Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Witness Al Jazeera in English

Earlier this month, Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite television news channel, launched an English-language channel, broadcasting news and public affairs programming 24 hours a day from facilities in Doha, Qatar; Washington, D.C.; London, England; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. So far, no U.S. cable provider carries the new channel, although it is available in parts of Europe. Viewers around the world can receive the channel if they have satellite dishes, but not the small "pizza-dish" receivers tied to specific U.S. providers. One reason is that many people in the United States consider Al Jazeera to be little more than a propaganda arm of militant Islamist terrorists such as Al Qaeda. ...

I've already written to my cable company, asking them to carry Al Jazeera International, and I encourage readers to do the same. Fortunately, would-be Al Jazeera viewers without television access to the channel can receive it on the Internet. Just go to and click on "Watch Now." You have the option of the low-bandwidth free feed, which requires that you click to renew the connection every 15 minutes, or the high-bandwidth feed for a subsciption fee of USD $5.95/month. Both feeds stream to the free RealPlayer application. It's definitely worth the effort, because Al Jazeera offers a perspective on world events that is difficult to find on American television. Our media is not as blinkered as in much of the world, but it does have a definite bias, particularly on the question of what is "newsworthy." Al Jazeera has its own bias, of course, but far less than Americans believe.

Yesterday, the top headline in the hourly news summary was the statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel would recognize a Palestinian state if the Palestinians met certain conditions. While Al Jazeera (correctly) noted that the conditions were non-trivial, the overall tone of the reporting portrayed the gesture as an olive branch. If anything, the coverage was sympathetic to Israel. The news coverage also showed Palestinians violating the recent cease-fire by launching rockets into Israeli territory, noting that there were no injuries from those attacks.

In addition to straight newscasts, Al Jazeera has several magazine programs. One is a call-in show hosted in Washington, D.C., with an unfiltered breadth of political viewpoints. Callers can pose questions directly to high-level officials appearing on the program. That show airs live at 18:00 UTC (1:00 P.M. Eastern, 10:00 A.M. Pacific). Another show focuses on women's issues, from a perspective that is unabashedly contrary to the misogyny of many radical fundamentalist Muslims. On Monday, the program Witness profiled a team of Israeli doctors who offer free heart surgery to children from poor areas around the world; about 1/3 of their patients are from the Palestinian Territories. This is an Arab-owned channel highlighting Israeli efforts at bridging the animosity between Israel and Palestine — not at all the jihadist propaganda that many U.S. commentators and politicians would lead you to expect.

I spoke of Al Jazeera's bias, which is certainly present, but not in the direction you might think. The bias is primarily in the prioritizing of news stories: the Middle East generally gets top billing, followed by "the South" — the world below the Tropic of Cancer. There is certainly coverage of significant events in Europe and North America, but greater weight is given to places like Africa and South America. In the actual reporting, I have not yet seen any evidence of bias against the United States and its allies, even in coverage of Iraq and Iran. You should check out Al Jazeera in English; I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. It reminds me of the early days of CNN, or more recently CNN International. It is certainly not a chest-thumping mirror-image of Fox News.

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