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Al-Jazeera on Canadian airwaves

Al-Jazeera will soon be coming to a Canadian television near you. This is the network’s second Canadian coming (I’ll get…

By Megan Stewart , in Making the News: Focus on Canadian journalism , on February 12, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

Al-Jazeera will soon be coming to a Canadian television near you.

This is the network’s second Canadian coming (I’ll get to that) and I like to think it will bode well for news organizations and journalists in our country. I have high hopes for Al-Jazeera English in Canada because the global network, according to their own information, is broadcast to more than 130 households worldwide and airs in more than 100 countries. It’s time Canada was on that list.

Tony Burman of Al Jazeera English. Photo by Aaron Tam.
Tony Burman of Al Jazeera English. Photo by Aaron Tam.

During a UBC Graduate School of Journalism panel on international reporting, Tony Burman, managing editor with Al-Jazeera English, said a cable carrier will apply to CRTC (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) for the right to broadcast the network.

He said an announcement is imminent. I say fantastic.

Al-Jazeera was approved for broadcast in Canada in 2004, but no cable carrier touched the Arabic-language network because it would have been responsible “any abusive comment” and would have been required to “alter or delete the programming of Al Jazeera solely for the purpose of ensuring that no abusive comment is distributed.” This content restriction was the first in CRTC history.

For some, this amounted to censorship for our own good. But Al-Jazeera’s history of antisemitism, fear-mongering and hate-speech is well documented. Some believe it exists solely as a tool for Jewish persecution, and for these reasons its arrival in Canada is hotly contentious.

But praise for Al-Jazeera reporters also comes from within Israel. And reporting, I believe, will be the defining strength of Al-Jazeera English.

As Maclean’s blogger, Michael Petrou, asks:

If Al Jazeera is widely available, and watched, in Israel, if a writer at Israel’s most important newspaper [Haaretz] can praise Al Jazeera while Israel is at war with an Arab Islamist movement, why have lobby groups such as the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith sought to prevent its distribution in Canada? And why do Canadians accept that the bureaucrats at the CRTC should decide how much abusive commentary we can handle?

Burman, who has been with Al-Jazeera English for less than a year, spent nearly four decades with the CBC as a key executive producer and editor-in-chief of news programming. He left the Canadian broadcaster to bring the Qatar-based broadcaster to North America. At UBC this week he said he will miss the CBC.

In some ways I never left. What we are trying to do [at Al-Jazeera English] is a lot like what the CBC did during its great years.

Al-Jazeeera is not a personal soapbox for the Taliban, and Burman said the network does not indiscriminately air content, namely video of hostages. He has taken some ribbing for his late-career change, but winks his way through an infamous Al-Jazeera affiliation.

I have friends who think I dine regularly with Osama bin Laden. But I confess–I have only met him a dozen times.

Al-Jazeera is still in the business of news, it remains a delivery system and it is accountable to its vastly growing, international audience.

The 24-hour news network has four broadcast centres in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington, files from 69 global bureaus, and counts diverse newsrooms with more than 400 journalists from over 60 countries. It has numerous media properties and claims to hold itself to high standards of journalistic integrity. We know media slogans, such as “fair and balanced,” come with a grain of salt the size of a meteor, but this is what Al-Jazeera expects of itself:

Al Jazeera English’s broadcast shifts as the world turns providing the most comprehensive and contextual news coverage. Al Jazeera English’s mission is to provide independent, impartial news for an international audience and to offer a voie to a diversity of perspectives from under-reported regions.

In addition, the channel aims to balance the information flow between the South and the North. The channel of reference for the Middle East and Africa, AJE has unique access to some of the world’s most troubled and controversial locations. AJE’s determination and ability to accurately reflect the truth on the ground in regions torn by conflict and poverty has set our content apart.

And as Burman said:

Most people in Canada have never seen Al-Jazeera.

But we can vet the website, where editorial distinctions are evident but not pervasive. (The War On Gaza, for example, is different than CNN’s Gaza Crisis.)

Access to the live Al-Jazeera news feed will enhance Canadians’ broad picture of the international scene, will broadcast perspectives and news we can’t access now, and will increase our awareness of conflict from places North American and British outlets don’t go. And because the network likes to employ local reporters–or at least reporters well embedded in the community–there is an air of credibility that I trust. For Canadian journalists, I am optimistically (and mabye naively) imagining there will be work available for us to report from within our own borders for Al-Jazeera’s world-wide audience.

The CRTC should allow Al-Jazeera English to air in Canada, uncensored.


  • Al Jazeera in Canada? As a Canadian who has been watching Al Jazeera via Livestation for the past 2 months I am more than happy that it will soon be available to many more Canadian viewers. AJ’s global coverage is not restricted to only ‘news’ stories but it also illuminates the human condition – promoting a better understanding between cultures. If you wish to learn more about our world – watch Al Jezeera!

  • It is funny that while we preach others about freedom of speech and expression, we keep some very successful channels shut up and blacked out so no one can hear them, because we do not like their “views”, or should I rather say, the views that some of their guests have had in some point in the past. This is a shame. No other word to describe it. And guess what, America isn’t the only one suppressing Aljazeera, dictators in Egypt Tunisia and Libya are doing so as well. See a pattern!
    Reject all excuses, support freedom of expression. If people want to view to Al Jazeera and a lot do, they should be able to. I also invite people to see for themselves, I’ve watched al Jazeera for long and I loved it, it often shows you a side of the picture you don’t see elsewhere.

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