Al Jazeera in English Is a Welcome Voice
THE LAUNCH of Al Jazeera International television news channel, the English language channel of the famous Arabic broadcaster based in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday is a welcome counter-balance to the already established news channels like CNN, BBC and Sky News.
I must admit that I was initially skeptical of the new channel when I heard its slogan “Setting the News Agenda” and read that it wanted to be the voice of the Southern Hemisphere. It has set itself a difficult task indeed. After months of delay – the channel was supposed to have launched last June – the product that I watched for two hours last night and one hour this morning wasn’t that bad.
There is still only 12 hours a day of live broadcasting, mostly news bulletins, with the rest of the time filled with pre-recorded programs. The network’s home base studios in Doha look slick and magnificent, but from what I saw the news presenters are still a little stiff and there wasn’t enough talking back and forth between correspondents in the field and the anchors. Indeed, I only saw one correspondent Wednesday night on my TV screen, a woman reporting from the Gaza Strip.
But with the millions of dollars invested in the channel by the government of Qatar, the network has been able to attract some major talent from Western networks. I recognized the weather woman from her days over on Sky News, as well as some of the news anchors who I had seen on BBC World.
Al Jazeera has invested heavily in making its own half-hour news programs. I saw four of them already and was impressed with I saw. The first program I saw was “48 Hours”, which seems to be a travelogue show with a political edge (as everything seems to be on Al Jazeera). It was hosted by a young Australian woman and was about life in Damascus, Syria. It started out in the old part of the city, showing how foreign students in Syria to learn Arabic had helped revitalize parts of that city. Next the host went to restaurant with a group of young Syrian women and talked about their aspirations and problems they face in getting married. (It seems that there are four women to every single Syrian man!) That was fine. What was bizarre were the final two segments, one about a huge Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus and the other about a neighborhood full of Iraqi refugees. This seemed like propaganda to me, to show how nice the Syrians were to allow in refugees. Whether a tourist would be interested in visiting either area is highly doubtful.
Next I watched “Every Woman” which had an interesting segment on how harmful skin whiteners with hydroquinone are. It seems that hydroquinone can permanently destroy one’s melanin, which protects our skin from the sun’s UV rays. The next segment was an interview with the wife of an Al Jazeera journalist who is still imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay after being arrested on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in September 2001.
Next I watched Omar Rageh, the superstar reporter hired from the BBC, hosting a program called “Witness” which was about the oil wealth of Iraq, how it was being protected by the coalition but targeted by insurgents. It seemed like an oddly ideologically-slanted show to prove how the US was protecting the oil but allowing the rest of Iraq to go to hell. This is supposed to feed into the widely-held belief among many critics of US foreign policy that the US is in Iraq solely for its oil and nothing else.
The final program I watched was “Inside Story”, hosted by a former Sky News presenter, which focused on America’s attempts to get Syria and Iran to help it with the mess it has created in Iraq. The two guests were Mohamed Haikel, the famous Egyptian political analyst and writer, and Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
It was enlightening to listen to Haikel poke holes in the American rhetoric of saying they wanted Iran’s help on Iraq, while at the same time imposing pre-conditions and saying it will only lift sanctions against Iran if it cooperates. As Haikel rightly pointed out, it is extremely ironic that the US is now asking for help from the two countries that only a few years ago President Bush called the main components of the “Axis of Evil”. Of course, it is the dramatic win of the Democrats in both houses of the US Congress in last week’s midterm elections that has produced this U-turn in US foreign policy. But it was still amusing to watch a poker-faced Haas trying to defend the US position of tough talk, when, as Haikel pointed out, the US is in no position of adopting right now.
I tried watching the channel supposedly being broadcast live on its website, but when I tried the free trial option I got an error message and the hi-band option costs $6 a month to subscribe to.
The website has been redesigned on occasion of the launch of the channel, and it looks good though it suffers from a lack of content. No worry, I’m sure it will be beefed up soon enough. I did notice that CNN’s former Cuba correspondent, Lucia Newman, is now Al Jazeera’s Latin America correspondent.
The channel’s declared mission of providing news coverage from a Southern Hemisphere viewpoint was in full swing Wednesday night when their lead news story was about Joseph Kabila winning the elections in Congo. I personally found that news irrelevant and boring. There wasn’t a peep in the news about US generals talking about the possible redeployment of US troops in Iraq, a story that I’m sure many more viewers would have been interested in hearing.
Despite these initial drawbacks, all in all Al Jazeera International looks like it will be a success, a channel to turn to when you want a different slant on your news.