A man lies on the floor, yelling incomprehensibly. Cut to: a child lying on a hospital bed. The camera zooms in to reveal a smashed head, blood congealing on the wound, a face beyond recognition. The footage is gruesome and hard to take, but compelling. Welcome to Al-Jazeera English (AJE).
Critics decry the gory war images AJE broadcasts throughout the Middle East. Others accuse the broadcaster of being anti-Semitic and anti-American. Controversy follows where it airs. But it may be just what Canadian news junkies want—if they ever get the chance to see it.
Al-Jazeera Arabic (AJA) saddled itself with a reputation as a sounding board for terrorists by broadcasting the first videos of Osama bin Laden after September 11, 2001. But today it airs in over 100 countries and streams online for free. AJE, which launched in 2006, is the first English-speaking news channel to broadcast out of the Middle East. And several Canadians are prominently involved, including managing director Tony Burman, a former CBC editor-in-chief, and Avi Lewis, formerly of CBC Newsworld, now co-host of AJE’s Fault Lines, a U.S.-focused current affairs program.
Largely funded by the Amir of Qatar, who has no qualms about spending billions on it, the network operates 69 bureaus around the world—many of them outside the West. “No other news organization spends this much time, effort, energy and money to cover so many parts of the world,” says Adel Iskandar, author of Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. “It can cover things more in-depth than the Canadian news agencies can even begin to dream of.”
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approved AJA in 2004, but insisted that carriers screen all content before airing it. No carriers picked the network up. In February 2009, AJE applied. It promised to open a Canadian bureau, create jobs and give the country global exposure. When the CRTC asked Canadians to comment on the application, it received 2,600 responses—the majority of them in favour of the network. In November 2009, the CRTC approved AJE and stated that the network would expand editorial viewpoints.
Anita Krajnc of openmedia.ca, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for more democratic media, says that AJE will bring a perspective on war that Canadians need to hear. “It provides a much-needed economic-class perspective on world issues, including issues on war and peace,” she says. “It’s what journalism should be. I think it provides a more objective and diverse civilian grassroots perspective.”
AJE’s coverage of war from behind civilian lines sets it apart from Canadian broadcasters, according to Krajnc. It also provides more extensive coverage of events that are largely ignored by mainstream Canadian media. Examples include reporting on the Nigerian Civil War and a piece on racism in Cuba by reporter Patricia Grogg. The network’s coverage of the 2008 attacks in Gaza inspired Walied Khogali and others to come together to form canadiansforaljazeera.ca, a website that urged AJE to explore the option of broadcasting in Canada. He and others were frustrated by the coverage of the region from domestic broadcasters and began turning to AJE’s website for their news. Hits from Canada during the crisis skyrocketed, which he says showed that people wanted to hear what AJE was saying.
Others aren’t so happy with the CRTC’s decision. Krajnc admits the network’s war reporting rankles some critics. This is especially true when it focuses on civilian casualties, resulting in news and images that can be jarring. The coverage of the crises in Gaza, for example, prominently featured burning cities and bloodied victims not typically seen on CBC and other Canadian broadcasters. Meanwhile, Facebook groups such as “Boycott Al-Jazeera” argue that the network is a radical propaganda tool. Skeptical viewers also complain that AJE’s coverage is too brash and sensationalistic.
While the CRTC cited the substantial support that Canadians showed for AJE, it also noted that groups such as the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) had concerns about anti-Semitic comments and holocaust denials that had run on AJA in the past. And the CJC did not want the AJE material to air in Canada. According to Jordan Kerbel, national director of public affairs for the CJC, the group was mainly concerned about content sharing between AJA and AJE, and didn’t want any hate speech seeping through the cracks. The CRTC decided there was nothing to show that AJE would violate the regulations.
But some remained unconvinced—including the head of the commission. In the CRTC decision, Commissioner Marc Patrone included a 2,200-word “dissenting opinion” attachment, explaining why he continues to have reservations about AJE’s presence in Canada. Amongst his concerns are doubts about its journalism practices, including the feasibility of keeping AJA’s “abusive” content separate from AJE.
Patrone notes one AJE story in particular as evidence of unbalanced reporting. The story, which was broadcast by CBC, shows an AJE journalist saying that UN workers had “obviously been targeted” by Israelis. After the story aired, the CBC Ombudsman launched an investigation and found that the story did not meet the public broadcaster’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.
Mike Fegelman is executive director of HonestReporting Canada, which also expressed its unease about AJE to the CRTC and now says his group will remain vigilant in monitoring the network’s content. “We still have concerns about Al-Jazeera English’s editorial independence from its Arabic counterpart,” Fegelman wrote in a statement to the Ryerson Review of Journalism. He added that the group has “apprehensions that reporting about Israel and the Middle East might be unfair and may potentially contain inaccurate and unbalanced content.”
Despite continued criticism, AJE supporters remain optimistic about the broadcaster’s future in Canada. The next stage is for cable carriers to actually pick up the network. And since the carriers face no requirement to screen material in advance, Iskandar hopes many will choose to offer it to Canadians. “We’re the ones who stand to benefit or to lose,” he says. “We need to diversify our content. Not limit it.”