Wednesday 22 November 2006

Al Jazeera International: The First Week

From my Reuters AlertNet blog, 22 November 2006. The station later settled on "Al Jazeera English" as its name.


One week into Al Jazeera International's broadcasting, and I have to say: so far, so good. Expectations for the new English-language channel were high before its 15 November launch, but the station seems to be fulfilling its promise of attempting to reset the news agenda, including pushing more stories on previously under-reported crises. Of course, many people cannot receive the station through their cable provider yet, so for those who haven't been able to watch, here's some of what you missed.

The top story of the news review for the past two days has been the massive floods in the Horn of Africa, which as my fellow AlertNet blogger Ruth Gidley noted the other day, are getting scant media attention elsewhere. The AJI story also talked about deeper issues facing the relief effort, such as the lack of a functioning government in Somalia, and it featured a strong interview with an MSF rep in Nairobi on the problems ahead and the relief needs.

It was a noteworthy move to make this the top story, and it certainly set AJI apart from the competition. AJI's reporter was on a boat visiting villages cut off by the floods where people had lost their homes and food stores while other major broadcasters were focusing on Bush's visit to Indonesia, highlighting Blair's trip to Afghanistan or blathering on about -- oh, please, let's not start that again -- OJ Simpson.

After four or five minutes on the Horn of Africa, the news review then turned to recent events in Gaza for about two minutes. Today, this included a brief but revealing interview with Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who had just visited Beit Hanoun and a personal story of one child paralysed by a missile attack.

Then, AJI had a story on the Iraq/Syria meeting. Nothing too unusual there.

AJI has also had some interesting magazine programmes over the past week. Though I haven't watch every minute of every one, I have seen some good packages and parts of packages, for example, on women in male-dominated societies in Syria and Afghanistan. The Everywoman show examined the Malaysian tradition of offering a cow as compensation to rape victims. AJI also aired a package looking at Burma's new capital-in-the-making, which was pretty amazing material, although their crew were government-escorted, of course.

The one down side of AJI's first week for me was a long interview with Harold Pinter. Whatever his credentials as a playwright and his popularity as a critic of the Iraq war, Pinter lost all credibility after his involvement with the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic. Not worth an interview in my book, but I admit I'm pretty biased on that point.

In all, a promising start, then for AJI. Sadly, few Americans were able to watch it, as no domestic cable or satellite system carries the signal. In fact, many Americans may not even be aware AJI even exists because, as the Tyndall Report noted in its weekly review of TV news broadcasts in the US, only one of the major networks (CBS) covered the launch of the new station. According to Tyndall, CBS's Wyatt Andrews dismissed the new-comer, saying "most Americans see it as Osama TV".

Anyway, if you'd like to judge for yourself and cannot receive AJI through more traditional means, you can watch online, though you will need to sign up to a free trial for RealPlayer's subscription service.

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