Al Jazeera English negotiating with Canadian carriers

The CTRC has approved the Qatar-based broadcaster's application for Canadian distribution, and a Canadian bureau will be opened at the launch.

Three years after its November 2006 launch, Al Jazeera English has received approval from the CRTC for cable and satellite distribution in Canada. The 24-hour international news and current affairs channel is a division of the Qatar-based Arabic-language satellite service, and is broadcast in 100 countries to an estimated 180 million households. AJE claims to have nearly 70 bureaus worldwide.

Speaking from his office in Qatar, Tony Burman, managing editor of AJE and former editor-in-chief of CBC News, said AJE is negotiating with a number of Canadian cable and satellite companies for carriage. A Canadian bureau will be opened to coincide with the channel’s launch in Canada.

Citing a target of January or February 2010, he said, ‘We hope [Canadian carriers] will be as impatient to get Al Jazeera English into Canadian homes as we believe Canadians are impatient to see it.’

In issuing the approval, the federal broadcast regulator said the submissions were overwhelmingly positive, with over 2,600 parties filing comments in support and approximately 40 in opposition. The provenance of AJE’s parent company and its maverick reputation made some groups wary of potential bias against Israel.

Seven groups, including the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith Canada, offered general comments to the CRTC, neither advocating in favour or against the service. The CJC called on the CRTC to monitor AJE closely and to ensure it remains independent of its Arabic-language counterpart and the Qatari government.

The CRTC decision states that, ‘while some parties raised concerns about the possible broadcast of abusive comment on the service, these allegations were not substantiated by evidence such as transcripts or tapes.’ In concluding its notice of approval, the commission commended AJE for agreeing to consult with Canadian Jewish organizations in the year following its launch.

However, one commissioner, Marc Patrone, issued a dissenting opinion. Patrone noted the CRTC’s 2004 decision regarding carriage of the Al Jazeera Arabic service in Canada and the imposition of monitoring conditions so onerous that no BDU [broadcast distribution undertaking] has taken up the service. He suggested the AJE application’s plea not to be ‘tarred with the same brush’ as AJA is an admission of underlying bias and undermines the plausibility of a ‘firewall’ between the two services.

Wrote Patrone: ‘With this decision, we’re saying in effect that the English-language service can be trusted while the Arabic-language one can only be broadcast subject to 24/7 surveillance by the distributor in order to ensure it remains free of abusive comment.’

Responding to Patrone’s view, Burman said, ‘The logical extension of his dissent would be that a lot of Canadians would be denied something they think is of real value at a time when the world needs more diversity and more choice.’ In previous statements, Burman has pointed to the example of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and its various but unaligned publications such as The Times of London and The New York Post.

From Playback Daily