In the Middle East, networks financed by Western countries — such as France24, the BBC’s Arabic Service, Russia’s RT and Voice of America — have long been a staple of local airwaves. Now, the United States may be about to experience a Middle East-owned network talking back.
Much remains unclear about what Al-Jazeera’s planned new venture in the United States, Al-Jazeera America, will look like onscreen. But the sale of Current TV, Al Gore’s struggling cable channel, to the Arab news network for a reported $500 million will give the Qatari government-owned broadcaster access to some 40 million American viewers whose cable television carriers now bring them the former U.S. vice president’s channel — assuming those carriers retain the channel under its new ownership.
That remains uncertain. Time Warner, for example, one of the country’s major carriers, initially said it would drop the channel under its new owner but has since said it will monitor viewership before making a decision.
Since the January 4 announcement of the sale, many media outlets in the United States have editorially praised Al-Jazeera English, which already broadcasts separately from the channel’s Arabic service, for its professional content and the breadth of its world coverage. The new U.S. channel will be yet another, separately produced English language channel for the network.
But for some critics in the Jewish community, the network’s Arabic language operation raises alarms about the channel’s coming to America. In a statement released the day of the sale announcement, ADL national director Abraham Foxman charged that the Arabic channel has “exploited and exaggerated the Arab-Israel conflict… giving all manner of virulent and anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic extremists access to its air waves.”
Al-Jazeera officials strongly deny this charge. The Middle East, moreover, constitutes only a small part of Al-Jazeera English’s coverage. Still, it remains unclear how Al-Jazeera will shape its new U.S. channel.