Real must see TV: The case for Al Jazeera in Canada

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I first noticed Al Jazeera on a mission to the Palestinian territories in 2002. Every home I visited was tuned to Al Jazeera, all the time. Even the children watched it.

When I watched with the help of my Arabic speaking hosts, I realized that this was television with a difference. It told stories from the ground up. In addition to generals and politicians, we heard from and saw ordinary people and the conditions of their lives. And for my Palestinian hosts, it was the only place they could find out what was really happening in the Middle East.

As a teacher, the documentary Control Room gives me the opportunity to show my students just what real journalism that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted looks like. Like thousands of other North Americans, I found Al Jazeera English on the Web invaluable during the recent Israeli assault on Gaza. They were the only English language network with reporters in Gaza and, besides, it was the only TV news I could stand to watch.

So when I heard that Al Jazeera English was applying to be on cable in Canada, I couldn't wait to find out how I could help. I went to hear Tony Burman, my old boss at the CBC and now Managing Director of Al Jazeera English, speak in Toronto on February 17. Tony's no radical but he's always been an honest and courageous journalist. When CBC Newsworld decided to run a full day of programming about violence against women on the tenth anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, I remember that Tony stood up against the hysterical attacks by right-wing media without budging an inch.

The most interesting part of Tony's talk was not his assurance to the audience of mostly Canadian journalists and journalism students that Al Jazeera holds to journalistic ethics similar to the CBC and the BBC, or that it is widely watched in Israel or even that Al Jazeera is at least as controversial with Arab heads of state as it is with the U.S. government, but rather his explanation of the vision of Al Jazeera English and its unique role as an international broadcaster without a home base.

"The introduction of Al Jazeera English comes at a special time in the 21st Century," he said. "Power is shifting. In historical, even epic terms, the ground is moving beneath our feet."

Quoting Fareed Zakaria, he continued, "We are moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people." This is what Zakaria calls the "rising of the rest."

Al Jazeera English has more journalists covering Africa than any other international news channel, correspondents throughout Asia, more coverage of South America than any of their competitors, more than 150 staff in Washington, D.C. and they hope to open a bureau in Canada this fall. And of course AJE (as they call themselves) has "pride of place" all over the world for its Middle East coverage.

"The goal is far more revolutionary." says Burman. "We simply want people to understand the full story, not a narrow one. Every angle. Every side. Regardless of the consequences." According to Burman, they are trying to let the world report on itself.

Judith Marshall, an international solidarity activist from the United Steelworkers, told me that she watched AJE the last time she was in Africa and was stunned at the difference of watching television news without a Northern bias.

The goals of AJE are:

*To provide independent and impartial news for a global audience

*To bring the perspective of the South to the forefront of public policy debates

*To give voice to the voiceless

*And to tell truth to power, holding them accountable regardless of the consequences

Al Jazeera English is the kind of global television news we need in this country and it's going to be a fight. It should be a simple question of freedom of the press but the last time the CRTC imposed such onerous conditions on the potential broadcaster of Al Jazeera Arabic that no cable station would run it, in 2003. The Canadian Jewish Congress has already announced its opposition despite the high praise for Al Jazeera English almost everywhere, including Israel.

Make sure that Canadians are not denied truly global television news. Go to www.iwantaljazeera.ca and write your cable operator to ask for AJE. Then stay tuned for the CRTC hearings and make your voice heard then as well.

We need Al Jazeera English in Canada and together we can make it happen.

 


Judy Rebick is the former publisher of rabble.ca and the author of the forthcoming book Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political.

 

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