Voice of the South
Al-Jazeera International launched this week, heralding a new era for international news broadcasting, writes Gamal Nkrumah
After months of preparations, Al-Jazeera International, the English language television channel of the Pan-Arab broadcaster, opened with an in-depth review of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, followed by another on Darfur. Reports on Iran and Zimbabwe followed with African and Arab issues dominating the agenda.
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Al-Jazeera International's focus on African, Arab and Asian affairs is expeced to capture new audiences seeking a more balanced world view
The Qatar-based broadcaster seeks to distinguish the new channel from its more established competitors. From the onset it placed much importance on authenticity, and it made no bones about its intention to act as a counterbalance to the Western-centric reporting of the established channels. "Somehow, it seemed to me that the Fourth Estate had got into bed with the third estate, and the rest of us had been left outside the bedroom. So when this came along, it was a blank sheet of paper, and a chance to make a difference, and to do things differently," stated Nigel Parsons, the Managing Director of Al-Jazeera International, in the New York Times
Parsons, like many liberal-minded Westerners was especially frustrated at the "tenor" of most English language news. He cited as an example, the coverage by CNN and the BBC of the American invasion of Iraq. The Arabic Al-Jazeera has previously had something of a chequered reputation in the West generally, and in America in particular, because of its airing of Osama Bin Laden's anti-Western outbursts. However, Al Jazeera International claims to have a different focus, with separate studios around the world. It also recruited high calibre media anchors, such as David Frost from the BBC ñ the only person to have interviewed the last seven US Presidents and the last six British Prime Ministers. From the US, they poached Riz Khan from CNN.
"Al-Jazeera International has positioned itself as a niche station to fill a vacuum in international television news reporting. It is a timely venture," remarked the foremost Arab political writer, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal to Al-Ahram Weekly. Heikal lauded the efforts of the new channel.
Commentators concur that Al-Jazeera International is radically different from CNN, the BBC and Sky News. It has established a clearly distinct identity ó one which is inextricably intertwined with the developing countries of the South. Indeed, Al-Jazeera International markets itself as the voice of the South. Some believe that even in its first week, it has begun to occupy this role.
"I think Al-Jazeera International has made a brave stab at becoming the voice of the South. Of course it could always do more -- although they have many correspondents, not every country is covered -- but certainly the developing world is much higher up the news rundown than on traditional English language news networks," Hugh Miles, author of Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World, told Al-Ahram Weekly. However, he tempered this with a slight criticism by saying, "The sense I get at the moment is that they are playing [with] the massive library of documentaries that they have stocked over the last year."
The first few days of Al-Jazeera's existence were heavily observed and critiqued by the international print and broadcast media, with much praised being heaped upon the broadcaster. The first few hours of broadcast are a case in point as they were subject to unprecedented scrutiny. While the established networks chose to focus on a possible tsunami in Japan, Al-Jazeera International opened with pieces on Palestine and Sudan. A brave choice indeed, wonderfully justified when the tsunami turned out to be little more than a storm in a teacup, as it were. Hugh Miles shared his first impressions of the broadcaster.
"Al-Jazeera International has clearly established its own identity, quite separate from CNN and the BBC, its two major English language TV news rivals. The news is people focused -- not government focused -- and it is more representative of the developing world than other channels. Anglo-American political stories, which often lead the run- down on CNN and BBC, are exchanged for stories from Zimbabwe, Congo, Iran and elsewhere. The challenge is to keep these stories relevant."
"The main difference [between Al-Jazeera International and the BBC and CNN] is the choice of stories covered. All three operate to the same high professional standards of accuracy and balance. But Al-Jazeera International is choosing to lead with international stories that might just have made the 'And finally...' section of the news on the regular networks, if they were given any coverage at all," added Miles
The focus is not exclusively political but also includes a wide range of social and economic subjects. For example, 'Every Woman' tackled the problem of skin bleaching amongst women in Africa, noting the prevalence of this disturbing practice and its health ramifications.
Al-Jazeera International also featured a programme on traffic and pollution in China, a little publicised issue that is not deemed as newsworthy by the networks such as CNN and Fox News.
On the political front, even though it emphasises coverage of African and Middle Eastern concerns, its '101 East' programme dealt with the prickly topic of Taiwanese politics, something to appeal to its Asian audience.
"[This] approach was emblematic of Al-Jazeera English's general attempt to change the climate of television journalism," Mark Lawson noted in the London-based Guardian.
Therefore the broadcaster seeks to capture new audiences by filling existing gaps in the market, ensuring it captures the Asian and African market while catering to curious Westerners who are eager to experience a more balanced worldview.
"They are targeting English speakers everywhere. I think they will win a solid audience from the professional classes in Africa and Asia, who speak English as a second language and who are already interested in, and familiar with, Al-Jazeera as a brand. Journalists, diplomats, businessmen and women in Africa and Asia, have traditionally been BBC or CNN watchers. Now they have a channel which has more news, less filler, fewer repeats and with more in-depth documentary style stories that pertain to their region directly," remarked Miles
However, he noted its attraction for a certain type of Westerner. "Al-Jazeera International will win over a substantial minority audience, liberal-minded and international-minded people who are interested in news as opposed to entertainment," Miles said. "There are thousands of such serious minded people in Britain... [and] When Al-Jazeera International does get carriage in the US, they will also attract a constant readership -- a group of people who have shared political and social values," he added.
Miles's views were shared by other pundits in the international press. Some have placed the new channel in the broader picture of South politics.
"The quirk of the Qatar-based broadcaster finally realises the anti-colonial media dream of the Non-Aligned Movement [NAM]," wrote Dilip Hiro in The Guardian. He noted that Al-Jazeera International was designed to counter the "information imperialism" of the early NAM period.
Hiro's remarks echo the phraseology of a bygone era, when NAM was at its peak. Again he criticised the Western news broadcasters and complained that they simply ignored or downplayed the issues of the developing world. "Meanwhile the distortions, deliberate or inadvertent, caused by viewing third world developments through Western sensibilities and priorities have remained," Hiro explained
"In all this, money matters. It is the deep pocket of Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, which got the Al-Jazeera Arabic channel going 10 years ago. Once more, it is he who is bankrolling Al-Jazeera International," stressed Hiro.
One issue concerning many is the fact that the channel has been "blanked" by the giant satellite American players like News Corp's DirecTV and Charlie Ergen's Echostar, together with cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner. Indeed, as many international commentators concluded, Al-Jazeera International has a potentially significant market in the industrially advanced countries of the West, but their main target audience will be English-speakers in the developing countries of the South. "None of the major American cable or satellite providers chose to carry the signal," noted Claire Shipman and Eduardo Sunol in ABC news. "Americans were limited to a free 15-minute Internet trial".
This point was emphasised by Miles previously, "I think Al-Jazeera International will get a very substantial television market in the developing world [but] they have no carriage at the moment in the United States, no satellite distributor over there."
Some of the detractors of Al-Jazeera International stress that, unlike its Arabic sister station, it does not provide fast- paced groundbreaking news. Rather they complain that it favours news analysis and in-depth reports. There are those who are not particularly impressed with Al-Jazeera International. They don't believe that it can contribute something new, and that at best it is aping the BBC in its approach.
"Call it the un-CNN. Imagine the BBC devoting 24 hours to special coverage of Africa and the Middle East. Picture that and it will give you a sense of the first day broadcasting for Al-Jazeera International, the English language cousin of the channel the Bush administration loves to hate," said Lawrence Pintak, director of the Adham Centre for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo and author of Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas. "The visual identity -- graphic backdrops, audio stringers, precise English and overall pacing -- are all straight from the BBC," claimed Pintak in SPEIGEL ONLINE.
In addition, comparisons are inevitably made with the Arabic Al-Jazeera. "Al-Jazeera has played a very important role in creating the foundations for democracy and pluralism in the Middle East," noted Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science at Williams College and author of Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Middle East politics Today. It is not clear whether Al-Jazeera International would have a similar impact.
Al-Jazeera International is distinguished by the peripatetic nature of its broadcasts, which is seen by some as an advantage, and by others as distinct failing. "It's broadcasting day is expected to begin in Kuala Lumpur at 9am local time, and over the next four hours the journalists there will drive the report. The following 11 hours will come out of Doha, before the London broadcast centre takes the reins for the next five. Then, for four hours, beginning at 4pm on the East Coast of the US, Washington will gain its measure of control," a New York Times report on Al-Jazeera International extrapolated.
Miles also weighed in on this issue. "Al-Jazeera International has a new trendy headquarter format in London, Washington, Kuala Lumpur and Doha, but it doesn't have a conventional news day. That detracts somewhat from its appeal." He explained that the typical television viewer is often used to a breakfast show and a more serious evening schedule. "There is no breakfast show on Al-Jazeera International and that is not a plus."
"Al-Jazeera International seems somewhat jet- lagged, it is always lunch-time. It is a bit disorientating. The new format Al-Jazeera International is introducing takes some getting used to," Miles explained.
Be that as it may, Al-Jazeera International is surprisingly having problems airing in certain important countries of the South, including India -- a country that was thought to have a particularly large number of English-speaking viewers. "Interestingly, though India has been identified as a potential market, the channel will not be available in the country," explained Indiantelevision.com.
Apparently, the Indian government asked Al-Jazeera International to go off air six months ago on account of not conforming to downlinking guidelines. According to Indiantelevision.com the Indian authorities cited "security considerations" as one of the main reasons for its refusal to give Al-Jazeera International the go-ahead.
On the future of the channel, Miles predicted that it the new broadcaster would eventually surpass the BBC in popularity. "BBC World is going to be faced with a choice of becoming practically obsolete or the BBC needs lots of public money to catch up with Al-Jazeera International. There is the need for far greater investments in the BBC -- much more money than is today invested in the BBC." Indeed while its original launch target audience was 40 million viewers, it surpassed this, being shown in more than 80 million homes.
Most importantly of all, Miles pointed out that the new network would potentially influence global policy makers. "It is easy to imagine Al-Jazeera International having a substantial political effect on foreign policy... It is not really about ethnicity or religion. That is exactly the product ó nothing but sheer news."