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AL JAZEERA EXPANDS

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ROME, Mar 3 2006 (IPS) - With Al Jazeera poised to launch its international service for broadcast outside of the Arab region, the time seems right to examine the reasons for its remarkable expansion, its considerable influence, and the innovations that make it stand out in the world of the media, writes Mario Lubetkin, Director General of IPS news agency. In this article, Lubetkin writes that Al Jazeera is different from all of its predecessors in the Arab world. While its reporters trained at the BBC, it was Al Jazeera that inspired Dubai\’s Al Arabiya and the Arab Emirates\’ Abu Dhabi Television. Whether or not one agrees with the new network\’s approach, it must be acknowledged that its style of reporting has unleased a cultural revolution in the region. One important development is the recent signing of an agreement between Al Jazeera and Telesur, the Latin American TV network promoted by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. This might signal an incipient tendency towards the interlinking of previously unconnected regional networks thus far dependent on US and European material.

With the network poised to launch Al Jazeera International for broadcast outside of the Arab region, this seems a good time to take up this analysis.

Al Jazeera has four stations: one for news, which is the best known, and the others for sports, documentaries, and children’s programming. Its audience, according to company spokesmen, exceeds 35 million viewers. Al Jazeera International will be the fifth channel and should begin broadcasting this spring in the northern hemisphere in English, 24 hours a day.

Al Jazeera is different from all of its predecessors in the Arab world. While its reporters trained at the BBC, it was Al Jazeera that inspired Dubai’s Al Arabiya and the Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi Television. Whether or not one agrees with the new network’s approach, it must be acknowledged that its style of reporting has unleased a cultural revolution in the region.

But there are many who do not agree. In February, I attended a three-day seminar in Doha, Qatar, with a large group of journalists from around the world. The participants fell into two camps: the non-Arabs, especially Americans and British, spoke with approval of the company, while a minority of the Arabs argued that it is not a genuine Arab creation but an ”invention of the West.”

The latter argued that the network is using a technology that was not used in this region before, just as the format of a channel is foreign to the regional television tradition, i.e., an import.

Al Jazeera was founded ten years ago and came to prominence during the war in Afghanistan where, in certain cities, it was the only television channel present. During the destruction of Falluja by Anglo-American forces, it was the only service transmitting from the city. These facts, together with the bombing of Al Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad and the death of a number of its reporters in Iraq, are cited by the company’s defenders as evidence that it is not a western invention. Moreover, they add, if there is ”resistance” by the West, it is because Al Jazeera is broadcasting news that contradicts western interests and values.

If we set aside for the moment the question of ”authenticity”, the above facts demonstrate that Al Jazeera invests and risks as much as if not more than other television stations to get scoops and cover locations where the news is happening. This explains its remarkable expansion and influence.

In the seminar, Al Jazeera representatives spoke about their mission and vision, in particular their code of ethics. This triggered an intense discussion as certain Arab journalists asserted that Al Jazeera could not be considered completely independent because it neglects almost completely two important issues: corruption in the Arab world, and domestic news from Qatar.

The controversy over the originality and identity of Al Jazeera recalls the debate on the exceptional expansion of Japan after the Second World War. Its adoption of the western science-and-technology system aroused fierce domestic criticism that Japan, though still conserving many of its traditions, was westernising and on the way to losing its identity. As time passed and the long-term effects of this change became evident, the description of the model as ”western technique and Japanese culture” –with the former at the service of the latter– came to be accepted. The creators of Al Jazeera may have had something similar in mind.

With respect to Al Jazeera International, very little is known apart from the fact that, in contrast to the Arab channel, it has signed contracts with many western journalists, including some outstanding CNN figures.

One important development is the recent signing of an agreement between Al Jazeera and Telesur, the Latin American TV network promoted by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. This might signal an incipient tendency towards the interlinking of previously unconnected regional networks, which thus far have been dependent on the major US and a few European networks and the US movie industry.

Leaving aside the violent reactions of certain US congressmen, this step represents a new development in the field of communications in the southern hemisphere and deserves to be followed since it is tangible evidence that in regions that are absolutely isolated from an information perspective –Africa, Asia, Latin America– there are signs of new developments.

If these signs translate into professional advances, and if they satisfy the needs of their respective audiences, it is part of the array of challenges that face networks like Al Jazeera. This tendency should consolidate itself if in the near future new networks increase their profile in their respective regions and like Al Jazeera, also obtain a global presence.

In that case if would be natural for these networks to develop tight relations for cooperation and exchange, deepening the diversity of information –geographical and cultural– which fits the current pluralist global reality better than the current information system dominated by a handful of gigantic western groups. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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