Top Arab TV network to hit US market

Coming to a screen near you: Al Jazeera in English.

The Arabic-language news network, notorious for broadcasting the statements of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda colleagues, plans to open an English-language website in early 2003 and begin distributing English-language news programming by satellite and cable late next year.

Since it began broadcasting in 1996, Al Jazeera has brought unprecedented Arabic-language journalistic scrutiny to the regimes of the Middle East. Now its executives and journalists say they want to provide English speakers in the US and elsewhere with more accurate and informed reporting about the world's most turbulent region.

Headquartered in this small, wealthy Persian Gulf kingdom, Al Jazeera has won American praise for raising media standards in the Arab world, where virtually all news outlets operate under some form of government control. In efforts to address the Arab world directly, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have granted the channel interviews since Sept. 11, 2001. In mid-December, during a visit to Doha, Mr. Rumsfeld scheduled another interview with the channel, but pulled out following a testy exchange with an Al Jazeera reporter at a press conference.

Al Jazeera, says Kenton Keith, a former US ambassador to Qatar, "no more than other news organizations, has a slant. Its slant happens to be one most Americans are not comfortable with.... But the fact is that Al Jazeera has revolutionized media in the Middle East.

"For the long-range importance of press freedom in the Middle East and the advantages that will ultimately have for the West, you have to be a supporter of Al Jazeera, even if you have to hold your nose sometimes."

Oddly enough, Al Jazeera's journalists face severe restrictions in several Middle East countries that are considered allies of the US. Saudi Arabia, one of the US government's leading partners in the region, has never allowed Al Jazeera to open an office; Bahrain, where the US Navy's Fifth Fleet is based, has banned the network's journalists from visiting.

Two other US allies - Jordan and Kuwait - have shut down Al Jazeera bureaus this year. "They hate Al Jazeera," says chief editor Ibrahim Hilal, "because they hate transparency."

One explanation for the reluctance of these American allies to allow Al Jazeera to function is that these regimes are defensive about media coverage of their links to the US. At a time when many Arabs disparage the US government's unstinting support for Israel and its moves against Iraq, having America as a friend is delicate business.

"It's a misleading connecting of the dots," counters a Western official here who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Al Jazeera has gone after everyone, irrespective of their politics."

Syria - a country the US accuses of sponsoring terrorism - also has refused to let the network open an office, and Libya withdrew its ambassador from Qatar in last year out of pique with Al Jazeera, a step several Arab governments have taken at one time or another.

On the other hand, Egypt, a leading US partner, allows Al Jazeera to operate with relative freedom.

With the exception of Qatar - whose emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, provided $150 million to bankroll the network from 1996 to 2001 - Al Jazeera does indeed practice a take-no-prisoners brand of journalism. Although Al Jazeera denies going soft on Qatar, many observers in the region says the network treats the country and its leader with kid gloves.

"In America, we have excellent relations with US officials," says Mr. Hilal, a mild-mannered Egyptian who runs the news operations. "The problem sometimes is that regimes in the region try to convince Americans not to help Al Jazeera."

Managing Director Mohamed Jasem al-Ali says Al Jazeera in Arabic has 135,000 subscribers in the US; the network hopes many more Americans will access the English-language services. The expansion - which will include the launch of an Arabic documentary channel next spring - is partly a matter of economic necessity.

Mr. Ali says Sheikh Hamad is no longer funding Al Jazeera, so the company must find new sources of revenue. Although the channel is widely watched in the Middle East, popularity doesn't necessarily translate into profits. Traditionally in the region, says al-Ali, "advertising goes to channels that have good relations with the government," something Al Jazeera rarely enjoys.

Al Jazeera operated without a government subsidy last year, says Ali, but he cannot say for certain that the channel will be able to pay its own way this year. But opportunity - such as it is in the news business - is presenting itself.

Just as CNN made its name during the 1991 Gulf war, Al Jazeera is gearing up for extensive coverage of a possible war with Iraq. "We will try to be different than the others," Ali says.

The essence of the Al Jazeera difference, says Hilal, is providing context and history.

Mentioning the results of an opinion poll showing that 60 percent of Britons are unaware that Palestinian territories are under Israeli occupation, he says "the historical context is missing" in Western news reports. Westerners need to be reminded, he continues, that their countries armed and supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the 1980s.

"We need to communicate frankly," he adds. "We need to start confessing that we committed mistakes with each other."

Although Al Jazeera staffers are proud of what they have done to cover the other side of the US "war on terrorism," Western officials are suspicious of the channel's access. "They've skirted the line between journalism and colluding with terrorists," says the Doha-based official.

"They are not totally happy with us," says Ali of US officials. Like any government, he says, "they want the media next to them, not to tell the truth."

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