x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Al Jazeera seeks Canadian outlet

The national regulator is deciding whether the English-language service can be distributed after a failed attempt by its Arabic counterpart five years ago.

Nour Odeh, a correspondent for the Al Jazeera English-language news channel, which hopes to be broadcast in Canada.
Nour Odeh, a correspondent for the Al Jazeera English-language news channel, which hopes to be broadcast in Canada.

TORONTO // Al Jazeera has launched a bid to broadcast in Canada after a failed attempt by the Doha-based network's Arabic service five years ago. The national broadcast regulator is now deciding whether its English-language counterpart can be distributed by cable and satellite companies. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) recently finished considering the application submitted by Toronto-based Ethnic Channels Group Ltd, a distributor of foreign channels, including Abu Dhabi TV, and the domestic sponsor of Al Jazeera English. In 2004 the CRTC allowed satellite companies distribution rights to Al Jazeera if they followed strict conditions. The companies would have to retain records of all programming, not broadcast abusive comments as part of that programming and either alter or cut programming to ensure no abusive comment is aired. No company is willing to carry it as a result of the conditions. The first application by the Arabic-language channel was opposed by about 500 individuals or groups. Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, accused the Al Jazeera Arabic channel of propagating "clear outright anti-Semitic Holocaust denial". "Canada has CRTC regulations that targets broadcasts that would promote hate," Mr Farber said. However, the English-language channel has reason for optimism. Chief among them is Tony Burman, the Canadian who serves as its managing director. As the former top editor at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, he has an understanding of the country and enjoys access to its business, media and political elites. Mr Burman delivered speeches to a variety of audiences in May and June while launching a grassroots lobbying effort that incorporated the website, IWantAJE.ca. He stressed that his channel is separate from its Arabic counterpart. They are part of the same company, Mr Burman said, and share resources and a brand name, but the former serves a global audience and the latter is aimed at an Arabic audience primarily in the Middle East. Mr Burman told Ontario public television that the channel's editorial leadership "is a very western group". To counteract the accusations of an anti-Jewish slant, he said there are more Israeli government officials interviewed on Al Jazeera English than any other network outside that country. According to Mr Burman, Israelis respect the opportunity to communicate directly with the Arab world. "So it mystifies me, totally mystifies me, why there wouldn't be a comparable openness in some parts of Canada," he told Ontario public television. His view is shared by some politicians, student groups, activists and media consumers, all of whom wrote letters of support of Al Jazeera English. Two campaigners for the channel said more than 1,000 parties responded, the majority of them positively. They praised the channel's comprehensive international coverage with its 69 foreign bureaus, combined with its Arabic parent, which Mr Burman said was more than either the BBC or CNN. What appealed to supporters is Al Jazeera English's mandate of allowing information to flow from the developing world instead of having an agenda dictated by the West. Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, and Senator Hugh Segal wrote that Al Jazeera English's reporting reflected Canadian values of multiculturalism and freedom of expression. David Halton, who spent 40 years as a national and foreign correspondent with CBC before his retirement, indicated the need for people to have the opportunity to watch the channel is reinforced by the cutbacks by the Canadian media to their foreign bureaus. "Absolutely, Canadians should have access to this channel," said Julie Payne of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. "We don't want to be caught surprised as we were last time [by the CRTC's ruling]." To reduce resistance to the channel, Mr Burman has made incentive-laden promises to members of parliament and Jewish-Canadian groups. Mr Layton wrote that Al Jazeera English is committed to opening a Canadian bureau, which would give the world a new perspective on this country. B'nai Brith, a Jewish advocacy and service organisation, and the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) said Mr Burman agreed to form a consultative committee with them to allay their concerns about the parent network and grant them input into the content of Al Jazeera broadcasts in this country. Neither group is opposed to the current application, although the CJC noted its support was conditioned on its participation in a committee to review the channel's performance. "The albatross hanging around Al Jazeera English's neck is its brand-name," Mr Farber said. "It's not anything else." The CRTC has not set a deadline for its decision, but it could take several weeks. Mr Burman is hopeful to get the regulator's seal of approval. If that happens, he said, he expects cable and satellite companies to quickly include Al Jazeera English as part of their services. Then Canadians will be able to be part of the channel's more than 140 million viewers in more than 100 countries. blambert@thenational.ae