Aljazeera english web site
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Al Jazeera's Web Site Looks
West With Launch in English
By JOSEF FEDERMAN
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
It has been criticized as the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden, accused of anti-Semitism and has managed to infuriate leaders throughout the Middle East. Now, al Jazeera has its sights set on the U.S.
Al Jazeera, the controversial Arabic satellite channel that burst onto the American radar screen after Sept. 11, is launching an English-language Web site -- giving English speakers their first chance to experience al Jazeera firsthand. This isn't the first English-language site to focus on the Middle East, but it will certainly be one of the most closely watched.
"It's been a lightning rod from its inception. I imagine this new phase will cause a lot of controversy," says Alice Chasan, editor of World Press Review, a magazine that publishes press reports from around the world.
Launched in 1996 with funding from the Gulf country of Qatar, al Jazeera has gained immense popularity throughout the Arab world with its editorial independence and wide range of viewpoints. Its programs contrast sharply with the staged speeches and handshakes commonly aired by the state-run broadcasters that dominate the region, and the channel has angered leaders across the Middle East. As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said after a visit to the station: "All this noise from this matchbox?"
Al Jazeera won international attention -- and criticism -- for airing statements by Mr. bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.
Al Jazeera, which has operated an Arabic Web site (www.aljazeera.net) since January 2001, decided to launch the English site months before Sept. 11, says Joanne Tucker, managing editor of the English site. "There was a need to reach the West," she says. "We're launching a news service with better access and insight to an important region of the world than anyone else at the moment."
The site is expected to go live in March. Ms. Tucker, well aware of criticism toward al Jazeera, says readers will be surprised when they log on. She promises top breaking news, as well as features on politics, culture and social issues in the Arab and Muslim world. She says the site will carry material from the Arabic station as well as original staff content -- all geared toward Western readers. Ms. Tucker, a former BBC journalist and dual American-British citizen who speaks Arabic, also promises strict Western-style standards of journalism.
"A huge slice of life gets overlooked" by the Western media, she says. "We're trying to provide a bridge ... to the Arab world, but in English."
The launch of the Web site comes as part of a broader push into the West by al Jazeera. The station recently signed a deal to exchange news with the British Broadcasting Corp., for instance, and plans an English-language satellite station down the road.
This push is mostly professional -- al Jazeera considers its competition to be the major global news organizations -- but also comes as the station searches for new revenue streams. The channel, which still receives small subsidies from Qatar, is aiming for financial independence, says Jihad Ballout, an al Jazeera spokesman. "It's safe to say there will be advertising" on the Web site, he says, most likely for products aimed at Western travelers, such as luxury items and Middle Eastern hotels.
Whether the formula will work remains a question. While al Jazeera has been able to stand out in the Middle East, it enters a crowded market in a contentious arena.
The Israeli dailies Haaretz (www.haaretz.com) and the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com) maintain English-language sites. The Middle East Media Research Institute (www.memri.org), a Washington group headed by a former Israeli army officer, translates reports from the Arab and Iranian press. A handful of Arabic papers, including the official Egyptian Al-Ahram (weekly.ahram.org.eg) and the Saudi-backed Al-Hayat (english.daralhayat.com), have English Web sites. The BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice) and CNN (www.cnn.com), among others, also have sections on their sites devoted to the Middle East.
"One of the things al Jazeera has done remarkably well in the Arab world is identifying a niche for a product that people want. It's unclear whether they're going to be as successful identifying a niche in a more crowded marketplace in English," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
On the other hand, if al Jazeera does manage to stand out, its coverage may not go over well with American readers. In fact, critics say, it may downright offend.
"If they're honest enough to broadcast what they're showing in the Mideast, it would give Americans of all political persuasions a pretty fair idea of why there is an unprecedented level of anti-Americanism and officially sanctioned hatred of Jews [in the Mideast]. They play a pretty pivotal role." says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, assistant dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights group that fights anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Cooper pointed to an al Jazeera interview with David Irving, the British historian who was branded an anti-Semitic racist and Hitler apologist by a U.K. court. Rabbi Cooper also noted the popular call-in show with Sheik Yussuf Kardawi, a prominent Muslim cleric who fields questions about religious issues and, among other things, has spoken in favor of Palestinian suicide bombings. Al Jazeera has also come under fire for its al Qaeda exclusives and its graphic coverage of the Palestinian uprising.
Ms. Tucker says the site won't avoid or gloss over controversial or sensitive subjects -- as long as they are of interest to Western readers. "We must be seen as credible. You don't get that by shying away," she says.
She says much of the criticism toward al Jazeera is misdirected.
"We show Palestinian suffering in depth ...We don't create that suffering," she says. "The fact that we cover much more of the Arab side should not be considered incitement." She notes that al Jazeera frequently interviews Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum.
Likewise, its exclusive reports out of Afghanistan aren't anti-Western, she says. "We're not bin Laden's mouthpiece. There was an event that shook the world. Whether people like it or not, there were two sides. We don't support one side, but we give both sides a hearing," Ms. Tucker says.
Tough Job Ahead
Al Jazeera's rivals say the station has its work cut out for it. "When you have stories aimed at the English-speaking world and stories aimed at the 'Arab street,' one must be extra cautious to avoid double meaning," says Ron Ciccone, managing director and senior vice president of the Middle East for AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Broadcasting System, CNN's parent company.
Mr. Ciccone is familiar with the balancing act that al Jazeera faces. CNN recently marked the one-year anniversary of its Arabic news site. During that time, it has grappled with the complexities of the Arabic language and regional sensitivities -- not to mention some minor software glitches early on. It counted more than 285,000 users as of October, the most recent data available.
CNN's coverage of delicate matters like the Israel-Palestinian conflict has angered governments and readers on all sides. "Nobody is ever happy in times of conflict," he says. "I can tell you we take a lot of punches from all sides." But he says the site has gained respect by sticking to CNN's goal of being objective and fair. He adds the site has evolved from a translation of CNN International's English service into one that that increasingly offers original regional news.
As al Jazeera looks West, Mr. Ciccone says the station should clarify its claim to represent the "Arab perspective" on issues. "What exactly is the Arab perspective and who speaks for the entire Arab nation?" Mr. Ciccone asks.
Critics need to keep the station's coverage and mission in perspective, says Mohammed el-Nawawy, a journalism professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts who has co-written a book on al Jazeera.
"People should stop and think for themselves what this channel has done," says Prof. el-Nawawy. "It has provided freedom to Arab people that didn't exist before," he says. And the case of the bin Laden tapes, viewers should ask "what American channels would have done if they were in the position of al Jazeera," he says.
"To have something like al Jazeera, which has defied all kinds of government restrictions, this is a good enough reason for me to take its side," he adds.
Write to Josef Federman at email@example.com
Updated February 4, 2003 5:49 p.m. EST