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By: Linda S. Heard

  It's been vilified as inflammatory, maligned as misleading, branded as an Al Qaeda mouthpiece and bombed twice by the Americans. Many of its reporters and cameramen have been incarcerated and one of its senior reporters has been accused of terrorist related crimes. 

  Just a few months ago, word had it that its owner was seeking a buyer due to U.S. pressure and a Qatari official was quoted in The New York Times as saying: "We really have a headache, not just from the United States but from advertisers and from other countries as well." He was no doubt referring to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt among a host of others.

  At the same time, it is the most popular Arabic language news network with regular audiences ranging from 30 to 50 million. I'm referring, of course, to the broadcasting phenomena Al Jazeera, which has taken the Arab world by storm since its inception nine years ago, and has contributed greatly to putting Qatar on the international map.

  However, since last February not only does the 'for sale' sign appear to have been dismantled, the network is nearing the launch of Al Jazeera International, a new English-language news and current affairs network on the lines of CNN.

  Naturally, right-wing, pro-Bush America is outraged with NewsMax reflecting its concerns in a July 18 story thus:

  "The pro-terrorist Al Jazeera International will debut early next year as a 24-hour English-language news network headquartered in the Middle East…"

  Managing Director of Al Jazeera International Nigel Parsons was far from amused at this less than 'fair and balanced' introduction and accused NewsMax of being "ill-informed, slanderous and wrong" in a letter to the editor.

  "Al Jazeera International will be the first English-language international television network broadcasting from the Middle East," wrote Parsons.

  "We have no domestic agenda and no political bias. Our coverage will be fearless, provocative, and the most informed on what's happening on the ground in the world's hot spots. We are fresh alternative built for viewers who want their news fast, accurate and unvarnished…"

  It's the 'unvarnished' promise that bothers the US government most as it tries to hide the truth concerning events on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq from the American public, sheltered from footage of lifeless US soldiers and Iraqi woman and children.

  The White House prefers its occupations portrayed in an antiseptic fashion, which US networks are so proficient at doing. Occupying soldiers handing out sweets to children is a staple of their diet, while flag-draped caskets returning home a definite no-no.

  The last thing Washington wants is Al Jazeera beaming its "unvarnished" reporting into millions of American homes, especially when support for Iraq's invasion is diminishing and military recruiters are returning from their youthful stomping grounds such as schools, colleges and malls, empty handed. 

  With Al Jazeera International poised to rock the boat, Riz Khan, a former mainstream CNN and BBC anchor, chose to explain his reasons for signing up with the contentious broadcaster.

  In an article titled: "Why I joined Al Jazeera" Khan expresses excitement at being part of Al Jazeera, which he rightly cites as being "one of the most recognized brands on earth" (In a recent global survey, Al Jazeera surpassed CNN as being one of the five most recognizable brand names up there with Microsoft)

  "Al Jazeera International provides the ideal vehicle to bridge gaps between communities in the East and West," writes Khan.

  "I'm fully aware of the negative image of the Al Jazeera brand in the U.S., especially at the government level," he says, "but I think part of that comes from a misunderstanding of the strong cultural position the Arabic-language channel has among the average people of the Middle East. It is extremely popular for being outspoken not only about the West but also about Arab governments.

  "Until now, U.S. administration-led efforts to promote a positive image of Americans to people in the Middle East appear to have failed miserably," he says, no doubt referring to the US government financed Al Hurra network and Radio Sawa, both unashamed American propaganda arms with mega budgets.

  Al Jazeera International already has an ally in the new Venezuela-backed Latin American network Telesur, promoted by the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and an alternative to US media outlets.

  It's been reported that Telesur seeking a "strategic alliance" with Al Jazeera to enhance its own Middle East coverage. Such an alliance is likely to alienate the US administration even further as the Chavez government is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and US foreign policy.

  When it comes to Al Jazeera the Bush administration's hypocrisy is glaring. After the network showed captured Marines during the invasion of Iraq, Pentagon officials, including Gen. John Abizaid, aggressively rounded on one of Al Jazeera's reporters during a press conference accusing the channel of breaching the Geneva Conventions.

  Yet, the United States had no compunction in setting aside those same conventions when it came to detainees incarcerated at Guantanamo and Bagram or when it publicly paraded the corpses of Saddam Hussein's sons and broadcast the former Iraqi dictator having his head checked for lice.

  Isn't it the height of hypocrisy, too, for a nation that lauds democracy as some kind of Holy Grail to attempt so strong-arm Qatar into abandoning a forthright, editorially independent broadcaster? Free speech and an unfettered media are integral elements of any democracy. Luckily, so far, Qatar has not succumbed.

  However, there are signs that Al Jazeera did tone down its reporting after the bombing of its offices in Kabul and Baghdad and the arrest of its senior reporter Syrian-born Tayseer Allouni, a resident of Spain.

  Allouni rocketed to fame after an interview he conducted with Osama bin Laden in October 2001, rejected by Al Jazeera as being non newsworthy but shown several months after the fact by CNN, which had a news-sharing agreement with the Qatari network.

  Al Jazeera's management was incensed. Allouni's numerous supporters believe that this interview is the reason for the reporter's prosecution.

  On paper, though, Allouni is accused of having sheltered members of Abu Dahdah's organization, said to be connected with 9-11, and of handing over cash to an Al Qaeda courier.

  Allouni's Spanish lawyer Jose Luis Galan believes the charges against his client are political. "No one can have any doubt that if my client had been a journalist with Fox News rather than Al Jazeera, he would not be on the stand today," he is quoted as saying.

  Author and journalist John R. Bradley reported in an article headed "Will Al Jazeera bend?" on the network's pulling of "two cartoons deemed inflammatory" from its website on the same day a U.S. official called to complain.

  Bradley cites a British minister, who after being interviewed on the channel "thought he detected a more balanced tone emerging."

  Moreover, it has been reported that Al Jazeera sacked the British journalist and Muslim convert Yvonne Ridley, who was imprisoned by the Taliban during a daring incursion into Afghanistan, due to her strident pro-Iraq, pro-Palestinian stance.

  When Ridley was in charge of Al Jazeera's English-language website, she published stories of U.S. soldiers tying-up women and children during house-to-house searches. And she was reportedly reprimanded for publishing pictures of a seven-year-old girl in plastic hand restraints after complaints from the U.S.

  Al Jazeera was later to accuse the Briton of being a threat to national security. In the event, she sued the network in a Qatari court and won her 'unfair dismissal' case.

  Despite her unfortunate experience with the broadcaster, Ridley said after the verdict: "I still have great affection for Al Jazeera. A lot of good people work there on both the English and Arab side…" Today, "Sister Yvonne" is a presenter for the London-based Islam channel and is writing a book on Osama bin Laden.

  Shaista Aziz, who worked with Ridley at Al Jazeera, and was fired five weeks after the latter, has written about the restrictions put upon Al Jazeera by the Pentagon.

  "An Al Jazeera journalist, based in the Baghdad office and who didn't want to be named, told me that journalists had been brief by Al Jazeera managers to 'follow the Reuters' news line', said Aziz.

  "We were told that we would no longer be required to be digging around for stories in Iraq and that we must ensure that we were never first on the scene of an explosion as this would lead to Al Jazeera staff being arrested and targeted by U.S. soldiers.

  Aziz says that "Al Jazeera staff were regularly arrested and interrogated by U.S. occupation soldiers when I was working for the news organization and as far as I know the harassment is still going on.

  As of June more than 20 Al Jazeera journalists had been arrested and incarcerated by the U.S. military in Iraq, while one, Tariq Ayoub, tragically lost his life when the network's Baghdad office was bombed in 2003, even though its coordinates had been handed over to the allies. The Americans deny the office had been deliberately targeted.

  Says Aziz: "The Muslim and Arab world needs a strong and independent Al Jazeera, a news organization that will inform its audience and treat them as intelligent people; a news organization that is in a position to challenge some of the one-dimensional Western news coverage of the Middle East and its people.

  "The world's biggest superpower and military machine is doing all it can to silence independent thinking journalists and attack press freedoms on every level. The suffocating impact of U.S. foreign policy on Al Jazeera and other media organizations around the world is a blow to the very democracy that the US claims to be championing," she says.

  In fact, the US authorities have not only been issuing warnings to Al Jazeera and banning it from reporting in some instances, they displayed total paranoia over one of the station's broadcasts.

  In December 2003, CIA analysts forced the cancellation of as many as 30 flights and raised the terror alert to orange because they imagined that Al Qaeda had sent covert instructions to its cells via al Jazeera's headlines.

  This year, NBC reported on that incident and found that the CIA's brainiest, believed they had de-coded such messages into dates and flight numbers for the targeting of the White House, the Space Needle in Seattle and a sparsely inhabited Virginia town.

  At the time, a grave Tom Ridge, then chief of Homeland Security, warned that "credible sources" had predicted such attacks on the nation. Those 'credible sources" were thankfully wrong and 18 months on Tom Ridge admitted to NBC that the intelligence was "bizarre, unique, unorthodox, and unprecedented". Now who can argue with that?

  Nevertheless, even if Al Jazeera has watered down its zeal when reporting on subjects the U.S. deems sensitive, it is still the most-watched network throughout the Arab world and still manages to offend an awful lot of individuals and nations…so it must be doing something right.

  But despite its amazing popularity and expansion plans, Al Jazeera is still reported to be a loss-making enterprise, requiring a financial injection of more than US$50 million annually as advertisers generally opt for less controversial media outlets. 

  It is no doubt hoped that the launch of Al Jazeera International will help to put the network in the black but unless it sacrifices its journalistic integrity for a quiet life and filthy lucre, no-one should hold their breath.


  Doha-Qatar, 8th September, 2005: Under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, Consort of His Highness the Emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera Children’s Channel goes on air tonight, Friday 9th of September 2005.

  In celebrating the official inauguration, a ceremony will be held at the Channel’s headquarters located in the Education City in Doha. A number of national and international officials and celebrities will be present. Twenty-Two Arab children are invited from around the Arab World to represent their countries at this special occasion.

  Her Highness Sheikha Mozah initiated the idea of this joint project between Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and Al Jazeera Satellite Group. The content and programmes provided by the channel has been carefully designed and developed for the Arab child. JCC chose education and entertainment to promote positive values, broadness of mind and respect. The project was accomplished in cooperation with the well-known French group “Lagardère Images International”.

  Al Jazeera Children’s Channel broadcasts up to six fresh hours of innovative children’s programmes everyday. The Channel produces over 40 per cent of the programmes internally, in the channel’s studios as well as with external production companies whom the Channel contracts in other countries (one of the highest ratio of own-produced content of any children’s channel worldwide). JCC, a free-to-air channel, broadcasts throughout the Arab World via Arabsat and Nilesat satellites, and throughout Europe via Hot Bird satellite.

  Through the concept of “Edutainment”, JCC opens up avenues for the Arab Children to learn about different environments and cultures. It also helps them develop positive self-esteem, respect their traditions and values, appreciate people around them and develop a passion for learning.

  In commemorating this announcement, His Excellency Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, Chairman of the Board of Al Jazeera Group, said: “In view of the existing state of television, where children are exposed to violent and inappropriate material on a daily basis, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah made a momentous decision to establish Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, a bright and dynamic alternative to the current trends in television broadcasting.”

  Mr. Mahmoud Bouneb, Executive General Manager of Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, believes that television is the most effective medium for disseminating edutainment. He states: “We have identified the need for a Children's Edutainment Channel in the Arab World. Al Jazeera Children’s Channel provides Arab youngsters and their families around the globe, with a reliable unbiased source of entertainment, as well as enhances their knowledge and skills.”

About Al Jazeera Children’s Channel:

  Al Jazeera Children’s Channel (JCC), is a private shareholding company (PSC) established as a joint venture in the state of Qatar, between Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and Al Jazeera Satellite Channel (JSC) to introduce edutainment to the Arab World.

  Al Jazeera Children’s Channel (JCC) was launched in Qatar on September 9, 2005. JCC has deployed state-of-the-art studios and facilities to ensure it offers high quality TV production. JCC will produce over 40 per cent of its grid. On weekdays, it is committed to broadcasting new programmes for 6 of the 18.5 hours and 7 of the 19.5 hours on weekends.

  JCC is a free to air station on Arabsat, Nilesat, and Hotbird, which means reaching all of the 22 Arab countries as well as Europe. Qatar-headquartered, JCC has five regional offices in Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Rabat and Paris.

  Arab Children around the world can find out more about Al Jazeera Children’s Channel (JCC), through its website (www.jcctv.net), receive information about their favourite programmes and enjoy a wide range of games.


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