The Challenge for Al Jazeera International
By Jon B. Alterman

Al Jazeera's new English-language service is not about to take the United States by storm, but it could have a major effect on Muslim communities around the globe. Its greatest impact, however, may be on Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts.

As veterans of the American media environment know, US audiences are growing increasingly segmented. Hundreds of cable and satellite television channels compete for attention with radio (and more recently, satellite radio), the Internet, newspapers, and a slew of other information streams. Venerable outlets have not only seen their audiences shrinking in absolute numbers, but consumers are devoting shrinking amounts of time to each individual outlet. While Americans are increasingly voracious consumers of information, they have also become more omnivorous, and the competition for attention is increasingly steep.

Into this environment will step Al Jazeera's new English-language service, a still somewhat ill-defined effort to provide an alternative viewpoint for global viewers. The hope of its sponsors is that it will play into the desires of channel-surfing viewers looking for alternative news streams. For at least a small and elite segment of the television-watching public in the United States, Al Jazeera will fill that niche.

Overwhelmingly, however, Americans have given every indication that they want to be comforted by the news, not challenged by it. The Fox News juggernaut uses overt patriotism to win viewer loyalty, and it stands as the only news operation in the country that is gaining viewers.

Al Jazeera International could be seen, perhaps, as the "anti-Fox News." Its backers insist that it will be truly international, utilizing its own native English-speaking staff around the world operating out of studios in Malaysia, Qatar, the UK, and the United States. But what will the Al Jazeera brand come to represent? The brand's prominence in the Arab world has been built on unifying issues like Palestine, Bin Laden, and Iraq. In each case, Al Jazeera's coverage has pushed the boundaries of knowledge, built massive audiences, and helped unite Arabs in a community of concern.

Is there such a community of concern in the United States, or around the globe? The answer is probably not. Certainly there are issues -- and Palestine, Iraq, and terrorism are among them -- which are of wide concern. Yet, it is far harder to forge a common perspective on these issues and build a similar broad constituency. Part of the success of Al Jazeera's Arabic service is that it addressed a group of people who already believed they constituted a community on some level, and it made that community real. Despite all of the talk of "global citizenship," an Indonesian Muslim likely relates in a fundamentally different way to what is happening in Palestine than does a Dutch Protestant, and each does so differently than a Palestinian or a Jordanian.

One potential community that Al Jazeera International can bring together is English-speaking Muslims. Sweeping from Muslim minorities in Europe through Africa, to the South Asian subcontinent and into Southeast Asia, they constitute a community -- the Umma -- that is feeling increasingly connected because of ease of travel and information technology. Al Jazeera's English-language programming can play a significant role furthering that integration, putting forward a news source that is commonly shared among that audience.

The vitality of English within the Umma should not be underestimated. A mind-boggling range of Islamic books and articles appear in English, and many Islamic Web sites have robust English-language sections. If English is not the first language of many Muslim populations, it is often their lingua franca, and Al Jazeera's new English news stream can address them.

Al Jazeera will face a steep challenge in doing so, however. The challenge of running a 24-hour news operation with multiple headquarters and a global audience is a daunting one, and Al Jazeera's English-language broadcasting will be subject to a far higher level of scrutiny than its Arabic programming. Analysts will immediately evaluate Al Jazeera International's broadcasts for issues of balance and bias, especially by groups already disposed to doubt the fairness of the station's coverage. Governments and journalists' associations around the globe will no doubt swiftly complain if they believe that the programming has departed from established journalistic standards.

Al Jazeera International will almost certainly not refer to "so-called terrorism" or refer to "martyrdom-seeking operations," or profess uncertainty as to who carried out the attacks of September 11. To do so would not suggest the channel's impartiality, but instead reinforce charges of bias.

Some might suspect that Al Jazeera International is a ruse, offering fair and judicious broadcasting in easily accessible English, and hoping the new channel's reputation for journalistic vigor rubs off on its less disciplined Arabic cousin. However, Al Jazeera's English service is likely to fuel the global debate about ethics and standards rather than end it, and it will do little to blunt the zeal of those who believe Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts are poisoning the Arab world against cooperation with the West.

Yet, it will be from the discipline necessary to run a credible English-language service that the most fundamental effects of the new channel on Al Jazeera are likely to come. While critics complain that Al Jazeera's current broadcasts are biased in favor of Islamist, pan-Arab causes, the nub of the problem appears to be a lack of strict coordination and standards rather than a concerted plan emanating from Doha. Al Jazeera's code of ethics is a single page, compared to the books issued by Western news organizations.

If Al Jazeera intends to be a global player in English, it will need to think through the rules by which their journalists must live. The station will need not only to create a substantial document, but also to create enforcement mechanisms to implement it.

Once that process has gotten underway for the English-language staff, it is only a matter of time before some of those processes begin for the Arabic staff. It is through that internal process that Al Jazeera International may have its greatest impact.


Jon Alterman is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.


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