Al-Jazeera goes English
Credited with reviving journalism in the Middle East, Al-Jazeera needs more than a pinch of luck to meet the next big challenge it has set for itself, writes Ayman El-Amir
Ten years after the launch of its audacious Al-Jazeera satellite television channel, Qatar is preparing to embark on another controversial project -- an English language TV channel. Al-Jazeera International (AJI), which is reportedly scheduled to take off in late spring, will presumably build on, and is made possible by, the hard-earned recognition of Al-Jazeera Arabic (AJA). The availability of funding, which does not seem to be a problem, is certainly assuring. But branding for a new channel, born in the post-11 September global environment to compete in a saturated international media market, is a daunting challenge. Whether the new channel will sink or swim depends largely on its ability to coin a unique identity that sets it apart from mainstream satellite broadcast TV. Not only does it have an ostensibly world-class staff that could steer it in the chosen direction, but also a few good lessons to learn from its older sister.
To start with, AJA did not set out to be controversial but to be different. To do that, it had to introduce new standards of broadcast journalism -- new to a region that had been stymied by official national media that played the tune of a cluster of small dictators with big egos. With its new brand of counterpoint journalism, AJA was as much a liberating factor in mainstream broadcast Arab journalism as it was for the mass of Arab viewers. As it pursued a hard- nosed independent editorial policy, AJA ruffled quite a few feathers. In defending its independence, the channel sustained many slanders, ranging from accusations of being an Israeli tool for airing the views of Arab opposition figures, to US charges of acting as the "mouthpiece" of Osama Bin Laden for broadcasting his taped video messages. For all that, it paid a heavy price in staff casualties and assets as it stood its ground in Kabul, Baghdad and Madrid. It continues to defy harassment by several Arab governments.
The Arabic language Al-Jazeera was indirectly born out of a failed media partnership between Saudi Arabian financial moguls and the BBC that was designed to introduce an Arabic language news programme broadcast by the BBC. When the short-lived marriage broke up in 1996 over Saudi objections to the BBC's free journalistic standards, it produced a group of professional Arab staff whose BBC training inspired them to establish a free Middle East media project. They found their niche in Qatar's new satellite TV channel initiative that was launched in 1996, the same year the Saudi-BBC partnership was terminated. Soon they lent their expertise to it and became its core staff. It was from this perspective that AJA saw its mission. It welcomed the rewards of an independent, credible brand of Arab television journalism and endured the consequences with equanimity. Before long, AJA achieved international recognition.
AJI faces a different set of challenges. While AJA benefited considerably from the "CNN format" and the professional discipline of immediacy, particularly during its exclusive coverage of the invasion of Afghanistan, AJI would not fly as the Arab CNN to the world. It took CNN 11 years to establish its footprint as the leading international satellite news channel. Now the "CNN effect" is wearing off and the network has been outstripped in domestic ratings by Rupert Murdoch's neo- conservative cable television Fox News Channel. The "CNN effect" was eroded by the post-11 September phenomenon of a fragmented and strongly polarised world, shaped by the US's lone superpower-borne simplistic classification of "either you are with us or against us." When the invasion of Iraq took place three years ago, CNN too fell in line and was embedded with the military. As the Rev Jesse Jackson put it later on "Fox and Clear Channel are organising war rallies. Our media was in bed with the tanks." It was his way of lamenting the absence of an independent source of news information for the American public.
The world of post-11 September is not about building bridges but forging alliances against the common enemy, terrorism. If Dubai's P&O forced abandonment of a bid to manage six US ports is any indication, the message is that no one from that part of the world is to be trusted -- certainly not anyone associated with Al-Jazeera. Unlike P&O, AJI would not be engaging in a business venture but in the more critical domain of shaping ideas and influencing people; a reason for greater reservation in the US. On the other hand, polarisation has ensconced everything in a political cocoon where there is little freedom of movement. Perhaps the South could provide an alternative virgin territory for the interplay of cultures by reincarnating that marketplace of ideas that has long been battered by commercial television. But which "South": China or Chad? And what impact would it have on the rest of the world?
In the span of one decade, international satellite television has proliferated beyond all expectations. Nearly two-thirds of national television stations have satellite channels. As was the case in the old days of international radio broadcasting, powerful media networks are now pursuing an agenda of cross-cultural impact -- trying to shape the target audience in the political, economic or cultural interest of the broadcasting authority or national entity. In this context, the BBC has announced plans for launching an Arabic satellite channel in 2007. Israel has been toying with the same idea for a few years. Since its debut in 1995, the BBC World Service satellite channel has been seeking a retransmission service provider in the US. After 11 years of searching it struck a deal in January with Discovery Communications that will cable-carry its signal to US viewers. Will AJI find access easier? Will the bulk of US viewers be interested in anything beyond local news, the weather report, football and college basketball? Will the debacle in Iraq create a stronger American public interest in global events when Vietnam did not? The question should be of keen interest to the nascent AJI, which so far does not seem to have made any deal to have a foothold in the deregulated US broadcasting market.
One problem that international news coverage has confronted is the negative effect of globalisation. It has led to the re- assertion of national identity as a defence mechanism against the erosion of national culture. This gives AJI a potentially rewarding and credible role to play. It could act as a hub of national networks by striking partnerships with other national television channels in the Middle East. Each channel would act as a national network in its own right and, at the same time, a programme affiliate to a central networking system -- a PBS. AJI could host co-production programmes of different cultural and political flavours, while maintaining its own regional programming and broadcasting agenda. To do that, AJI will need to face the difficult challenge of editorial control. It will also need to develop a network of programme partners and willing carriers in target countries and regions. Eventually, this could be a more enlightened fulfilment of a pan-Arab satellite television broadcasting project which Arab ministers of information debated four years ago and, luckily, did not follow through on.