Al-Jazeera airs channel for English speakers

DOHA, Qatar – Al-Jazeera’s taboo-smashing newscasts regularly vex politicians in Washington, but not nearly as much as they anger leaders in the Arab world, where the news channel has been banned from operating in 18 countries at one time or another.

Now, the network is launching its biggest gamble on its 10th anniversary – an English-language channel with an Arab perspective. Al-Jazeera International plans to hit the airwaves Nov. 15 and hopes to steal viewers from CNN and the BBC.

Feisty and sometimes graphic coverage of global carnage is an Al-Jazeera specialty, as is bracing commentary that has shaken up the Arab world and rattled the West.

“We have an edge over the other networks: We’re already based in the Middle East. And we have a different perspective,” director Wadah Khanfar told a news conference at the network’s Doha headquarters yesterday.

Al-Jazeera has been through a lot in 10 years, with three staffers killed in Iraq, another locked away without charge at the U.S. prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a correspondent who interviewed Osama bin Laden convicted on terror charges in Spain.

Those it has covered have also suffered. The network is credited with waking up Arab TV viewers with brash discussions of banned topics. It questioned autocrats across the region and brought a large dollop of diplomatic clout to Qatar, a tiny sheikdom on the Persian Gulf. A frustrated President Bush even talked of bombing the channel’s headquarters in 2004, according to a leaked British government memo.

“It made the airwaves uncontrollable,” Amjad Nasser wrote yesterday in the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

The fear Al-Jazeera inspires in the Arab world is best seen in Saudi Arabia, where the network has never been allowed to send a reporter – even those making personal pilgrimages to Mecca.

Worse, a Saudi boycott of the channel bars Al-Jazeera advertisers from doing business in the kingdom. The boycott has chased away almost all advertisers, leaving Al-Jazeera dependent on the deep pockets of Qatar’s royal family.

“We are totally blocked from Saudi Arabia,” Khanfar said. The station’s employees are also banned from Iraq, Tunisia and Algeria, staffers said.

The network declines to say virtually anything about its finances, but it doesn’t appear to be having money trouble. Al-Jazeera International has hired more than 500 staffers, poaching some of the world’s best-known journalists from networks including the British Broadcasting Corp., CNN, CNBC and ABC. It will broadcast in ultra-expensive high-definition TV with four chief broadcast centers rather than CNN’s two or BBC’s one.

Although its one-time anchor, Riz Khan, is among those who departed for Al-Jazeera International, CNN International said it welcomed the new competition.

“We’re not worried,” spokeswoman Susanna Flood said. “News channels are judged by what they do and not what they say they’ll do.”

Al-Jazeera says its goal is to reverse the information flow to the world’s 1 billion English speakers who now have no choice but to watch Western-oriented broadcasters. Al-Jazeera International also appears to have natural audiences among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, most of whom don’t speak Arabic.

Before taking on the big networks, however, it first needs to be seen, which requires coaxing hundreds of global cable TV operators to carry its signal. This has been tough in many countries, the station’s commercial director Lindsey Oliver said – not least the United States, where the Bush administration has accused Al-Jazeera of anti-American bias.

Some U.S. cable carriers are adopting a “show-me” policy, waiting to see what sort of opposition it generates before agreeing to carry it, said Michael Holtzman, a PR spokesman for the network.

“There’s no better way to demystify Al-Jazeera than by putting it on the air,” Holtzman said. “Most Americans don’t speak Arabic, so they haven’t had the opportunity to draw their own conclusions.”

On Nov. 15, the new 24-hour network will be available to at least 40 million households worldwide via cable in Western Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Malaysia and a few other places, Oliver said.