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Al Jazeera coming to Canadian TV Add to ...

One of the longest running and most contentious debates in Canadian broadcasting is coming to an end with the expected approval by federal regulators to allow Al Jazeera's English television network to be carried here.

Sources close to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission indicate that Al Jazeera English, the international spinoff of the Qatar-based Arabic language news network Al Jazeera, will likely be cleared for Canada this summer, possibly within weeks.

The move comes after a push to bring the English version of Al Jazeera to Canada, which saw the news network take the unusual step of sitting down with its opponents this spring to work through concerns about its programming. In the past, the Al Jazeera Arabic network has been accused of allowing anti-Semitic content on air, and critics in Canada wanted assurances the English version would be different.

"Canada is one of the only countries in the world that has neither Al Jazeera English or Al Jazeera Arabic, including the United States and Israel," said Tony Burman, a former CBC executive who is now managing director of Al Jazeera English based in Doha, Qatar.

"I don't think there is any conspiracy, I just think that there hadn't been, up until a few months ago, a concerted effort to get carriage," he added.

Available in Canada only on the Internet or though satellite signals pulled in from the United States, Al Jazeera English was launched in 2006 amid a flurry of media attention. This week, the network will be picked up by cable carriers in the Washington area - another step toward getting broader carriage in North America - but Canada remains one of its biggest challenges.

When Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA) sought clearance to be carried in Canada in 2003, it came up against deep concerns from Jewish groups over its coverage of Israel. Though the CRTC approved Al Jazeera Arabic for carriage, the regulator attached stringent conditions that proved too much of a hurdle.

The CRTC made cable and satellite carriers directly responsible for cataloguing and blacking out programming that did not satisfy Canadian broadcasting and conduct standards. Faced with that task, none of Canada's major carriers wanted the headache of adding the channel since they would have to monitor the call-in shows the Middle East network often broadcast.

The tone is much different this time around though. Seeking to bring the English spinoff network to Canada, Mr. Burman has pledged to work with some of the channel's most steadfast opponents, including the Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith Canada.

Arguing that the newer English channel - which has hired journalists from the BBC, CBC, CTV and Global - is different, Mr. Burman has proposed a special consultative committee to discuss the network's on-air content every six months to ensure that there are no major concerns.

Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he hasn't offered an outright endorsement of AJE, but said an invitation to sit on the committee has helped ease concerns. Similarly, B'nai Brith said in a letter to the CRTC that "in the spirit of co-operation" it would not oppose the bid, but remain vigilant.

"Al Jazeera English we know is not Al Jazeera Arabic," Mr. Farber said. "What hasn't changed is our angst."

"We don't always agree with them on positions they take, but I don't always agree with the CBC," Mr. Farber added.

Amid criticism and controversy since it began in the mid-90s, Al Jazeera Arabic has also built a name for itself as an alternative voice to Western networks such as CNN and Fox News. Mr. Burman said the English network's more recent coverage of problems in Iran and its presence in Gaza earlier this year as the only international English network on the ground, are examples of why the newer network should be seen. He added the channel is trying to shed the stereotypes of the 1990s when it was criticized for an anti-Western bias. In its short, 13-year existence, the original Al Jazeera network, which is funded by the Emir of Qatar, has drawn the ire of the White House for broadcasting video missives from Osama bin Laden and footage of captured U.S. soldiers.

Al Jazeera English will have to negotiate carriage with TV distributors across the country, but some of Canada's largest cable and satellite carriers have indicated they are prepared to carry the channel, including Rogers Communications Inc.

 

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