The Canadian Cable Television Association has applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to provide access to the Qatari-based, Arabic-language Al-Jazeera television network. Some Jewish groups have opposed this application on grounds that Al-Jazeera carries anti-Semitic programming. Their claim is both extreme and disingenuous.
Al-Jazeera ("The Island" in Arabic) is a 24-hour news and cultural programming network. Originally a partnership between BBC Arabic Television and a Saudi company, the joint venture fell apart as a result of Al-Jazeera's rejection of Saudi censorship. In 1996, the Emir of Qatar and other Arab financiers provided the funding to kick-start Al-Jazeera.
Today, Al-Jazeera is considered the pre-eminent Arab network, the CNN of the Arab world. Al-Jazeera has about 70, mostly BBC-trained, correspondents in 35 bureaus, including Washington, London, Beijing, Moscow and Baghdad. The network reaches an estimated 35 million viewers in the Arab world and is currently accessible in Canada via U.S.-based satellite services. A considerable portion of Al-Jazeera's revenue comes from the sale of its images to American and European news broadcasters.
Al-Jazeera's motto is, "We get both sides of the story." Most Canadians became aware of Al-Jazeera when it broadcast a video of Osama bin Laden. But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres have also appeared on the network. Understanding that a variety of perspectives is needed to encourage informed debate, Al-Jazeera was the first in the Arab world to seek out Israeli perspectives on issues.
Some have regarded Al-Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq war as superior to that of Western networks. According to Long Island's Newsday, "Al-Jazeera viewers have also received live, full coverage of press statements and conferences held by U.S., Iraqi, United Nations, Arab League, European Union, French, British, Egyptian, Saudi and other officials, thus always reflecting multiple realities throughout the war that are not covered routinely by the U.S. networks."
As the Arab pioneer for independent reporting, the network has drawn criticism from several governments in the area, and its bureaus were banned from Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Some countries have suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar, blaming it for reporting by Al-Jazeera that is critical of their regimes. Nevertheless, Al-Jazeera's reporting and successful business model have paved the way for other networks in the region to follow the same style, such as Abu Dhabi TV and Dubai-based Al Arabiya Television.
The network's credibility was illustrated in the first week of April, when the Iraqi government banned two of Al-Jazeera's reporters from filing stories from Baghdad. Rather than accept this infringement on free speech, Al-Jazeera suspended all coverage by its Iraqi-accredited reporters until the government reversed its position.
Contrast such moral fortitude with the fate of veteran journalist Peter Arnett, whose interview at the Iraqi Information Ministry was construed as undermining the Bush administration's version of the war effort. For this, NBC, MSNBC and National Geographic fired the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.
Allowing Al-Jazeera to broadcast in Canada tests our fundamental commitment to free speech. While some pro-Arab critics have attacked Al-Jazeera for being pro-Israeli, some pro-Israeli critics have claimed that Al-Jazeera's programming is anti-Semitic. It is more reasonable to expect that, as it tries to get "both sides of the story," some will find Al-Jazeera's views controversial.
Claims of anti-Semitism have been based on statements made by certain guests on Al-Jazeera's talk shows. While any hateful speech is contemptible, the views of the people who make the news should not be confused as the views of the station that airs it. Critics who cite superficial sound bites, taken from a program out of context, to support their claims of a biased agenda are invariably guilty of failing to mention the opposing views expressed on the same program.
After 9/11, evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, referred to Islam as a "wicked and evil religion." In October of 2002, Rev. Jerry Falwell called the Prophet Mohammed a "terrorist" on 60 Minutes. According to The Associated Press this month, Rev. Jerry Vines called Mohammed "a demon-possessed pedophile." These remarks were hateful, but there were no calls to ban the stations that aired them.
A free and healthy society is one in which all voices may be heard. More than a million Canadian Arabs and Muslims may wish to have access to Al-Jazeera and a world-view that is otherwise unavailable in North America. Canadians' right to view Al-Jazeera is as fundamental as our right to free speech and central to our commitment to intellectual freedom and cultural diversity.
Raja Khouri is national president of the Canadian Arab Federation. Thomas McGuire, a Toronto-based researcher, contributed to this article.