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A NEW ERA FOR GLOBAL NEWS AND COMMUNICATIONS

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ROME, Apr 18 2007 (IPS) - Al Jazeera\’s plan to win a section of the western market by launching an English-language channel last November set off a global battle for giant audiences by other international TV networks, writes Mario Lubetkin, director-general of the IPS news agency. In this analysis, Lubetkin writes that although the spokespeople of BBC of London and France 24 do not attribute their entrance into the universe of television to competition with Al Jazeera\’s English channel, what is certain is that both have announced or begun this month a pilot phase of satellite channels in Arabic. But without credibility, the new companies have no future, which was the case with the Arabic-language channel Al Hurra, promoted by the US government. And respect for the local and regional culture is more important than the last technological advance or the deep pockets of investors.

Though the spokespeople of BBC of London and the recently-founded France 24 do not attribute their entrance into the universe of television to competition with Al Jazeera’s English channel, what is certain is that both have announced or begun this month a pilot phase of satellite channels in Arabic.

”I admit that this isn’t the best moment to launch the BBC’s Arabic language channel,” said Daniel Jodd, BBC’s Chief of Strategy, noting that the war in Iraq generated powerful animosity in the Arab world to the United Kingdom, which will make it difficult for the network’s new channel to succeed. It is set to begin broadcasting in November.

Henri Pigeat, president of the Paris-based Centre for the Training of Journalists, states that the decision of France 24 to launch an Arabic channel is part of a plan to consolidate this private-public venture, which was created less than two years ago. Until now, France 24 has broadcast news around the clock in French and recently added a 24-hour channel in English.

The creation of France 24 was a response to French concern, both public and private, at the lack of a global television entity to present news and especially analysis with a French focus. This lack was felt particularly intensely in the period before the war in Iraq, when statements of President Jacques Chirac against the invasion had negligible traction in the international TV news networks, particularly the American ones.

With the exception of Italy’s radio and television service RAI, which broadcasts for two hours a day in Arabic, none of the main international channels, certainly those of the US and to a lesser extent the Japanese, Russian, German, or Spanish media, broadcast in Arabic, though they all do in English.

For Muhummad Mister, an academic at the University of Qatar, television projects directed at the Arab world must take into consideration the cultural changes that are occurring because of Al Jazeera and Al Arabya, among others, which, according to their spokespeople, reach over 40 million people by satellite. Without credibility, the new companies have no future, which was the case with the Arabic-language channel Al Hurra, promoted by the US government.

Respect for the local and regional culture is more important than the last technological advance or the deep pockets of investors, argues Abdul Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi, the Arabic newspaper published in London.

However, Al Jazeera, which is the only TV network of the South that has set out to penetrate the North with an English version, also faces major challenges. Over its ten years in existence, the Qatar-based company has created, in addition to its English and Arabic service, channels devoted to sports, childhood, the economy, and documentaries. And it has announced that it will launch at the end of this year an Arabic daily newspaper for the countries of the region and a news service that will work through cellular phones, thus adding another dimension to its media empire.

One characteristic of this network is that its reporters and staff come from many Arab countries, not just Qatar. Similarly, the main journalists of the English-language Al Jazeera, which broadcasts from Doha, London, Washington, and Kuala Lumpur, are British and American (including former newscasters from BBC, CNN, and ABC) as well as English-speaking Arabs. One of their main commentators, American journalist David Marash, has said that the channels that compete with Al Jazeera ”focus 80 percent of their coverage on the US and western Europe. Al Jazeera in English, in addition to covering these regions, extends its network of cameramen, journalists, and producers to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. In short, our channel has a preference for what is usually called the South of the world.”

Marash notes that 80 percent of Al Jazeera’s potential audience of 88 million viewers located outside of the US speak English as a second language, and to capture their attention the network offers high-quality news, which means ”the highest level of transparency, precision, and the best representation of reality.”

For Marash Al Jazeera’s new English channel will mean a significant jump in quality since, ”like it or not, English is the language of politics, economics, and philosophy in the contemporary world.”

The battle of international television is sure to intensify in the months and years to come, as new actors enter the stage and change the old parameters of the news balance between North and South. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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