WASHINGTON – Canadian television viewers looking for the most thorough and in-depth coverage of the uprising in Egypt have the option of tuning into Al Jazeera English, whose on-the-ground coverage of the turmoil is unmatched by any other outlet. American viewers, meanwhile, have little choice but to wait until one of the U.S. cable-company-approved networks broadcasts footage from AJE, which the company makes publicly available. What they can’t do is watch the network directly.
Other than in a handful of pockets across the U.S. – including Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C. – cable carriers do not give viewers the choice of watching Al Jazeera. That corporate censorship comes as American diplomats harshly criticize the Egyptian government for blocking Internet communication inside the country and as Egypt attempts to block Al Jazeera from broadcasting.
The result of the Al Jazeera English blackout in the United States has been a surge in traffic to the media outlet’s website, where footage can be seen streaming live. The last 24 hours have seen a two-and-a-half thousand percent increase in web traffic, Tony Burman, head of North American strategies for Al Jazeera English, told HuffPost. Sixty percent of that traffic, he said, has come from the United States.
Al Jazeera English launched in the fall of 2006, opening a large bureau on K Street in downtown Washington, but has made little progress in persuading cable companies to offer the channel to its customers.
The objections from the cable companies have come for both political and commercial reasons, said Burman, the former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “In 2006, pre-Obama, the experience was a challenging one. Essentially this was a period when a lot of negative stereotypes were associated with Al Jazeera. The effort was a difficult one,” he said, citing the Bush administration’s public hostility to the network.
“There was reluctance from these companies to embark in a direction that would perhaps be opposed by the Bush administration. I think that’s changed. I think if anything the Obama administration has indicated to Al Jazeera that it sees us as part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Burman said.
Cable companies are also worried, said Burman, that they will lose more subscribers than they will gain by granting access to Al Jazeera. The Canadian experience, he said, should put those fears to rest. In Canada, national regulators can require cable companies to provide certain channels and Al Jazeera ran a successful campaign to encourage Canadians to push the government to intervene. There has been extremely little negative reaction over the past year as Canadians have been able to view the channel and decide for themselves. “We had a completely different process and result here in Canada — a grassroots campaign that was overwhelmingly successful,” said Avi Lewis, the former host of Al Jazeera’s Frontline USA. (He now freelances for Al Jazeera while working on a documentary project with his wife, Naomi Klein.)
Media critics have begun to push for Al Jazeera’s inclusion. “It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it,” wrote Jeff Jarvis on Sunday. “Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one-not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media-can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.”
Al Jazeera follows a public broadcasting model similar to the BBC, CBC and NPR and is largely funded by the government of Qatar, which Burman said takes a completely hands-off approach to content. Al Jazeera is the scourge of authoritarian governments around the Middle East, which attempt to block it. The network, however, covers much more than the Middle East, and now has more bureaus in Latin America than CNN and the BBC, said Burman. “As proud as we are of our Middle Eastern coverage, we are in other places in the world that are never, never seen on television in American homes,” he said.
Burman said that he will use the experience with the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings in upcoming meetings with cable providers as the network continues its push. Comcast did not respond to requests for comment.
“Why in the most vibrant democracy in the world, where engagement and knowledge of the world is probably the most important, why it’s not available is one of these things that would take a PhD scholar to understand,” Burman said.
UPDATE I: A reader emails to say that Al Jazeera programming is also being carried by the satellite channel LinkTV, which can be found on channel 9410 on Dish Network and 375 on DirecTV.
UPDATE II: Another reader emails to say that Al Jazeera broadcasts over some of the Pacifica stations, including WBAI (New York, 5-6 AM, 99.5 FM), KPFA (Berkeley, 6-7 AM, 94.1 FM) and KPFT (Houston, 5-6 AM, 90.1 FM).