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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 947

Al-Jazeera's dominant presence inside USA

Critical commentary by Philip Fernando

Philip_Fernando_3.jpgAl-Jazeera, the popular Pan-Arab news channel has acquired Current TV network co-founded by the former US vice president Al Gore.

It seemed more than a morsel of access into the US political process. The world view validation of Islam is on our doorsteps said one US commentator.

Al-Jazeera is capable of creating more than a smidgeon of sympathy for the Muslim cause judging by initial remarks among many analysts in the US. The acquisition of Current TV would provide the Pan-Arab news giant with something it has sought for years: a pathway into American living rooms. Current TV is available in about 60 million of the 100 million homes in the United States with cable or satellite service. After the change in ownership, Al-Jazeera TV may initially reach 40 million homes.

Al-Jazeera has used the unrestricted right to own a cable channel in US to its advantage.

There are stricter rules against foreign ownership of free-to-air TV stations. The decision was described as a pure business one due to the fact that 40% of viewers on Al-Jazeera English's website are from the U.S.

However the popular Time Warner Cable has refused to carry Al-Jazeera after the buyout.

Appreciative viewership

Since 2000, the US viewers had taken a liking to Al-Jazeera. The network was praised by the Index on Censorship for circumventing censorship and contributing to the free exchange of information in the Arab world, and by the Webby Awards, who nominated it as one of the five best news web sites, along with BBC News, National Geographic and The Smoking Gun. It was also voted by brandchannel.com readers as the fifth most influential global brand behind Apple, Google, IKEA and Starbucks.

In 2011 Salon.com noted Al-Jazeera's coverage of the 2011 Egyptian protests as superior to that of the American news media, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also reportedly opined that the network's news coverage was more informative, and less opinion-driven than American journalism.

Al-Jazeera America

Rather than simply use Current TV to distribute its English-language channel, called Al-Jazeera English and based in Doha,Qatar, Al-Jazeera will create a new channel, called Al-JazeeraAmerica, based in New York. Roughly 60 percent of the programming will be produced in the United States, while the remaining 40 percent will come from Al-Jazeera English.

Al-Jazeera America may absorb some Current TV staff members, according to people with knowledge of the deal who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But Current TV's schedule of shows will most likely be dissolved in the spring. Al-Jazeera shares Current TV's mission 'to speak truth to power,' state AL Gore.

With a focus on U.S. news, Al-Jazeera TV plans to rebrand the left-leaning news network Current TV: the small cable news channel that was co-founded by Al Gore seven years ago. Al-Jazeera has close to 100 bureaus around the globe and its content is available in over 250 million homes in 130 countries.

Among the prominent TV personalities that worked for Current TV were reputed anchor Keith Olbermann, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and TV comedian Joy Behar. Speaking of the sale Al Gore stated he hoped to “give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling."

Network of bureaus

The acquisition lifts Al-Jazeera's reach beyond a few large U.S.metropolitan areas including New York and Washington, where about 4.7 million homes can now watch Al-Jazeera English. Al-Jazeera America, owned by the government of Qatar, plans to add five to 10 new U.S. bureaus beyond the five it has now and hiring more journalists.

Qatar, a small peninsular country in the Persian Gulf, emerged as a partner of the United States in the mid-1990s and currently serves as host to major U.S. military facilities. It was ahead of many others in trying to gain access to US markets.

Qatar holds the third largest proven natural gas reserves in the world and its small citizenry enjoys the world’s highest per capita income. The emir of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has managed a course of major economic growth and very limited political liberalization since replacing his father in a Bloodless palace coup in 1995.

As part of Qatar’s liberalization experiment, the Qatari monarchy founded Al-Jazeera, the first all-news Arabic language satellite television network, in 1995. In an April 2003 referendum, Qatari voters approved a new constitution that officially granted women the right to vote and run for national office. Long-delayed elections for two-thirds of the seats in a national Advisory Council outlined by the new constitution are planned for 2013. Central Municipal Council elections were held in May 2011.

Defense cooperation

Following joint military operations during ‘Operation DesertStorm ‘ in 1991, Qatar and the United States concluded a Defense Cooperation Agreement that has been subsequently expanded. In April 2003, the U.S. Combat Air Operations Center for the Middle East moved from Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase south of Doha, the Qatari capital. Al Udeid and other facilities in Qatar serve as logistics, command, and basing hubs for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

In spite of serving as the host to a large U.S. military presence and supporting U.S. regional initiatives, Qatar has avoided being ostracized as pro-Western. There had been concern that energy infrastructure and U.S. military facilities in Qatar may be potential targets of extremists.

Some detracting critics

Some US groups in the US have being critical of Qatar on two grounds—human rights and perceived breaches of civil rights. Human rights concerns persist. The U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights for 2011 states that Qatar’s government “prohibited organized political life and restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, and assembly and access to a fair trial for persons held under the Protection of Society Law and Combating Terrorism Law.”

The report also cites “pervasive denial of workers’ rights.” According to the report, the rights of non-citizens are at times abused, and “reports of forced labor continued, especially in the construction and domestic labor sectors.”

Qatari officials have taken an increasingly active diplomatic role in recent years, seeking to position themselves as mediators and interlocutors in a number of regional conflicts. Qatar’s deployed fighter jets and transport planes to support NATO-led military operations in Libya. Qatari leaders’ also called for providing weapons to the Syrian opposition.

Qatar seemed ready to mediate in Middle East affairs, showing willingness to embrace Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban as part of its outreach initiatives.

- Asian Tribune -

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