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New 'Jewish Al Jazeera' satellite channel promises more than 'news for Jews'

Official with 'the world’s first Jewish English-language satellite news channel' says ‘there is no rivalry’ with Al Jazeera.

AMSTERDAM // With a fare of break-dancing rabbis, an emphasis on the Middle East and coverage of controversial issues such as immigration and bans on kosher and halal slaughter, a new Jewish satellite TV station, JN1, hopes to carve out a niche in a crowded satellite news market.

The channel, launched just more than a week ago and for now operating in "test-mode", has quickly acquired the nickname "Jewish Al Jazeera".

An upbeat Alexander Zanzer, the Brussels coordinator for the station. known as JN1, short for Jewish News One, said: "We hope to be as popular as Al Jazeera and CNN, well actually Fox News, they're even more popular." For now JN1 has offices in Tel Aviv, Kiev and Brussels and soon hopes to add others in places such as Washington and Moscow, reflecting its global ambitions.

On its Facebook page, the channel proudly advertises itself as the world's first Jewish English-language satellite news channel. It states the station's aim as "offering international audiences a wide range of Jewish opinion and perspectives on key political, cultural and social themes". Or, as an editor has said, not just "news for Jews".

Despite the mission statement, the word "Jewish" in its name raises the question of ties with Israel. But the channel was not going to be engaged in advocacy, said Mr Zanzer. "We are not an activist station, like some others are. We're neither left nor right, not pro-Israel or anti-Israel. It's the news that takes the lead."

The initiative is the brainchild of two Jewish Ukrainian businessmen who have been no strangers to controversy, Igor Komoloisky and Vadim Rabinovich. The latter was mentioned in a 2002 report in the German magazine Der Spiegel as having had connections to alleged illegal arms sales, which he has denied.

More pertinently for the possible course of JN1, they both withdrew from an umbrella organisation of Jewish European groups and founded their own European Jewish Union earlier this year, after other members were said to have baulked at their increased emphasis on politics and Israel.

Mr Zanzer denied that the owners would try to put their stamp on the day-to-day running of the station. "The owners will not get involved in the editorial side. They just want it to be good."

But it is extremely unlikely that the owners will remain at arm's length, said satellite media analyst Leon Barkho at Sweden's Jönköping University.

"No businessman would invest in satellite television, with an initial investment of some US$50 million (Dh183,600), just like that. Would they start that for charity? There must be something there they want to say or deliver to the world," he said.

Mr Barkho has done research into channels such as Al Jazeera and the BBC and said the launch of a specifically Jewish station came as no surprise. "I have always been aware that the Israelis, the Jews in general, feel that their backyard is not well protected when it comes to satellite broadcasting."

He cited an example from shortly after the launch of Al Jazeera in 1996, when Israel set up an Arabic-language satellite TV station, only to close it quickly when it realised that it did not have an audience.

But an independent international English-language channel, rather than an Arabic one aimed at the Middle East, made more sense, he said. "It is time to start a Jewish satellite channel. The landscape is buzzing with satellite channels." At the same time, the crowded field poses severe challenges to newcomers. The market was almost saturated, said Mr Barkho, and with highly professional broadcasters. Money to lure star reporters and presenters from rivals could make a difference, he said. But it did not guarantee success.

JN1 has so far been able to attract former CNN reporter, Jordana Miller, for its Israel bureau and Mr Zanzer said that talks were continuing with others but would not elaborate. The channel was still just getting up and running, he said.

It can for now be seen in parts of Europe but should be on air in the whole of the continent and North America within weeks. Talks were continuing with cable providers, said Mr Zanzer and he was confident that they would carry the station. He did not see JN1 as being a direct competitor to Al Jazeera or any of the other channels.

"There is no rivalry. There are plenty of people who watch a hundred channels. They can easily watch one more, especially if it has different broadcasts."

As an example of the kind of stories that JN1 might dish up, Mr Zanzer mentioned a feature on "break-dancing" Orthodox Jews from the Bratslav Hasidic movement in Israel and interviews with politicians, "who on other channels get less of a chance to air their opinions."

Al Jazeera is certainly not concerned about, or indeed even aware of, the new potential rival. Ossama Saeed, the head of international and media relations, refused comment with some weary words of dismissal: "We were the first on the scene 15 years ago and we have maintained our position as number one despite a lot of channels being launched since then. We'll continue what we're doing. We're not concerned about other things popping up."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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