Al Jazeera, the network Donald Rumsfeld once called “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable,” created a media revolution that is difficult for non-Arabic speakers to appreciate. Remarkably open and professional (especially when compared to the staid state-sponsored media that dominated the Middle East back then), Al Jazeera introduced the concept of heated debate and open inquiry to the region, and their determination to allow newsworthy material such as Osama bin Laden’s videotapes on the air earned them the moniker “Jihad TV” (a title bestowed mainly by those who had never watched the channel in its original language).
Today, the network has survived the former US Defense Secretary’s tenure to launch a global English language news broadcast. Dubbed Al Jazeera English (the previous name of Al Jazeera International rendered moot by the anything-but-local impact of its Arabic predecessor), the service launched Wednesday after a year of licensing and technical delays from four global hubs in Kuala Lumpur, Doha, London, and Washington, staffed with a mix of journalists from the developing and developed worlds (watch the drinking binges, boys).
Along with the language change, the scope is changing too – from a platform for the Middle East to a global outlook with a special focus on the Muslim world. For now, the real audience is non-Arabic speaking Muslims (the website displays GMT and “Mecca” time), who may speak English as a second or even first language, but network hopes to grow to a reach of 80 million households (just under the original channel’s 100 million household reach).
The high-definition broadcast (a first, they say) will not be shown on any American or Canadian cable or satellite service (despite broadcasting from a Washington studio filled with 150 reporters), with Comcast (America’s largest cable company) offering only to add the channel for the heavily Arab-American Dearborn, Michigan area. (It can be seen, however, be seen on broadband.) American news channels tend to “show the missiles taking off,” says Riz Khan, who joined the new network along with veteran British interviewer Sir David Frost. “Al-Jazeera shows them landing.” And that’s a problem for many critics, some of whom are spearheading a drive to keep them off American TVs and wondering aloud how a Jewish-American – Al Jazeera’s Washington news host Dave Marash – would dare work for an Arab-owned TV channel (the former “Nightline” reporter says he is proud of his new affiliation).
The difficulties experienced by Al Jazeera in the US are ironic, considering that Israeli government officials consider it fairer to them than either CNN or the BBC, and promptly cut the red tape for the establishment of Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau (and, yes, it will be widely available for viewing there as well). As with the pioneering decade-old Arabic service, there will likely be opponents at both extremes of the Muslim/Western divide. And as before, that will likely be seen by seen by Al Jazeera and its viewers as evidence that they’re doing something right.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.