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Melloul is also quick to stress that unlike Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari monarchy, i24 is an independent entity, privately backed by Jewish Franco-Israeli businessman and telecommunications mogul Patrick Drahi. The two met roughly eight months ago, he said, when Drahi asked Melloul to spearhead a project similar to what he had accomplished with France 24 — creating a space for the Israeli perspective in international news. The difference, he noted, was that it would not be state-backed.
“It’s a private channel first,” Melloul explained. “Most of the international news channel[s], the owner is the government. I don’t receive any money from the Israeli government [or] any political party.”
Still, though Al Jazeera carries little, if any, criticism of the Qatari monarchy that sponsors it, its Arabic language channel is known for scathing, uncensored coverage of other governments throughout the Arab world — coverage that is widely credited with having broken the information monopoly many of those governments exercised over their domestic airwaves. Among other things, Al Jazeera’s continuous live coverage of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, and the efforts of the government of President Hosni Mubarak to squelch them, is credited with having rallied many Egyptians to support the protestors.
On September 3, Egypt’s new military government, which ousted Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist government in a July coup, banned Al Jazeera’s local affiliate from broadcasting in Egypt.
In the 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera, “Control Room,” Samir Khader, the channel’s senior producer and later chief editor, claimed explicitly that one of the network’s purposes was to shake up the rigid infrastructure of Arab society, which he believed had fallen behind because of social intolerance to other cultures and perspectives.
Will i24 countenance comparably critical coverage of Israel?
“There’s no question of censorship of any kind,” said Primor. “Arabs and Jews and foreigners write for the same site what they think of [a given] situation. This is important and that’s what was promised to me from the start.”
A look at the channel’s website shows a fairly wide range of opinion, though nothing outright anti-Zionist or in favor of moves such as boycotting Israel or Israeli products from Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank: op-eds by Colette Avital, a dovish politician of the opposition Labor Party, and by Lily Galili stand alongside one by vocal West Bank settler Karni Eldad and a piece criticizing government policy concerning the Bedouin and Palestinian presence in the Negev by Anas AbuDaabes.
But perhaps the best example of i24’s effort to emphasize Israel’s diversity is 32-year-old Lucy Aharish, a fluent Hebrew speaker and Israel’s first prime-time Arab-Israeli news anchor, who hosts the English-language news program. Originally considered for the Arab-language broadcast, Aharish insisted on auditioning in English, reluctant to be pigeonholed within the organization because of her origins.
It’s still early to talk about any hard numbers in terms of satellite audience. But according to Melloul, critics skeptical of whether citizens of Arab countries will tune in to an Israeli channel may be disappointed. “Through the website, I can tell you that we are watched in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Algeria,” he said.
One month in, he added, roughly 20% of the channel’s web-based live stream audience is from the U.S.