Al-Jazeera Launching All-English Channel for United States

By JIM KRANE, Associated Press Writer

Al-Jazeera is nothing if not bold. It has fought repeatedly with Washington, which says its exclusive broadcasts of Osama bin Laden speeches show an anti-American, pro-terrorist bias. Its freewheeling broadcasts have decimated state-run TV stations across much of the Arab world, leading some countries to close its bureaus down. So what does such a network do next? Plan a massive expansion.

By March, the network will launch Al-Jazeera International, a satellite channel that will beam English-language news to the United States -- and much of the rest of the world -- from its base in tiny Qatar.

The ever-contentious Middle East will be its specialty. And the news, including coverage of Israel, will be served up from an Arab perspective, Al-Jazeera executives say.

With a touch of the evangelist, perhaps, the station's executives say their mission is nothing less than reversing the dominant flow of global information, which now originates on TV channels in the West. They will be looking especially at Fox News and CNN.

"We're the first news channel based in the Mideast to bring news back to the West," said Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al-Jazeera International. "We want to set a different news agenda."

The station's research shows some of the world's one billion English speakers, including Americans, thirst for news from a non-Western perspective.

Outside America, the station plans to compete with CNN International and BBC World, the two chief English-language satellite news channels, as well as at Fox News. The new station will be headquartered in Doha and operate broadcast newsrooms in London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

But breaking into the U.S. market, with its established channels, might be more difficult. The station's anti-American reputation may win some early "curiosity" viewers, Parsons said.

Overall, Al-Jazeera executives contend negative American opinions are based on "irrational and erroneous information from CNN, BBC and Fox News." For instance, Parsons said, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld lambasted the station for showing beheadings by Iraqi insurgents. Actually, Al-Jazeera has aired portions of insurgent videos but as of yet, never a beheading in progress, he said.

Another irritant is Al-Jazeera's often-gory coverage of Iraq from both perspectives. Before it was banned, the network embedded reporters with both Iraqi insurgents and with U.S. troops.

Nevertheless, Americans have shown curiosity. Al-Jazeera's English- language Web site gets most of its traffic from U.S. visitors, Parsons said.

In the end, Al-Jazeera might coax viewers from an elite segment of American TV watchers, perhaps those who tune into the BBC, some observers say.

But most Americans want to be comforted by the news, not challenged by it, said Jon Alterman, who heads the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

If Al-Jazeera is a tough sell in the United States, it has natural audiences elsewhere. The world counts 1.2 billion Muslims, most of whom don't speak Arabic. That means Al-Jazeera stands to find quick popularity in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Alterman believes Al-Jazeera will help unite the world's far-flung Muslim communities, giving them a common, alleged truthful news source.

That's not necessarily what the station is after. "We're not a Muslim channel," said Parsons, a Briton who, like many Al-Jazeera Interna- tional staff, does not speak Arabic.

Indeed, the station is even less popular with governments in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Tunisia, which currently ban it.

Those countries' rulers suggest it incites violence by giving airtime to opposition politicians and radical clerics.

At one time or another, Al-Jazeera has had bureaus closed in 18 countries and its signal blocked in 30. Its revenues still suffer under an advertising boycott, believed to originate from Saudi government pressure.

The station has had three bureaus destroyed by bombings, two of which were destroyed by the U.S. military.

Two staff in Iraq have been killed. Two others were locked in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and released without charge. A third is being tried in Spain on charges of working for the al-Qaida terrorist group.

Yet because it is based in Qatar, an energy-rich Persian Gulf country of less than a million, the station has little opportunity to upset its home government.

"They're in a unique position," said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "They can criticize everybody."

Arab viewers who previously had only staid state-run broadcasters to watch have apparently liked that, flocking to the station since its

1996 debut.

It now reaches more than 40 million viewers, and if it weren't for the advertising boycott, Al-Jazeera's network would bring in some $35 million in yearly ad revenue, enough to wean it from Qatar government money, said managing director Wadah Khanfar.

The station is expected to be privatized in a few years. But as long as it remains close to the Qatari royal family, the boycott poses few funding worries.

Yet despite its protests to the contrary, Al-Jazeera is already softening its aggressive coverage of Saudi Arabia and other countries, Alani believes. The reason? It must regain access to those countries to boost its English broadcasts, Alani said.

"If you're banned from half the Arab world, your ability to break news is limited, but some of that will be made up by USA viewers we win over from Fox and CNN on American cable systems", Alani said.

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Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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