had reporters embedded with both Iraqi insurgents and with U.S. troops.

Despite all of this, Americans have shown some curiosity. Al-Jazeera’s English-language Web site gets most of its traffic from U.S. visitors, Parsons said.

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

But most Americans want to be comforted by the news, not challenged by it, said Jon Alterman, who leads 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 a natural audience elsewhere. The world counts 1.2 billion Muslims, many 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 integrate the world’s far-flung Muslim communities, giving them a common 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 International staff, does not speak Arabic.

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

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

Yet because it is based in Qatar, the station has little opportunity to upset its home government due to its small size.

“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 state-run broadcasters to watch have apparently liked that, because the ratings have exploded since its 1996 debut.

It now reaches more than 40 million viewers, and if it weren’t for an advertising boycott, Al-Jazeera’s network would bring in around $35 million in annual ad revenue, 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 does not threaten future funding.

Credit: Yahoo/AP