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CRTC gives green light to Al Jazeera English

In the three years since its launch, the English-language spinoff of Mideast news network Al Jazeera has been airing on cable and satellite in more than 100 countries, including the United States and Israel. Now it's coming to Canada.

Yesterday, the CRTC gave the green light to the Qatar-based network Al Jazeera English, noting it "will expand the diversity of editorial points of view in the Canadian broadcasting system." Toronto-based satellite service Ethnic Channels Group Ltd. submitted the broadcast request in February.

Al Jazeera English (AJE), based in Doha, Qatar, broadcasts international news around the clock. Since the launch of the English service, its management has met the challenge of reshaping a network that once served one corner of the world and expanding to international markets.

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Major cable and satellite providers in Canada have indicated they would be willing to carry the channel. "We're interested in talking to AJE about carrying the service," Bell spokesperson Mark Langton said yesterday. Rogers Cable said it would look into the opportunity.

AJE, which employs many journalists who previously worked with CBC, BBC, and Réseau de l'Information (RDI), is far less controversial than its sister network Al Jazeera Arabic, which faced opposition in 2003 when it sought to be carried in Canada. Critics accused AJA of airing anti-Semitic content.

There was no similar push against AJE this time. Its managing director, former CBC News executive Tony Burman, reached out to the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and B'nai Brith Canada to establish a committee for them to express any concerns with on-air content.

"That gave us pause," said Bernie Farber, CEO of the CJC, which neither supported nor objected to the application. "We were given assurances that in fact, [AJA and AJE]are two different organizations, separately run ... We remain wary."

The confusion between the two networks is common, said Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan and author of Engaging the Muslim World.

"There is a marked difference," he said. "I've been following Al Jazeera English for a long time. I've never seen anything that looks to me like anti-Semitism on the programs."

AJE is more critical of Israeli policy than many North American news networks, Prof. Cole said, but it is also the only major network in the Mideast, aside from Israel, that invites Israeli guests to give their point of view. "It's this philosophy they have, that all points of view are legitimate, not necessarily good, but legitimate."

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More than 2,600 people or organizations filed comments to the CRTC in support of the network airing in Canada.

"It's important ... to see stories and to see people talking about their reality, that we don't usually have access to," said Mohamed Boudjenane, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation, one of those supporters. "Quite frankly, when you have ... biased channels like Fox ... it's about time for Canadians to get access to another perspective of the news."

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has declared an "open-entry approach" to approving non-Canadian news services, because of the importance of "a diversity of editorial points of view." Unless it has evidence such a network would violate Canadian regulations, the CRTC is "predisposed to authorize" distribution.

"There is nothing on the record of the current proceeding that leads the Commission to conclude that AJE would violate Canadian regulations, such as those regarding abusive comment," the CRTC wrote in the decision.

Al Jazeera English is already available on the Web, even without carriage on cable or satellite.

It was widely expected to win approval in Canada in late summer or early fall. Yesterday, sources said the delay was because of a heavy workload, such as the decision on wireless applicant Globalive, and hearings on the future of broadcast television.

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With files from Grant Robertson

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