Al Jazeera breaks the language barrier

Al Jazeera’s admirers and critics in the west will finally get a chance to achieve something that has so far been the privilege of Arab viewers. Understand it. In a bid to expand its audience beyond those who speak the language of the Quran, Al Jazeera is launching an English-speaking channel. The much-awaited Al Jazeera International, which takes to the airwaves on November 15 after repeated delays caused by technical snags, will literally follow the trajectory of the sun by broadcasting round-the-clock and in high definition mode from four centers around the globe: Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC. Bankrolled by the emir of Qatar and powered by its forward-thinking, taboo-breaking programming and flashy graphics, AJ, now in its tenth year, quickly became the channel of choice in a region where the state-controlled terrestrial broadcasting monopolies used to cozy up with rather than challenge the elites. AJ’s anglophone sibling, its staff suggests, has no lesser ambition than to break the information monopoly – this time on a global scale. «This will be the first English-speaking channel that is not coming from the west talking to the rest of the world; it is coming from the south in a political sense, from the Middle East in the geographic sense,» Barnaby Phillips, AJI European correspondent told Kathimerini English Edition at his brand-new office in Athens, the channel’s principal European bureau after London. «It will be more parts of the world talking back that haven’t always had a voice.» Like their Arab counterparts, AJI officials seem keen to emphasize the channel’s underdog mentality, its bid to open holes in the information wall raised by western media. A loaded press release declared recently that AJI aspires to reverse the information flow from south to north and to provide a voice to under-reported regions across the globe. «We wanted to go ahead and tell stories that maybe other networks were ignoring. This is our opportunity to focus on some stories that haven’t been told,» said Carlos van Meek, AJI producer in Athens. It’s all about being balanced and impartial, AJI officials say. To its critics, all the fuss about untold stories is just another name for anti-western propaganda. The truth is AJ has not hesitated to enter the zone of sensationalism and nationalism. But the station does not so much seem to be influencing the Arab street as it seems to be influenced by it. And overall the channel has done more to liberalize the Middle East than the big brains in Washington and the Pentagon ever did. «When AJ emerged in 1996 it was like a breath of fresh air to what was a very staid, dead, state-controlled broadcasting scene. If you switch through the channels you see a whole range or much more slick news channels, many of them 24-hour channels than you would have seen 10 or 15 years ago. And that is a compliment to AJ,» said Phillips. «There is no doubt that AJ has blazed the trail of free speech across the Middle East. You can go to many parts of the Middle East where people think AJ is a Mossad plot because the Israeli government spokespeople are interviewed on it. This is how bad the media scene in the Middle East was prior to AJ. You couldn’t interview an Israeli government spokesman. You can go to governments like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and they hate AJ, they see AJ as subversive. That is perhaps because they are not as open as they should be in their dealings with the media,» he added. Nor is the US for that reason. Lofty talk from American officials about the need to shake up the rigid societies in the Middle East to make room for democracy and free speech is commonly scoffed at as hypocritical. In attempting to gag or boycott AJ, American policymakers have only shot themselves in the foot. Pro-American outlets that were established in the Middle East, such as Al Hurra TV, Radio Sawa and Hi Magazine, have been largely snubbed by Arab audiences as instruments of US propaganda. The most notorious low point, perhaps, was when US fighter jets «mistakenly» bombed AJ’s office in Kabul and then its bureau in Baghdad. Washington’s waning influence in the Arab world is due more to wrong-headed policies than to AJ. The Iraq campaign did not find the US media in a much better shape either as cutbacks in staff and resources over the years have worn away the quality of reporting. AJ’s Arab expertise gives it a competitive advantage compared to other western media organizations. «It can reach places that other channels can’t reach in the Middle East, you know the kind of access it has on let’s say the West Bank or the Gaza strip. An American network can’t go to these places and work with the same freedom,» Phillips said. Another problem for mainstream US media is public disillusionment over their coverage of the Iraq war. Alternative outlets like AJ have seen here an opportunity to fill the gap. «A lot of people have been watching the BBC and CNN International for years and AJ has been making waves but only with an Arabic-speaking audience and I think it has probably intrigued a great number of people to see what AJ exactly is reporting,» van Meek said. Curiosity is the word. «AJ is very popular in the Middle East, but none of us really knows why. We do know, of course, that it has broadcast some very big stories but we have not really seen how they handle stories. Now people in the west will be able to judge the Arab channel for themselves,» said Babis Papadimitriou, director of Skai television in Athens. Perhaps there is also a sense of saturation. «I think the world is fed up watching only the westernized media and AJ is making the difference by being the first global network based in the Middle East and covering the world from a whole new perspective,» said Elizabeth Filippouli, AJI’s news anchor in Doha, in an e-mail interview. Filippouli recently moved there from Greece. Skeptics are sharpening their knives. AJI comes with a lot of baggage: the Arab network is often charged in the west of being the mouthpiece of Islamic extremism courtesy of its depiction of the gruesome realities of war and telecasts of Osama bin Laden statements. Any «spin» is culture-specific, AJ people insist. «We’re all products of our upbringing and our society. I am British, I went to school in Britain, I grew up in Africa and Switzerland as well. Every experience I’ve had in life affects my outlook on the world and any journalist who said otherwise would be dishonest. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some professional standards of impartiality, of trying to stand back, of trying to assess when your own prejudice is getting in the way of your judgment,» Phillips said. To be sure, objectivity has its limits. News is colored by political cultures. AJ is product of a specific environment. An Arab network that did not back the Palestinian cause would not be taken seriously. It will be interesting to see how Mideast realities will play out on the English-speaking channel. In a bid to blunt western reluctance and enhance its credibility, AJI has signed up a number of prestigious on-air presenters including Sir David Frost and Riz Khan. It has over 500 staff of over 40 nationalities, many of whom are former BBC reporters who were left at loose ends after a commercial joint venture in 1994 died in the offing.

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