Al Jazeera English battles for Canadian airtime

In the hopes of changing its negative reputation in the west, Al Jazeera English has engaged itself in an aggressive drive to get onto Canadian cable. It’s a battle they are determined not to lose.

The campaign has been underway for almost a year. The latest phase includes a new website,, designed to rally support from ordinary Canadians for AlJazeera’s bid to make it onto the Canadian airwaves.

The site says: “Unlike the rest of the world, most North American audiences remain in the dark. In a world that is growing increasingly smaller and more interconnected each day, it is more important than ever to have full access to international news.”

But why is Al Jazeera English so determined to break into such a small and often ignored market? What are AJE’s long term ambitions?

Al Jazeera English was set up to be the voice of the south, giving marginalized peoples the chance to tell their story to the western world.

But three years after its launch, AJE is still not viewed in the US and few cable providers in the UK carry it.  By all accounts it is not yet having its intended impact.

The bias against the Al Jazeera label in Europe and the US remains strong. The channel is mainly associated with the videos it aired of Osama bin Laden after 11 September 2001 and many think of it as an Al-Qaeda network.

There are indications that the tide may be changing and AJE hopes that making it onto Canadian cable might just be the first step towards infiltrating the North American market.

At the head of this campaign is Avi Lewis, senior producer and host who was once a well-known figure at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“There is definitely a feeling that this next year could see our breakthrough in the US,” Lewis said in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition, “And if we are licensed in Canada, that would give us access to a key part of the North American market. Canada has often been a place where innovative television finds a home before breaking through to the bigger market next door.”

But the door in Canada has not opened just yet. The Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) have still not announced their decision regarding AJE’s application to be allowed onto Canadian cable.

To help them make their decision CRTC released a statement several months ago encouraging Canadians across the country to write in with their views about AJE. They asked if the station would be an asset to Canadian Television.

Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition spoke with a CRTC representative who wished to remain anonymous. “We have now closed the door for public commentary on Al Jazeera English’s application but we are taking all these into consideration. The commission is now in the process of making their decision. Our role will be to decide if the material aired on Al Jazeera English could be in violation of Canadian laws or directly discriminating against any particular groups,” the representative said.

Indeed, some groups in Canada are concerned about the prospect of AJE appearing on Canadian cable. The most prominent of those groups is the Canadian Jewish Federation.

The federation tried to prevent Al Jazeera Arabic from appearing on Canadian TV several years ago, accusing it of bias against Israel. Today the CJF is worried that AJE will mimic the Arabic version’s approach.

Bernie Farther, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Federation, said, “Al Jazeera Arabic has carried out blatantly anti-Semitic coverage in the past. They have also been involved in vehement holocaust denial, which is entirely unacceptable to us. Our main concern is if Al Jazeera English will follow in Al Jazeera Arabic’s footsteps.”

Over the past several months the CJF has been engaged in ongoing dialogue with AlJazeera English. In the process AJE has offered to hold biannual meetings with the Canadian federation in which they can discuss concerns they might have about AJE’s coverage.

Farther said: “It’s not that we will be controlling editorial policy directly. But AJE has made it clear that our voice will be heard. We will be able to raise any concerns we have about their coverage. This gives us some sense of security that we never had with Al Jazeera Arabic.”

Now that the CJF has been appeased, is the coast clear for Al Jazeera English?

The biggest hurdle remaining is the CRTC. And if the commission follows the same approach as it did with AlJazeera Arabic, the future does not look bright for its sister station.

Al Jazeera Arabic’s application was only accepted with serious restrictions. Any Canadian cable provider who chooses to air the channel must assume full legal responsibility for the content being aired.

So far this risk has been too big for anyone to take. If the same fate awaits AlJazeera English, it is unlikely it will succeed in getting the exposure it needs to break into the North American market.

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