It's the network the White House has accused of being in bed with al-Qaeda, and the channel that has been punted from several Middle East countries for offending the local regimes. Ten years after it launched, al-Jazeera is arguably the most controversial, hotly debated news outlet on television.
With the Arabic-language channel from Qatar now looking to operate an English-language spinoff, the new venture -- al-Jazeera International -- wants a regular spot on Western TV next to CNN, Fox News, CBC Newsworld, CTV Newsnet and the BBC.
But the hurdles in al-Jazeera's way are significant, the network has learned.
Despite planting a studio in Washington, D.C., and hiring scores of North American journalists, al-Jazeera International has found only tepid response from cable and satellite carriers in Canada and the United States.
In Canada, where such companies are the gatekeepers to the majority of television sets, al-Jazeera International, or AJI, has been knocking on doors in recent weeks trying to get support in its quest for a broadcast licence.
Only Quebecor's cable arm, Vidéotron Ltée., has been receptive so far, eyeing a growing population in Quebec with Middle Eastern roots that it believes would be a strong market for AJI.
"We had a meeting with representatives from al-Jazeera International," said Isabelle Dessureault, a spokeswoman for Vidéotron. "We are very interested, but the decision has not been made."
The al-Jazeera name brings considerable baggage. In its short life, the mother network, which is funded by the emir of Qatar, has angered Western governments for airing footage of hostages. It has also been accused of promoting hatred for America and Israel and sympathizing with terrorists.
However, al-Jazeera believes that it can change minds. By launching the English-language version, AJI is looking to win over audiences with a non-Western viewpoint of the world, different from the big U.S. networks.
And several Canadians are at the forefront of that strategy.
In a bid to establish instant credibility, AJI has been recruiting former staffers of CBC Newsworld, CTV and Global, as well as tapping large U.S. and British networks for journalists and researchers.
Kimberly Halkett, a former White House correspondent for Global Television; Richard Gizbert, who worked for CTV in Toronto and ABC in the U.S.; and former TSN and CBC anchor Brendan Connor have joined in the past few months. A handful of Canadian researchers and producers are also behind the scenes in Washington.
Halkett, who was born in Victoria, made the jump in April, lured by the idea of working for a large international network. She is joined in the 50-person Washington newsroom by at least a half-dozen other Canadians.
She is well aware of the pitfalls of joining al-Jazeera. Though the network appears earnest in its goal to present the world through a different lens than Western viewers are accustomed to, just how big the appetite is for such programming is unclear. Emotionally charged debates over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and events such as the recent arrest of suspected terrorists in Toronto, leave it more susceptible to a public backlash in North America than U.S. or Canadian networks.
Al-Jazeera rose to prominence in the West in the late 1990s and was cited regularly by U.S. news channels in the wake of 9/11. Its access to video missives from Osama bin Laden has led it to be branded terrorist television by critics, while its willingness to broadcast images of hostages in Iraq has drawn the ire of several governments.
A widely held belief among American audiences that al-Jazeera has shown beheadings on its newscasts is one of many misconceptions about the network that have damaged its name, Halkett said.
"It's difficult to have to go out and defend such inaccuracies, but I'm confident that when we're on the air, people are going to be able to judge the product and be surprised by what we see," she said.
Halkett said AJI also plans to ignore the salacious crime stories and promotional celebrity coverage that have permeated cable news.
"If people want the latest on Paris Hilton, they know where to go. We're going to do something different," she said.
But when exactly the new network will make it to air is a mystery that even the network's staff can't unravel.
The original launch was rumoured to be last fall, then in the spring and has reportedly now been delayed until late summer or fall. Construction of AJI's studios around the world have been cited as a reason for the delays, but a lack of support from several major cable and satellite carriers in both the U.S. and Canada is weighing on the situation.
Despite hiring Canadians, along with former BBC employees, AJI has not received the kind of reception in Canada it was expecting.
Toronto-based Rogers Communications and Calgary's Shaw Communications have shown little interest in backing the channel in a licence application to the federal broadcast regulator. The cable carriers witnessed a heated debate two years ago when several groups opposed a bid to put the Arabic-language al-Jazeera on Canadian TV.
A Rogers official said the English-language network doesn't fall under the company's strategy to build its roster of multicultural channels, though it has talked to AJI.
"We have been approached," Rogers spokeswoman Tanta Gupta said. "Our multicultural focus is actually on different languages . . . that's what we told them."
The inability to get support in Canada has angered Gizbert, a native of Toronto who will produce a half-hour news show for al-Jazeera out of London. He criticizes Canadian carriers for being too timid to pick up AJI because of the past controversies surrounding its parent network. The Arab-language channel is watched in some parts of Canada, mostly on satellite feeds from the United States.
"Frankly, as a Canadian, when the British ask me about this, I'm embarrassed . . . by the small-mindedness and the anti-intellectual thinking behind it," Gizbert said from London.
If Canada's broadcast regulator does hold a public hearing to allow cable and satellite providers to argue in favour of adding AJI, the channel will probably face many of the same opponents that the Arabic-language version encountered a few years ago. In 2004, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission received more than 1,200 comments supporting the addition of al-Jazeera, but heard more than 500 comments against the idea.
The regulator decided to allow the channel, but made cable and satellite carriers directly responsible for whatever material was broadcast from Qatar. That proved too big a risk for any of the companies, so the network wasn't added.
Among the opponents were the Canadian Jewish Congress, which argued that several broadcasts promoted hatred toward Jews and Israel.
About the new spinoff, "We are at best skeptical," said Bernie Farber, the CJC's chief executive officer. "Unless there is some significant indication that they have every intention of not being the old al-Jazeera, I can't see at this point that we would not take the same action that we did last time."
Al-Jazeera: The quick take
Too hot for Western TV?
The Arabic-language news network al-Jazeera is preparing to launch an English version of itself, though the start date has been delayed several times. The channel has actively recruited Canadians to work on air and behind the scenes, but getting approval to be aired in Canada is proving much harder.
Al-Jazeera launched in 1996 with funding from the emir of Qatar. The network made a name for itself in the West when it broadcast images from 1998's Operation Desert Fox in Iraq that U.S. networks weren't showing. Its footage was shown regularly on Western networks in the wake of 9/11 when it broadcast exclusive images of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, along with tapes of Osama bin Laden.
Al-Jazeera has drawn the ire of the White House for showing captured soldiers in Iraq and dead American contractors. Its critics say the network has broadcast statements that incite hatred of America and Jews. Its proponents say such accusations are exaggerated and that al-Jazeera presents a crucial non-Western viewpoint of world not available through North American networks.
English-language al-Jazeera International has hired roughly a half-dozen Canadians in recent months, including former CBC, CTV and Global employees. It has yet to find a major cable or satellite provider to sponsor its application for a broadcast licence in Canada, though. Quebecor-owned Vidéotron is considering the move.
The contingency plan
If al-Jazeera International doesn't make it onto television sets in Canada by the time the network launches, AJI plans to use the Internet to reach viewers. Most of its content will be streamed on line, including Canadian Richard Gizbert's show Listening Post. Reporters, including former Global correspondent Kimberly Halkett, are already on assignment for the yet-to-launch channel.