Analysis: The wait for Al-Jazeera’s international channel

It is still not known when Al-Jazeera’s long-awaited English-language news channel will launch. First mooted in 2004, Al-Jazeera International (AJI) initially had a target launch date of late 2005.

But despite regularly announcing the signing up of star names such as David Frost and Rageh Omaar, the launch date kept slipping. It is now thought that it may go on air sometime during November.

Technical challenges

One of the reasons cited for the delay is the ambitious technical nature of the project. During a 24-hour cycle the channel plans to broadcast for four hours from its Kuala Lumpur bureau, 11 hours from its base in Doha, five hours from London and four hours from Washington. It also wants to be the first network to broadcast globally in high-definition (HDTV) format.

Katie Bergius, AJI’s public relations manager, told Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper that this was “the most sophisticated technology ever deployed” for an international news channel. She added that it would be “a disservice to all” to launch before it was technically ready.

Lindsey Oliver, the channel’s commercial director, has also ascribed the delay to the technical challenges. In an interview with the Project for Excellence in Journalism she said that the idea of connecting four broadcast centres in four different time zones in high definition was “such an ambitious project” that there was no point in going live too soon.

US difficulties

Oliver denied that distribution issues had anything to do with the slippage in the launch date. She said that the channel was on course to reach its target of being available to 40 million households, with deals arranged for Europe, parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

But she admitted that the USA was proving a more difficult market in which to gain a foothold. Although she was confident that the new channel would be carried by major US cable and satellite operators, she conceded that Al-Jazeera was a brand that tended to inspire “very strong feelings”.

A recent poll by the US media watchdog Accuracy in Media (AIM) found that 53 per cent of Americans opposed the launch of the channel. The same poll found that two out of three Americans thought the US government should not allow it entry to the US market.

Voice of the south

Representatives of Al-Jazeera International have repeatedly stated that it will not be merely an English-language version of the Arabic channel. Nor does it want to be “just another BBC or CNN,” said Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara. He told the Associated Press that AJI liked to see itself as the first channel to broadcast “from south to north”.

The south/north theme was repeated by Doha bureau managing editor Omar Bec. He noted that the majority of the network’s bureaus were in the southern hemisphere. As well as being a “channel of reference” for the Middle East and Africa, he said AJI would help “balance the information flow from south to north”.

Editorial policy

In addition to 20 bureaus of its own, Al-Jazeera International will also be able to call on the resources of its sister Arabic channel. But to what extent the two channels follow the same editorial policy is not entirely clear.

Nigel Parsons, managing editor of AJI, has said that the new channel will be “totally independent”. But early this year the manager of the Arabic channel, Waddah Khanfar, was put in overall charge of both channels. According to a report in the Financial Times, this caused “some disquiet” among journalists at the English channel.

Khanfar has said that although the two channels may cover stories differently, they will operate with a similar “spirit”. Ahmad al-Sheikh, editor-in-chief of the Arabic channel, said that there would be daily meetings to coordinate editorial policy.

Al-Sheikh told AFP that these meetings would, among other things, discuss the use of controversial terms such as “martyrs”, “terrorism” and “resistance”. A report in Time magazine said that editors from both channels were trying to come up with a common mission statement and code of conduct, including an agreement on the use of such terms.

Too Western?

Concern about the direction Al-Jazeera International may take has been voiced by Khalid Amayreh. He is a Palestinian journalist who has written many articles for Al-Jazeera’s English-language website, now part of AJI.

In an article posted on the website The Electronic Intifada on 29 October, Amayreh criticized AJI for drifting away from the “policies and ideals of the mother Arab channel”

In an article posted on the website The Electronic Intifada on 29 October, Amayreh criticized AJI for drifting away from the “policies and ideals of the mother Arab channel”.

By way of example, Amayreh pointed to the heavy reliance of the English-language website on Western news agencies. He also accused some “openly pro-Israeli” editors of departing from the professional ethics that had helped establish Al-Jazeera’s reputation.

Amayreh expressed the fear that the new project of what was “probably the greatest Arab achievement in 60 years” was assuming an international identity that was very similar to its main Western competitors.

Related Links

  • Is Al-Jazeera International losing its Arab identity?, Khalid Amayreh (29 October 2006)