Over the past decade, satellite network Al Jazeera has made its share of enemies both here and abroad. A lot of criticism has come from U.S. officials and pundits, who, if they don't actually watch Al Jazeera, will soon no longer have the language barrier to blame. Early next year, the network will launch Al Jazeera International, a 24-hour English-language service. American University assistant professor Marwan Kraidy discusses its prospects with Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Ever since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Americans have been hearing about Al Jazeera. The bad-boy satellite channel has made its share of enemies since it was launched nine years ago, having its bureaus closed at one time or another in 18 different countries. But most of the criticism we've heard has come from U.S. officials and pundits who charge it with, quote, "working in concert with terrorists" - that was Donald Rumsfeld - "reporting that's purely inaccurate" - Condoleezza Rice - and "helping the most vicious terrorists on earth." That was Bill O'Reilly. We don't know how many of these critics actually watch Al Jazeera, but if they don't, soon they won't have the language barrier to blame. Early next year, the network will launch Al Jazeera International, a new 24-hour English-language service. Nigel Parsons, formerly of the BBC and the Associated Press, will head it up. Other new hires include Josh Rushing, the former Marine spokesman featured in the documentary "Control Room," former CNN host Riz Khan and legendary BBC personality David Frost. Such names and pedigrees, says Arab media scholar Marwan Kraidy, will give the service a sturdy leg up.
MARWAN KRAIDY: Who has not heard of CNN or the BBC or the Associated Press? And so they're lining up an impressive group of people that will be the main asset they have to gain credibility with Western audiences.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the hiring of all these familiar Western media faces, is this just borrowed interest? Or does it suggest that the whole editorial philosophy of Al Jazeera International will be different from Al Jazeera in Arabic?
MARWAN KRAIDY: I do think that it does suggest that the editorial policy will be different. One of the things with Al Jazeera is that their editorial policy is still a work in progress, even Al Jazeera Arabic. They're debating it. They're working on it. At the same time, it will really depend on how long these relatively famous journalists will stick with the network. In other words, if the working conditions are good, if they feel they really have editorial freedom to say what they want, I think there's a chance that they'll stay. And if they do stay, that will obviously attract other people with well-established names and careers.
BOB GARFIELD: Al Jazeera Arabic has been, if not necessarily an advocate of Islamism and jihadism, or even necessarily being sympathetic to those causes, it's certainly been hospitable to rhetoric about them and has all sort of accompanying very inflammatory images. Do you think we'll be seeing similar kind of incendiary images played over and over and over on Al Jazeera International? And do you think we'll be seeing the same kind of rhetoric from extremists who have had access to Al Jazeera Arabic's signal?
MARWAN KRAIDY: I don't believe so, for a very simple reason. Consider the audience. And Nigel Parsons has already met several people in the U.S., in the administration, some business leaders. I think they're on a charm offensive to say, "Look, we're not Al Jazeera Arabic. We're going to be very fair. We're going to be balanced. Give us a chance." The other thing to think about is who are going to be the people invited as guests on talk shows? The people who would be able to speak English fluent enough to be on the air will tend to be different from those who can speak fluent Arabic. And I'm not saying they will be less radical. On the contrary, some of them will probably be more radical. But I think because the audience will be much broader, my guess is that the range of discourse will be also broader.
BOB GARFIELD: Am I making a basic mistake by assuming that because it's an English-language channel that it necessarily is targeting Western countries like the United States?
MARWAN KRAIDY: I think in terms of sheer number of viewers, I definitely think that Asia is going to be the main place where they will find viewers, perhaps in the millions. You know, English now is probably the lingua franca of Islam. It's definitely competing with Arabic. If you look at the large Muslim populations of Southeast Asia and South Asia, you know, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country. And a lot of these people speak English. And Malaysia. Pakistan. India. And so we have a huge audience right there that is politicized, that is looking for what perhaps it thinks of as an Islamic point of view, and that will definitely turn to Al Jazeera International. It's very likely that they will have a very large audience in addition in the West, not just Arabs and sons of Arabs and Muslims who only know English because they grew up in the U.S. or Canada or Australia, but also people in the West who are looking for alternative news.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the problems, it seems to me, that Al Jazeera International faces is getting the kind of distribution and advertising that it needs because it's such a lightning rod for criticism in the West. Al Jazeera has struck some deals in Asia but don't necessarily have any way to get their channel to North America. Any reason to think that they're going to be able to find a place, for example, in basic cable?
MARWAN KRAIDY: I don't believe so. I think this is going to be a major obstacle, and I think they are aware of it. That's why their predictions that some of the executives have made have been very modest. They're saying they're hoping for five million households to start with. Now, that is not a lot, even if we just consider the U.S. audience. I think it's going to take some time before some cable operators will be bold enough to say, "Okay, we're going to put this on." I think it'll depend also on how attractive it'll be to advertisers, which is obviously a vicious circle. But we have to remember that the Muslim populations of South Asia and Southeast Asia are a huge group. They may not be very wealthy, but there are lots of consumer items that many advertisers would like to advertise to them. And also we have to remember that there is no such a thing as bad publicity. In many ways, if people watch it, even if they hate it, advertisers may be tempted to advertise there.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Marwan, thank you very much.
MARWAN KRAIDY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Marwan Kraidy is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a faculty member at American University School of International Service. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the future of the nightly network newscast, and the mainstream media's drug problem.
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