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Al-Jazeera ready to expand operations

The news channel is set to extend its controversial reach to English-speaking audiences on its 10th anniversary.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2006 16:29 IST

Al-Jazeera news channel, which has changed the face of Arab television reporting by breaking taboos, is set to extend its controversial reach to English-speaking audiences as it marks its 10th anniversary on Wednesday.

Its second decade will see the repeatedly delayed launch of the English-language Al-Jazeera International, probably in mid-November according to sources at the Al-Jazeera Satellite Network, the media group's umbrella company.

The maverick Arabic channel, which began broadcasting in 1996 with staff largely drawn from the BBC's short-lived Arabic television, is looking to a promising future "since the will, the money and the expertise are all there," according to its editor-in-chief, Ahmad al-Sheikh.

Al-Jazeera International, whose launch was initially planned for 2005, but had to be put off partly for technical reasons, will transmit from four regional broadcast centers in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington.

Al-Jazeera, often dubbed "the Arab CNN," gained world fame through its exclusive reporting of the US military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the airing of videotapes of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

This has earned it the wrath of Washington, which accuses Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for Islamist extremists, notably in Iraq, where the channel has been banned from reporting since 2004.

Its offices in Kabul and Baghdad were both hit by US strikes, despite the channel having told the US where they were, while a leaked memo last year suggested US President George W Bush considered bombing the channel's Doha headquarters in 2004.

An Al-Jazeera cameramen detained in Afghanistan is still being held without charge at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, while one of the channel's journalists was last year jailed for seven years by a Spanish court for collaborating with Al-Qaeda.

Al-Jazeera has also often ruffled the feathers of regional governments, souring ties between Doha and a number of Arab capitals, notably Riyadh, which recalled its ambassador from the Qatari capital in 2002 after the station aired a debate in which participants strongly criticized the Saudi royal family.

Last week, it was Tunisia's turn to shut its embassy in Doha in protest at what it called a "hostile campaign" by Al-Jazeera after it aired an interview with an opponent of the Tunisian government in which he called for "civil resistance".

The upcoming launch of Al-Jazeera International begs the question of whether the Arabic and English channels will both follow the same editorial policy.

"Al-Jazeera International's audience will be different from ours, but we will coordinate our editorial policy through daily meetings in order to agree on, among others, controversial terms such as 'martyrs', 'terrorism' and 'resistance' in the coverage of regional conflicts," said Sheikh.

Al-Jazeera's Beirut bureau chief Ghassan bin Jeddou, boasting that the satellite channel had "given Arab citizens a margin of freedom" and "broken many taboos imposed by governments and official media," said his team would follow the same editorial policy for both Arabic and English broadcasts.

"We must initiate investigative reporting in order to expose corruption and injustice in the Arab world," said Mahmud Shammam, a Libyan member of the media group's board of directors.

The group, which is largely funded by the Qatari government, does not envisage even partial privatization, according to its deputy marketing director, Mohammad Badr al-Sada.

He said Al-Jazeera Satellite Network had looked for "new sources of revenue, including the sponsorship of newscasts by major international firms."

Explaining the reluctance to go private, Al-Jazeera's editor-in-chief said: "A government which funds you and gives you a wide margin of freedom is better than private capital subjected to commercial pressures."

First Published: Oct 31, 2006 16:29 IST