I was living in Morocco at the time that Al Jazeera English launched, in November of 2006. At the time, an English speaker could expect to have access via satellite to MBC4 and MBC2, UK-based Saudi channels that played sitcoms, films, and--seemingly--Oprah four times per day, as well as CNN International, BBC, and some form of MTV. As an Arabic learner, I had watched Al Jazeera, but with the speed of news networks, there’s something to be said for watching in your native tongue.
By the time I moved back to the US in 2007, I’d grown used to the channel’s sharp perspective and global scope--to return to the land of MSNBC and CNN was to experience a considerable culture shock. Of course, back then, Al Jazeera was a new channel, so it came as no surprise that it was unavailable in most of the US. Nevertheless, I set about requesting it on my carrier, Comcast.
In 2008, I spotted a news piece about Burlington, Vermont residents and their hard-won fight to bring Al Jazeera to Burlington Telecom; having lived in Burlington, I was thrilled to learn that other Americans had won the fight, but disheartened when I learned that their struggle was met with opposition from local groups--the Israel Center and Defenders’ Council of Vermont--to prevent Burlington Telecom from carrying the channel.
This 2008 report from Al Jazeera’s Listening Post program covered the story:
The arguments presented in Burlington are echoed around the country; while supporters of the channel spoke about freedom of speech and the desire to have a global view of news, opponents largely argued that Al Jazeera is anti-American, anti-Semitic, and full of propaganda.
Some common themes, key quotes from the arguments made in Burlington:
- “Al Jazeera incites violence, it incites hatred, and it incites murder of Americans.”
- “It serves to normalize and amplify a movement and a point of view and a perspective which is dangerously intolerant.”
- “They have a right to broadcast, but we don’t necessarily have to invite them into the United States of America.”
- Much of the rhetoric against Al Jazeera involves Israel and the channel’s apparent anti-Semitism; The irony in some of these arguments, of course, is that Israelis actually can watch Al Jazeera English from their homes.
Eventually, the Burlingtonians in favor of the channel won out, and along with the Toledo, Ohio area and Washington, D.C., that town is one of only three places in the United States where the channel is accessible. In a select few other places--mostly urban centers on the east and west coasts--some of the channel’s programs are available.
So why not the rest of the United States? What’s preventing your cable provider from carrying Al Jazeera English? Part of the reasoning over the years--that is, beyond the histrionics--has been lack of demand, but in light of recent events, it seems that argument may no longer be valid.
For their part, Al Jazeera has recently launched a slick campaign for Americans to “Demand Al Jazeera”; the website (http://english.aljazeera.net/
Nevertheless, it will take American voices--loud ones--to demand the channel make it to US airwaves.
Jillian C. York writes about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world. Her website is http://jilliancyork.com.