Since it first began broadcasting 10 years ago, Qatari satellite network Al Jazeera has become the Arab world's media juggernaut, claiming 50 million viewers across 137 countries. A 2005 survey by Brandchannel.com ranked Al Jazeera as the world's fifth most-influential brand, just behind Starbucks, and plans are in the works to extend the network's reach even further with the launch of an English-language version, Al Jazeera International. High-profile personalities such as Riz Khan and ABC's David Marash have signed on as the network's news anchors. But AJI representatives have declined to comment on whether the network has secured a cable distribution deal in the United States, and the consensus among outside sources was that they had not. While it has been picked up by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB channel in Europe, it remains to be seen whether Americans will get the chance to see what English-language news from a Middle Eastern perspective looks like.
Originally slated to launch in 2005, Al Jazeera International has pushed back its projected start date several times. As of this writing, network representatives would not give any date more specific than "later in 2006." AJI chalks up the delays to "technical issues," but it is more likely that they are waiting until they have confirmed distribution in the United States, guaranteeing a truly global splash for the network's launch.
Jonathan Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believes it would make sense for AJI's American newsfeed to sit out the initial launch. He points out that AJI can be a successful global enterprise even if it isn't seen within the United States: "This isn't about America. Part of this is about de-centering news from Western prisms. The fact is that there are billions of people around the world who know this [Al Jazeera] brand, who want to see what English-language news that doesn't come from a Western perspective looks like."
Because it is bankrolled by the emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera does not have the same financial considerations as other television networks. Alterman derides the assumption that "Al Jazeera needs to be commercially successful in the way that American networks need to be successful." He observes that "Al Jazeera has never been a successful enterprise insofar as accounting, but Al Jazeera has helped make Qatar relevant, and in those terms it's been a wonderful investment for the government of Qatar."
If Al Jazeera International does come to the United States, who will watch it? Adel Iskandar, co-author of Al Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism, says that AJI "has a problem from the outset, which is being able to identify a potential audience" within the United States. The channel hopes to appeal to "Americans who are curious about what the other side is watching," as well as this country's large population of English-speaking Muslims. But many Americans view the network as a mouthpiece for terrorist organizations, and it isn't at all clear that Americans will warm to an English-language offshoot of a network with reporting that Donald Rumsfeld once decried as "vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable." While Rumsfeld's characterization may be debated, the association of Al Jazeera with terrorism remains deeply ingrained in the minds of many Americans.
When AJI does finally go live, what will its news look like? Analysts wonder about issues of congruity between the English and Arabic versions of Al Jazeera, and where AJI will come down on polarizing issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iraq war. Yigal Carmon, president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, is sharply critical of the very idea of an English version of Al Jazeera. In terms of how closely the channel's content mirrors that of its Arabic counterpart, Carmon feels that AJI is caught between a rock and a hard place. He says that, "if they copy the Arabic version . . . into English, then they will be committing suicide. Because the whole world will see what role Al Jazeera is playing in making the Muslim world extreme." On the other hand, Carmon says that if the two channels were to take different stances on global issues, the organization would be "speak[ing] from two sides of its mouth."