Al Jazeera claims English victory despite doubters

Nigel Parsons, MD of Al Jazeera English, claims that its new channel has been a “tremendous success". But what of the surrounding controversy?
Al Jazeera claims English victory despite doubters
Achievement: The news channel attracts many viewers worldwide, says Nigel Parsons.
By Alexandra Dubsky
Sun 17 Dec 2006 04:00 AM

Al Jazeera International’s English news channel has been a “tremendous success” and proved the doubters wrong in its first three weeks since launching, its managing director has claimed.

Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al Jazeera English told “We had phenomenal feedback from all sorts of viewers, high-profile politicians such as (the British Prime Minister) Tony Blair as well a large number of regular watchers all complemented us on the programme. Even groups and countries where we expected skepticism or resentment reacted positively to out first screenings.”

The channel, which went on air on 15 November, follows in the footsteps of its highly controversial Arabic sister station, which first gained global recognition when it aired its famous video of Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks in New York.

The US government heavily condemned the channel for broadcasting such material, and until now the channel has often been criticized for collaborating with so-called terrorist groups. Parsons, however, dismissed those allegations. “We receive tapes via email, not personally. We then air them according to their news-worthiness, and if they support a certain story, regardless of the political direction of their content,” he said.

In 2001, the US bombed the station’s headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Until now we haven’t received an official statement or apology from the White House about this incident. One government spokesperson dismissed the incident as a joke, but I can’t see the humour in this.”

“There is a transcript of a taped meeting of Blair and Bush who were talking about this topic, and we have repeatedly requested to have an insight into this, but so far without success.”

So far the channel’s controversial approach has paid off with the first three weeks of Al Jazeera English hosting former US Secretary of State James Baker, Head of the Iraq Study Group that aims to change the White House’s approach in Iraq. It has also featured regular reports from the troubled areas of the Arab world, Africa and Latin America.

“Our main focus is Gaza and the West Bank because unless this conflict is resolved there will never be peace in the Middle East. It’s an everyday story, as people there suffer enormously, and after the first ever democratic elections (in Palestine) people suffer even more.”

“We also report current affairs from places such as Zimbabwe, Darfur, Brazil and Cuba, according to their news relevance, but we certainly are an Arab channel,” he added.

The station’s target audience includes Middle East decision makers, second and third generation Arab migrants that live in the West, and 20-35 year-old young professionals who look for an alternative to mainstream news channels.

“Most of these viewers watch us live on the internet, which is especially important in the US and Australia where we are not available through cable TV. We are, however, in talks with various global cable operators to air Al Jazeera English.” The English laguage news channel is subsidised by the Qatari government, but is entirely independent in its editorial set up, according to Parsons.

The news channel is popular not only with spectators but also with media professionals — Al Jazeera English received more than 4000 job applications before its launch and another 1000 since going live. “We don’t pay a dime more than our competitors, but we have a good team and a strong heritage to build on from the Arabic channel, that’s why many industry professionals want to join us. We also tell stories because they are interesting,” Parsons added confidently.

Working for Al Jazeera, however, can be dangerous. In September last year, former Al Jazeera journalist Tayssir Alouni was jailed in Madrid for collaborating with a terrorist organisation. Alouni interviewed Osama Bin Laden before the 11 September attacks. He was sentenced to seven years for acting as financial courier to Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, but has since been released due to lack of evidence.

Sudanese born Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman, has been incarcerated in the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison since 2001 without trial and has not been released despite massive international pressure.

Parsons refused to comment on the incidents that happened to reporters who worked for the Arabic channel.

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