Sunday, February 6, 2011

U.S. Censorship of Al Jazeera.

Seeing a revolution or a war unfolding live on television is always fascinating and somewhat exciting and in many ways the protest-revolution in Egypt has reminded me of the Revolutions in Eastern Europe, (particularly in Romania where television played a crucial role).

Of all television coverage on the events in Cairo, Al-jazeera’s has been the most interesting one, mostly because it offers a different perspective a but also because it is the most watched tv channel in the Arab world. Much has been said about the importance of online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook - whose role may have been exaggerated in the West - but these are only available to the young in the -upper-middle-class whereas most Egyptians are informed through satellite television and not the net.

Al Jazeera has done such a good job that it has been specifically targeted as their bureau in Cairo was shut down and their network’s licenses and accreditation cancelled or withdrawn.

This is not the first time that they have been banned, restricted or threatened by autocratic Arab regimes since they started broadcasting in 1996 - in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and even Kuwait.

But until this week, I had never realized that the reason I can watch Al-Jazeera is that I do not live in the United-States where it has been banned from the largest cable networks.

As Frank Rich pointed out in his excellent Op-Ed in the NYTimes this week:

… in America, it can be found only in Washington, D.C., and on small cable systems in Ohio and Vermont. None of the biggest American cable and satellite companies — Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner — offer it.

This week the director-general of the Al Jazeera network wrote an interesting article in Newsweek which caught my attention. In it, he underlines the contradiction between the much claimed free press concept in the West and the refusal to provide “alternative viewpoints” to the American audience.

Of course, as always in the West, the censorship is never direct but it is sugarcoated with commercial reasons like :

… the insistence by U.S. operators that Americans are not interested. From a commercial standpoint, they argued, Al Jazeera was not worth their precious bandwidth. (Newsweek)

Of course, Al Jazeera claims otherwise – and they seem to have figures to prove their point:

Tony Burman, Al Jazeera’s head of strategy for the Americas, said traffic to the satelite network's English-language website, where a live stream of its broadcast is available, increased 2,500% during the past week of Egypt coverage. He said up to 60% of the traffic was from the United States. (LATimes)

The « commercial reason » is moot (more here) if you consider the loads of useless crappy channels available on U.S. cable tv anyway.

In reality American broadcasters are afraid of the fearmongers on the right like Bill O’Reilly who brands the Arabic channel “anti-American” and “anti-Semitic” – which shows his utter ignorance since Arabs are semitic people -. Of course, this accusation would be propagated by Islamophobic Foxnews. After all, this view of Al Jazeera was first promoted by officials in Bush administration when they didn’t like the graphic footage from the war in Iraq. There have even been allegations of a memo in which president Bush speculated about a U.S. bombing raid on Al Jazeera world headquarters in the Qatari capital and other locations.

More generally this virtual ban of Al Jazeera in the United-States is the “consequence of a decade’s worth of indiscriminate demonization of Arabs in America”.

Of course, the Qatari channel is at times critical of US and Israeli policy – it may also show crude images of wars but it has the merit of giving another perspective and an Arabic insight which might help Americans (who are willing) understand a bit better what the Arab world is about.

In any case, before anything else it should be a question of principle. Freedom of expression cannot stop at what makes you uncomfortable. If Al Jazeera is available even in Israel, why not in the United-States?

It is time for Americans to do at home what they ask others to do in the world for credibility sake.

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