A higher orbit for Al-Jazeera

Nov 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A decade ago, around-the-clock coverage of the Persian Gulf War catapulted CNN to the forefront of TV news. Now America’s war on terrorism is turning Al-Jazeera, a small upstart network from a tiny Arab nation, into one of the most important news sources in the world.
With the only live satellite link to Kabul, Afghanistan, access to Taliban-controlled areas of the country, where the Western press is forbidden, and a pipeline to Osama bin Laden, the Al-Jazeera TV network is watching its revenues grow from subscriptions and footage fees as it enters agreements with U.S. broadcasters to share information and resources.
“There have been times when not just CNN but every other U.S. network has taken an Al-Jazeera feed of something going on in Afghanistan,” said Matthew Furman, a spokesman for CNN, which made Al-Jazeera an international affiliate shortly after Sept. 11. Other Western media, including ABC, CBS, NBC and the BBC, have had discussions with Al-Jazeera, entered into nonexclusive agreements with it or purchased video. With its audience growing rapidly, Al-Jazeera is looking for ways to capitalize.
A spokesperson for the network reported that there has been an “exponential increase” in subscriptions to its cable TV programming in the United States and Australia, though no numbers on past or present subscribers were provided. But that may be just the beginning. The company is considering encrypting its satellite TV service in the United Kingdom so it can charge a fee; the network’s Web site (www.aljazeera.net), which is entirely in Arabic, may soon have an English-language edition, and there is talk of English-language television programming as well.
Al-Jazeera was launched in 1996 with $150 million in startup funds from Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, a tiny nation adjacent to Saudi Arabia; many of its journalists and technicians were culled from the BBC Arabic Service, which closed in 1997. Those startup funds are set to run out this month, and instead of seeking more government funding, observers say the network would prefer to attain profitability, thereby cementing its reputation as the first independent Arab-owned news operation in the Middle East.
Despite charges in Washington that its coverage of the war has an anti-U.S. bias and complaints about its airing of videotaped rants by Mr. bin Laden, Al-Jazeera’s reputation in the Middle East is one of fairness and impartiality, said Nadim Shehadi of the Royal Institute of Middle Eastern Affairs in London. “It’s quite liberal, it’s quite open, it’s quite professional because of the BBC training,” Mr. Shehadi said. “It’s managed to upset most countries in the region. It’s the voice of the people, if you like.”
While Al-Jazeera has taken center stage in coverage of the crisis, it is just one of several Arab- and Islamic-focused news agencies experiencing rapid growth in the wake of Sept. 11.
“Since [the attacks], we have done two major upgrades to our servers to accommodate the traffic,” said Asim Mughal, editor of Pakistan News Service (www.paknews.com), a California-based Web site with news bureaus in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Washington. “The amount of traffic is about 11 to 15 times what it was before,” Mr. Mughal said. “On a typical day, we’re now getting 950,000 to 1.7 million hits, whereas before we were talking about 125,000 per day.”
Meanwhile, officials at International Channel Networks report that subscriptions to the Arab Radio and Television Network (ART), which carries news, movies, sports and so forth from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, have increased substantially in the United States since the attacks. At deadline, however, no figures were available.