Avi Lewis: Canada needs Al Jazeera

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Al Jazeera broadcaster Avi Lewis talks about how the Middle Eastern network's English channel could change the face of journalism in the Western world, if only it gets CRTC approval.

Al Jazeera English is in the process of seeking Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approval to be carried on Canadian cable TV. It may be a difficult process for the broadcaster that was protested -- and eventually strongly restricted -- when it applied to the regulator in 2004 to broadcast its Arabic channel. Avi Lewis, a former CBC broadcaster who has been working for Al Jazeera English for the past year, describes his experiences with the network and tells rabble.ca why it is crucial that North America let Al Jazeera in.

rabble.ca: If you could give me some background on what you're doing with Al Jazeera English.

Avi Lewis: Just a few weeks after my last CBC show was cancelled, I was approached by Al Jazeera English to host a new election-year show they were launching. The half-hour weekly show was ultimately called Inside USA - I hosted 32 episodes last year - looking at issues that were off the election radar in the United States. In other words, our mandate was to tell the stories in America that ought to have been on the front burner in an election year, but were left outside the very narrow box of traditional election coverage. Al Jazeera felt there was a strong need to give its international audience more than just the horse race and the typical campaign coverage, and to do longer format pieces and a more substantive kind of TV journalism, which is quite out of fashion on most networks these days, but for Al Jazeera is a big priority. When the show's concept was explained to me, my initial response was: that's the kind of journalism I've always tried to do. That’s what I live for.

Are you still working for them now that the election's over?

AL: Yes. From about halfway through that first year, they liked what we were doing and committed to re-launching the show. We’re tweaking the format and focus now, coming up with a new title, and will be back on the air this spring.

In your broadcast experience are there any journalistic differences at Al Jazeera, like are they more or less open to story ideas, or are there differences in staffing levels and resources?

AL: I've been working in private and public broadcasting for almost 20 years and the first thing that must be said about Al Jazeera is that it has a unique philosophy, one that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. Tony Burman [managing director] has been articulating it very clearly in his case to the Canadian people for why we need Al Jazeera here. Put simply, it is an unabashedly ambitious project to reverse the information flows on the planet and let people of the Global South give their version of events to people in the richest countries; to give a voice to the voiceless, and to speak truth to power.

Those goals – our corporate mission statement, if you will – speak to the original and critical role of journalism in functioning democracies. And that’s especially true in this era, as we can see so starkly these days, when the political classes of most countries have been singing from the same song book when it comes to the uniform policies and ideology that have been locked-in in the last decades, leading up to this staggering global collapse.

There’s a great need for someone to actually provide a check and balance on power, holding it accountable from the point of view of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. Multinational media corporations, with their huge resources and influence, could be very effective as a countervailing force. Of course in most countries they play the opposite role. So Al Jazeera’s vision is, for me, a very inspiring and exciting one, and we need that spirit desperately in Canada these days.

Do you think that if Al Jazeera is allowed to come into Canada and get some footing in North America, do you think that would affect the other Western news broadcasts?

AL: I really do. I think Al Jazeera being on cable in Canada will be very helpful to other broadcasters, because it would immediately raise the bar on international news coverage, and encourage other media outlets to start covering the world again in a serious way.

For years now, in the course of my own work and travels in Canada, I’ve witnessed a growing frustration with the myopic character of Canadian news. Bureaus have been closing, international newscasts and newspaper pages devoted to world events have been shrinking -- the commitment has been dwindling. Now, I’m one of those people who believe that the Canadian audience is extremely globally minded. It's one of the aspects of our national culture and character that many of us are internationalists at heart. And in this globalized age, people are craving news from all corners of the globe.

Furthermore, as the crisis we're in is utterly global, it’s vital that we get a clear sense from the ground in other parts of the world of what's going on and how events are transforming people's lives.

And here in Canada, we’re not getting enough of that kind of coverage - from broadcasters either private or public. And we’re definitely not getting it from the inward-looking world of U.S. television. If Al Jazeera, with its 69 bureaus and truly global newsgathering machine, sets up shop in this country, other networks will have to respond by upping the ante in their own international coverage, and that would be tremendously healthy for Canadian journalism and Canadian democracy.

Within the journalism community, other reporters that you know of, what's the feeling about Al Jazeera? Is there any hesitation from other journalists to join in or accept it as a legitimate broadcaster?

AL: On the contrary. There is great interest in Al Jazeera among journalists, and except for the most ideological folks in our profession (I’ll let you guess who I’m referring to) just about everyone I know would love to be working for a global news network that is actually growing and going from strength to strength, rather than working amidst the endless cutbacks and shrinkage that other news organizations have been experiencing for years.

Journalists as a class tend to be fairly lazy -- I don't think that's a secret, I've worked in media long enough to know that’s not actually a revelation. But we also tend to be news junkies, and the launch of a new global news network – Al Jazeera English launched just over two years ago – is not something that most journalists would have missed. I think a lot of working journalists in Canada have checked in on Al Jazeera online, and my impression is that they’re really impressed.

The actual quality of the journalism -- the double sourcing of all facts, the careful use of language, the commitment to showing all sides and all perspectives on all stories -- it's all there and you see that as soon as you watch it for five minutes, it's as clear as day. But even if it’s not your cup of tea, you should be able to watch it and decide for yourself -- that’s an opportunity Canadians don’t have right now.

Do you think that the stigma that Al Jazeera carries in English and the English world is playing into why we don't have it already in Canada?

AL: I think it is, and it’s worth addressing directly. Before 2001, Al Jazeera (Arabic) was seen by western governments as a progressive force in the Middle East, and an important bridge, bringing coverage deeply rooted in the region to the rest of the world, and at the same time bringing the tradition of an independent, critical press to many countries that didn’t have one. And then came 9/11, and the invasion of Afghanistan, and Al Jazeera was on the ground there, showing the reality of war from a civilian perspective when no one else was. And that’s when the Bush administration started treating Al Jazeera like an enemy combatant in the so-called War on Terror.

That propaganda version of Al Jazeera was taken up by various interest groups and other broadcasters –- from Fox News on out –- and we are now stuck with a negative connotation of Al Jazeera for too many North Americans, one that I think is a real throwback to that era, but has become self-reinforcing because it was used to keep the network off the air on this continent. In more than 100 other countries around the world, Al Jazeera occupies a proper place in the media landscape – as one of many news sources that people can choose to watch if they like.

So when people who have only absorbed the Bush administration view of Al Jazeera actually watch us for the first time, they expect to see “all beheadings all the time,” or some other caricatured, scary stereotype from the fevered imagination of that era. Invariably, those people are disappointed to discover that Al Jazeera English is a very serious, grown-up, truly global, high-quality news network. Of course, I believe that people coming to the network with an open mind are likely to be delighted, engaged, and informed.

You said you wanted to come back to Livestation? So how can people watch Al Jazeera English and decide for themselves?

AL: Al Jazeera English, or AJE, has set up a website called IwantAJE.ca so Canadians can see what they’ve been missing. There you can download a free player called Livestation that lets you watch AJE in virtually broadcast quality on your computer. It’s a temporary solution, but a good one for now. Let's remember that the network is available in more than 100 countries and we just happen – for specific and I believe temporary political reasons – to live in one of the two biggest countries where you can’t see it on TV.

What's the other one?

AL: The United States. I think we're two of the most important media markets in the world and we have been deprived so far. I mean, Al Jazeera is widely watched in Israel, for heaven’s sake, and Israeli officials are interviewed on the channel on an almost daily basis. Is there something about North Americans that needs protecting?

Is there anything that you wanted to add?

AL: I think it's worth saying that this an extremely important moment in Canadian media where we have the potential arrival of a new player that will really, I think, open the floodgates for international news. That’s incredibly important right now - more so than at any other point in history. I do expect that there will be a public debate because of, in my view, the entirely illegitimate bad press that Al Jazeera has received from folks with a very clear political and ideological reason for tarnishing Al Jazeera's image.

So we open-minded Canadians need to speak up. People can go to IWantAJE.ca, learn more, and watch the channel. All you need to do is challenge your assumptions for the length of a newscast and you'll have a very clear sense of who we are and what we do. And if we can get people doing that I think Canadians will be extraordinarily well-served and I do think that there will be a positive ripple effect in other media.

And we’ve seen already that the same people who spoke out against Al Jazeera Arabic have made it clear that they're going to be campaigning against Al Jazeera English. I think rabble readers and others who are interested in getting this important source of global news on television sets for our fellow Canadians really need to engage with this. There are a number of great Canadian journalists who have come to work at Al Jazeera and we're doing it because we think that this network has an intense public service value to people all over the world.

Canadians need to be part of this -– and I think we need to approach this as a campaign. Finally, I think once Canada can watch Al Jazeera, there will be a tremendous opportunity for Al Jazeera to finally air in the States and that will broaden the horizons of people in a very important country with one of the most claustrophobic media cultures on earth. I think that would be a great gift for us to give our friends south of the border.




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