The overarching theme of the Al Jazeera Forum last year was the launch of Al Jazeera International, which is now called Al Jazeera English. The goal was to take on networks like BBC and CNN head to head, offering news from the entire world with a perspective distinctively from the Global South. The launch took longer than expected – one panelist describes it as “taking longer than the pregnancy of an elephant” – but the network is up and running and available to 90 million subscribers worldwide.
It’s not available in the US, however. You can watch the network for free using the RealMedia player or in other formats by paying a subscription cost, but it’s not currently carried on a single US satellite or cable network. So, like most Americans, the only Al Jazeera English I’ve seen is the first ten minutes of broadcast (which were posted on YouTube) and the segment that appeared on the Daily Show, where Samantha Bee tries to remake the network into something better geared to an American audience.
This lends a surreal tone to some of my interactions at the forum. Sunday morning, I bump into David Marash over breakfast, who immediately asks about my connection to the Berkshires. We discover we’re both Williams graduates and settle into chitchat about professors we might both know. I have a very hard time resisting the temptation to tell him that his beard looks “kinda Muslimy”, as Bee observes, or to refer to his wife Amy as “Peppermint Gomez”. (Marash turns out to be an absolute prince of a guy, incredibly warm and fiercely smart. I’m looking forward to seeing him again soon.)
I remember seeing the Daily Show segment for the first time on my home TV and telling Rachel that I wanted to shake the hand of the PR person who had the insight to set up the network’s appearance on the Daily Show. I get the chance: it’s Molly Conroy of Brown Lloyd James, who admits to some seriously sleepless nights betweeen the shooting of the segment and its airing. The Daily Show crew, she tells me, spent nine hours at AJE’s DC offices, and interviewed members of the team for an hour at a time, trying a wide variety of absurd tricks to get reactions from the staffers, so the show can feature their looks of shock and bewilderment.
Al Jazeera English is available in Israel, where it’s carried on Yes Network – Yes evidently dropped BBC and added AJE recently. But Americans can’t see it on our TVs. So it turns out that one of the high points of the forum for me is sitting in my hotel room, watching Al Jazeera English. (I discover that it’s available at each treadmill in the healthclub, which makes for a slightly healthier viewing experience.)
It’s great. I want it. Now.
The first half-hour newscast I watch leads with a story on escalating violence in Somalia, with footage of fighting in the streets of Mogadishu, which is something I haven’t seen on any other recent broadcast. Al Jazeera’s bureau in Mogadishu was just forced to close by the transitional federal government, but they’ve still got reporters on the ground sending out footage. The next segment is from Zimbabwe, and offers Morgan Tsvangarai talking about MDC resistance to the Mugabe government, contrasted with footage of pro-Mugabe rallies.
I’d been very concerned that AJE – the only international network to have a bureau in Zimbabwe – would need to pander to the government to maintain their office in the country. Clearly, there are some compromises. AJE covered Mugabe’s 83rd birthday party, a non-story that all other networks ignored. And I have to think that AJE editors intentionally included a shot of a sign at a pro-Mugabe rally which read: “CNN – Complete Nonsense Network”. But the Tsvangarai story, and a long feature on WOZA – Women of Zimbabwe Arise – are solid, balanced and include footage that you simply can’t see elsewhere. Other coverage I catch over three days includes Listening Post’s coverage of Egypt’s crackdown on online and offline speech, a detailed story about citizen protests against a chemical plant in eastern India and detailed analysis of the diplomatic conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you’re an international news junkie, as I am, this is the good stuff.
Larry Lessig offers a proposal at the end of his speech that Al Jazeera make all its content available under free licenses so that Americans can see that the network is dedicated to some distinctly American values – free speech, freedom of expression, fairness. I’d go a step further and suggest that AJE could become utterly beloved by international news bloggers if they’d chop their content into single segments, tag it thoroughly and make it available on YouTube as well as on individual web pages, with partial transcripts so it can be indexed by Google and other engines. I would be able to do a much better job of writing about African news if I could show people this sort of footage in my pieces. And if a few thousand bloggers started heavily linking to the content, there might be more Americans who badly want to see the network and would pressure our providers to carry it.