TORONTO — Jewish groups are fighting to keep the Al-Jazeera television network off the air in Canada.
Calling the Qatar-based network “antisemitic,” the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith Canada are opposing efforts by an association of the country’s largest cable companies to broadcast Al-Jazeera. The Canadian Cable Television Association applied earlier this month to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, the country’s federal broadcast regulator, for permission to broadcast Al-Jazeera and 15 other ethnic networks.
The cable industry’s application is expected to be considered later this year in hearings held by the federal commission. Jewish groups promise to testify against the application.
The efforts by Jewish groups to bar Al-Jazeera from Canada come as Middle East experts are debating whether the channel represents a rare triumph over censorship in the Arab world or a dangerous tool for reinforcing the region’s anti-Western attitudes.
The 24-hour Arabic-language news station is best known in the West for airing videotaped messages from Saudi-born Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Al-Jazeera, which is available in Canada illegally through an American satellite channel, recently upset officials in Washington and Baghdad with its coverage of the Iraq war.
“Al-Jazeera is a broadcast facility that will not be consistent with Canadian values, nor will it likely be consistent with hate laws in this country,” said Keith Landy, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “We have grave concerns that it will promote antisemitism. It has a history of Holocaust denial and other views that could be seen as an incitement to violence.”
The cable industry said it is responding to customer demand for the channel. An estimated 1.2 million Arabic speakers live in Canada, many of whom already access the broadcaster illegally.
“We believe that if people want this viewpoint, they should be allowed to get it,” said Janet Yale, president of the cable association. “We believe in offering a variety of perspectives in order to have an informed debate on the issues.”
Suanne Kelman, professor of broadcast journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University, agreed with Jewish groups that Al-Jazeera’s content is “unquestionably” antisemitic. But, she added: “I don’t think we should be trying to block it. Let it in. If it violates our hate laws, then you take action through [the regulator] and the courts. Then at least it won’t be that we kept people from seeing it. I’m against censorship, but I’m all in favor of hate laws.”
It is possible, Kelman said, that licensing Al-Jazeera to broadcast in Canada might have a moderating effect on the network. As a commercial venture, the network might hesitate to violate Canadian hate laws, which would put its Canadian-based revenues at risk.
Kelman said it would be “very useful” for the commission to permit Al-Jazeera because “it would allow the Canadian public to see what a very large segment of the Muslim world actually believes.” She also suggested that, in particular, it would be educational for left-wingers who now “assume their values are shared by the people whose rights they are so eager to defend” in the Arab world.
Al-Jazeera was founded by Qatar’s reform-minded emir in the mid 1990s and earns much of its revenue from providing feeds to American and European networks. Reaching an estimated 35 million viewers in the Arab world, the network is free of direct state control — a rarity in the Middle East — and has sometimes presented Israeli perspectives on Middle East issues. As a result, its bureaus have been closed in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
But while not a government mouthpiece, the channel is certainly not pro-American or pro-Israel: It has repeatedly referred to Palestinian suicide bombers who kill Israeli civilians as “martyrs.” During the war in Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera’s correspondents described American military aircraft as “enemy planes.”
The network’s perceived anti-American bias has been even more pronounced during the Iraq war, prompting an American backlash. An Al-Jazeera reporter who went to Dearborn, Mich., had to be rescued last week when a crowd of Shiite Iraqi Americans turned on him. Also last week, the network accused American forces of deliberately bombing its offices in a residential area of Baghdad, killing a cameraman. Rival Arabic-language network Abu Dhabi was also struck.
Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, argued that Al-Jazeera is neither a unique, nor progressive voice in the Arab media. It’s only one, albeit the first, of several satellite channels spilling across Arab borders, he said.
“It’s more ready to be critical of some Arab regimes, but it has the same basic line as those Arab regimes,” Rubin said. “Al-Jazeera is staffed by people who very much accept the typical radical pan-Arab ideology that overwhelmingly controls Arab journalism. Therefore, it is not a break with the past but a reinforcement of the past.”
For example, Rubin said, Al-Jazeera’s anti-Saudi views are not motivated by a pro-democratic ideology. “They’re anti-Saudi because their state sponsor, Qatar, is very critical of Saudi Arabia.”
Even when Al-Jazeera airs a “different view,” such as an Israeli guest on a discussion program, Rubin said, “in the end it’s made clear [by the host and the callers] that the different view was wrong. It’s not a positive force.”
Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed with the assessment that Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq war reflected “the broader Arab view that the U.S. is a malevolent power that does little to alleviate the suffering of the Arab people.”
Still, Alterman said, the channel’s coverage could certainly evolve.
Besides, Alterman said, the network already serves as a “useful conduit” for the views of American officials such as Secretary of State Colin Powell. But, Alterman added, the West needs to develop an effective strategy for utilizing the network to deliver its message. “A lot of times Americans express views in ways that are very unconvincing to Arab audiences,” Alterman said.
Could the United States influence Al-Jazeera in a more pro-Western direction?
“If your goal is to have Al-Jazeera play Hatikvah [the Israeli national anthem] at the end of every news day, that’s not going to happen,” Alterman said. “But if your goal is to make it a higher-quality outfit that does a better job of educating than inciting, then the answer is unquestionably yes.”