Al Jazeera International has launched today, offering a new English-language news channel available on some global cable systems. I had the good fortune of being in Doha, Qatar, for AlJ’s annual conference earlier this year, and got to hear a great deal of enthusiasm as skepticism about the network: Would people outside the Middle East be willing to watch it? Would the coverage have an overt or covert bias? Would the network focus primarily on the Arab or Muslim world, or would it have a global remit?
The first minutes of the broadcast, available on YouTube, make an interesting statement. After the obligatory “we’re changing broadcasting forever” message, AJI then features correspondents in Palestine, Darfur, Iran and Zimbabwe. Two of the four are coverage we’d expect from a network with strong roots in the Middle East – the other two are an intriguing sign that AJI may be taking seriously the responsibility of covering parts of the world that often get ignored by other cable news networks.
I feel strongly that Al Jazeera International is a good thing. I think a lot of the criticism Al Jazeera’s Arabic service receives are, frankly, off the mark, and more a reflection of Western news coverage of Jazeera than the truth of what’s on the network. My experiences in Doha were of a network determined to bring debate to every possible issue, going out of their way to put people who disagree with one another on camera in the hopes of knocking sparks. It’s worth remembering that Al-J isn’t just a thorn in the side of the Bush administration – they drive the Saudis nuts as well. (Hugh Miles has more on this and some other debunked misperceptions of Al-Jazeera.)
When I spoke in Doha, I was dissapointed that the discussions seemed to focus primarily on issues we’ve all heard a great deal about – US/Iraq, Israel/Palestine, US/Iran – and not enough on parts of the world that are seldom covered on TV news, like Darfur or northern Uganda. Taking a tour of the Jazeera studios a few hours later, I walked in a control room and looked at the main screen – the director was queuing up a four-minute long segment on forthcoming elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If AJI will bring attention to oft-ignored countries like DRC, then I’m very much looking forward to becoming a regular viewer.
Congratulations to all my friends in Qatar and elsewhere who’ve worked long and hard on this launch. I hope AJI is a huge success, and I hope it’s the first of many new international news networks attempting to diversify the images and voices we encounter on the television.