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Give Canadians the Choice of Al Jazeera TV
The most vocal critics of human rights commissions often invoke freedom of speech. Yet they were strangely silent when Ottawa effectively blocked Al Jazeera Arabic TV's entry into Canada in 2004. And they are mostly silent now about Al Jazeera English's application before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Being treated like that in Canada is a minor irritation for the folks at the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, including the Canadian Tony Burman, managing director, English. They have seen far worse.
A-J Arabic was started in 1996 as a way of putting the gas-rich Persian Gulf emirate on the map.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani got it started with $140 million and the freedom to do real journalism. The quid pro quo was that the network wouldn't go after him. As compromising as that sounds, it isn't really. Which Canadian media excoriate their owners?
A-J spread like wildfire. Using its motto, "The opinion and the other opinion," it broke one taboo after another. Are the Saudi royals corrupt? Is Hezbollah a terrorist organization or legitimate resistance?
Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain shut down A-J bureaus. So did the Palestinian Authority (again, yesterday). Algeria shut down its own power grid 10 minutes into an A-J program on extrajudicial killings in that country.
Saudi Arabia once banned its citizens from watching, appearing on or talking to anyone from A-J. It ran an effective campaign to have advertisers pull their business from Al Jazeera.
It pulled its envoy from Doha.
So did Morocco. Tunisia and Libya severed diplomatic relations.
Egypt dubbed A-J a "Zionist channel."
Al-Jazeera was accused of being a lackey of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Hamas – as well as Israel and the CIA.
In November 2001, two American 500-pound bombs were dropped on the A-J bureau in Kabul, levelling the building. No one was inside.
During the Iraq war, its office in a Basra hotel was hit by four American missiles. Again, no one was hurt. Its Baghdad bureau was bombed, killing one correspondent. A-J staff was repeatedly harassed, beaten, arrested.
With its many bureaus and enterprise reporting, A-J got scoops galore: the 1998 Anglo-U.S. bombing of Iraq; interviews and tapes of Osama bin Laden; the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, etc.
It was the first Arabic channel to interview Israelis. It was the first with women sports reporters.
In Canada, the A-J Arabic application was approved in 2004 by the CRTC but under strict conditions. To ostensibly protect viewers from possible anti-Semitic material, the channel's distributors were to be held responsible for its content. They balked.
"The effect of the commission's decision is to turn distributors into censors," said Michael Hennessy, president of the Canadian Cable Association. "This sets a frightening precedent."
Now it is the Al Jazeera English network, started in 2006, that's up for consideration. The CRTC is expected to meet next week.
The English network broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from four centres – Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington.
It has developed a following of 140 million households in 100 countries – a footprint that the BBC and CNN took 10 years and more to develop. But unlike them, "our home team is not London or Atlanta. We have no home team to cheer," says Burman, former head of CBC News.
A-J English reports from under-reported regions of this world. It does so in detail, not two- or three-minute clips. This at a time when other media are retrenching, and Canadians are seeing less and less of news from around the world.
The network has a staff of 1,200 from 50 nationalities, "the most diverse newsroom in the world," says Burman. "Our staff is as multicultural as Canada. A-J should have special resonance in Canada."
Burman also says that "Israeli politicians appear on Al Jazeera more than on any other network outside of Israel. We provide more coverage of Israel than any other international coverage outside of Israeli networks.
"We are seen in Tel Aviv but not Toronto, in Haifa but not Halifax, in Kiryat Shmona but not Calgary."
That makes no sense.
The CRTC has no choice but to give Canadians the freedom to see Al Jazeera English. Otherwise, it would place Canada in the company of those autocrats who have tried to silence Al Jazeera.