TORONTO // Al Jazeera has succeeded in its second attempt in five years to have its signal available for broadcast in Canada. The national broadcast regulator has granted unconditional approval to the Doha-based network's English-language channel for cable and satellite distribution. In its decision, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) wrote that Al Jazeera English "will expand the diversity of editorial points of view within the Canadian broadcasting system".
The regulator also acknowledged the channel's popularity. More than 2,600 parties wrote to the CRTC to back its application, while only 40 opposed it. Ethnic Channels Group, a distributor of foreign channels such as Abu Dhabi TV, facilitated the approval by sponsoring Al Jazeera English's application in February. Slava Levin, the company's president and chief executive officer, said the channel is a natural addition to Canada because BBC World, CNN and Russia Today are already available to viewers.
"We scrutinised the channel before we decided to act as a sponsor," he said. "It's a very good channel." Mr Levin's care is understandable, given the outcome of Al Jazeera's first move to broadcast in Canada in 2004. More than 500 individuals or groups opposed the addition of its Arabic-language channel to the airwaves, citing what they called its hateful material. That led the CRTC to impose strict conditions on its distribution by cable and satellite companies. But none was willing to carry the Arabic channel because of the compulsion to retain records of all programming, block offensive comments and censor programmes to ensure no such comments are aired.
Al Jazeera English's point man in Canada was its managing director, Tony Burman, formerly the top journalist at the publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Regarded for his integrity, he consistently explained the channel's mission of a global news service to the public through his appearances in the media and in public forums. Mr Burman launched a sustained lobbying effort through such non-governmental organisations as Canadians for Al Jazeera while reaching out to Jewish groups that had pushed hard against the network last time.
Mr Burman said Al Jazeera English's efforts to enter the Canadian market were part of a global strategy. The company recently gained nationwide distribution in Australia and is expanding in India and the United States. "We're investing time and effort to expand in a multitude of countries," he said. "North America is a market of 370 million people, the largest English-speaking market in the world, and as we expand into the United States, it's important for us to get nationwide distribution in Canada.
"There's a lot of crossover with Canada and the US. This gives us yet another opportunity to prove to the TV industry in North America that this is an award-winning channel that surely deserves wider distribution." Al Jazeera English also benefited from the retrenchment of budget-cutting Canadian media organisations from covering the world. Individual journalists, journalism groups and media democracy activists have all praised Al Jazeera English's coverage.
David Halton, a retired foreign correspondent who spent 40 years with the CBC, said he did not believe any Canadian media outlet had a correspondent in an Arab capital, and therefore the channel would fill a void in getting voices from those centres and throughout the developing world. "Essentially, they do have a more elaborate worldview than any Canadian broadcaster currently does," he said. Anita Krajnc, a member of the steering committee for OpenMedia.ca, a media democracy group, said Canada's media landscape would be greatly improved by Al Jazeera English.
"It covers wars behind civilian lines. It doesn't embed with invading forces," she said. "It offers a unique perspective that is really important for Canadian audiences and the Canadian government." To enhance its journalistic presence here, Al Jazeera has pledged to open a Canadian bureau in the near future. In 2004, Canadian Jewish groups led the opposition in their attempts to prevent the Arabic-language channel from being carried on Canadian airwaves. This time, they neither embraced nor opposed Al Jazeera English. Bernie Farber, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said that a consultative committee composed of representatives of the Canadian Jewish Congress, B'nai Brith Canada and Al Jazeera English had been formed, which was hoping to meet a few times a year but also as necessary.
Mr Burman, however, said that the information on the committee was not accurate. "There is no committee. That's their characterisation. I've agreed to meet with them six months after we're on air, and again 12 months after we're on air, to discuss any concerns about our programming. I've committed myself to two conversations, and it's not only Jewish groups: I plan to speak with a multitude of groups in Canada, including Arab groups."
For now, Canadian Jewish groups remain wary of the Al Jazeera "brand". "They fear that the parent company, Al Jazeera Arabic, might bleed into Al Jazeera English," Mr Farber said. "While it hasn't happened yet, it still gnaws at us. We will be watching very carefully what develops." So are people who would like to watch the channel. Although Ethnic Channels Group served as Al Jazeera English's sponsor, Mr Levin said it was up to the cable and satellite companies to get the channel operational. He said there was a demand for the service based on the submissions to the CRTC.
For their part, Canadian companies are interested in the channel. "We'd negotiate, and if the deal works for us, then we'd look at adding it to our services for sure," said Mark Langton, a spokesman for Bell Canada, the country's largest telecommunications company. He said the channel would be logically introduced alongside other news services included among its more than 500 channels. Rogers Communications, Bell's largest competitor, said it was assessing the channel.
The actual test of consumer demand for Al Jazeera English in Canada will occur in January and February. By then, the channel is expected to be available to consumers for home viewing. "There are lots of Canadians impatient to see Al Jazeera and we'd like to get it out there as soon as possible," Mr Burman said. * With additional reporting by David Lepeska in Doha email@example.com