Al-Jazeera launches English-language broadcasts, giving U.S. an alternate view


NEW YORK — What began a decade ago as a bold experiment in Arab journalism will now be available to the English-speaking world with the launch of Al-Jazeera International, the first global television station headquartered in the Middle East to broadcast in English.

A satellite news channel based in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, Al-Jazeera made waves with its launch in 1996. It was the freest media outlet in a region accustomed to newspapers and television stations that function as little more than government mouthpieces — although it often has been accused of broadcasting anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda in the guise of news.

The new English-language channel, which started Nov. 15, will broadcast 24 hours a day from centers in Doha, Qatar, Washington, London and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, initially will reach 80 million households worldwide, according to a news release.

Riz Khan, a former broadcaster with CNN International and the BBC who will anchor a daily one-hour news program on the new station, told JTA the station will have a much broader global focus than other channels, bringing American viewers stories that often are overlooked in other media.

It also will allow American viewers to drawn conclusions about a channel that has proven controversial, but which most Americans haven’t been able to experience directly.

“What it will do is allow people to judge for themselves openly and honestly what the channel is about,” without relying on other people’s portrayals, Khan said.

Al-Jazeera’s willingness to broadcast interviews with Israeli leaders to the Arab world has been hailed as a sign of unusual openness for an Arab station.

Still, an official at the Israeli Consulate in New York told JTA it’s important for the Arab world to have a station that can be critical of Arab governments.

“It’s a great thing for Israel,” the official said. “The more the Arab world can have a free and open debate, it’s good for everybody.”

But others say free information from the Middle East already is available to American audiences and that Al-Jazeera’s reputedly biased reporting on Israel will need to be countered.

“It only heightens the need for us to improve and extend our hasbarah informational activities to counter misrepresentations that no doubt will be broadcast on Al-Jazeera, as they have in the past,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Hoenlein said Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel had “aided and abetted terrorists,” and the English version would have to be closely scrutinized.

In its short history, the channel has come under fire from Western and Arab leaders alike. It has run afoul of the Bush administration and of Middle Eastern governments, many of whom have shut down Al-Jazeera’s local operations at one point or another.

But even its critics acknowledge that Al-Jazeera has revolutionized television news in the Middle East, where it reaches 30 million to 50 million viewers. It now will compete for viewers with global powerhouses like CNN International and the BBC.

At present, the station will not be carried in the United States by any major cable service, though it is being carried by several smaller systems and will be viewable online and via satellite.

A spokesperson for the cable provider Comcast told JTA that the company had been in talks with Al-Jazeera, but no agreement was concluded. In Israel, the station will be available on the YES TV network.