By Uchenna Ekwo
Editor’s Note: Al Jazeera has reportedly purchased Current TV, the left-leaning television network owned by Al Gore, for $500 million. The move promises to expand the Qatar-based network’s programming to an American audience. NAM contributor Uchenna Ekwo writes that Al Jazeera and other global networks have faced obstacles in getting their content distributed in the United States. This commentary originally appeared at the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives website.
The refusal of Time Warner Cable and other cable and satellite distributors to carry the services of Al Jazeera America – the giant pan-Arab news network that just purchased the struggling America channel, Current TV – has exposed the hypocrisy of advocates of free market, freedom of information, freedom of choice, and change in closed societies especially in the Middle East.
Understandably, a certain kind of stereotype among the American population persists today following the 9/11 attacks that poisoned the opinion of Americans towards the Qatar –based network. In fact, some Americans refer to Al Jazeera as a ‘terrorist network’ because it aired on a number of times Al Qaeda tapes and thereby earning the notoriety (though wrongly) of the terrorist organization’s propaganda tool.
But the coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011 demonstrated the network’s credibility as a major news organization with professional ethos and competence. At the time, Al Jazeera was the channel of choice for those seeking accurate information about dramatic, unfolding events in North Africa and Middle East.
Since its inception in 2006, American cable and satellite distributors have mostly refused to carry Al Jazeera English. The few exceptions are those distributors in New York City and Washington.
The same is true of New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV)—a Chinese satellite television station operating from New York. According my sources, the channel is unable to secure wider distribution because some of the distributors have business interests in China and are afraid of supporting a network that challenges the communist regime in China.
The authorities in China can potentially frustrate Americans who do business in China if they give any form of assistance to a news organization that scrutinizes the regime. To provide some perspective to the behavior of the government toward the news organization, it is an offence to be seen watching NTDTV in China. Most subscribers of NTDTV in China adopt clandestine methods to access the news organization considered to be credible and accurate in reporting the malfeasance in Beijing.
Put together, the travails of Al Jazeera America and NTDTV in the hands of cable and satellite distributors in the United States raise more questions about adherence to the principles of free market and basic freedoms including freedom of choice, freedom of information, and so on.
How does Time Warner Cable explain its decision to cut off Al Jazeera America a day after it acquired Current TV previously carried by Time Warner Cable? Clearly, Current TV was not as popular in terms of ratings and professionalism as Al Jazeera America. Is Time Warner’s decision fuelled by fear that Al Jazeera might pose a formidable challenge to CNN where Time Warner has interests?
Regardless of whatever motive behind the decision to prevent Al Jazeera to reach millions of American homes, the station should be allowed to compete in the already crowded American media market. Just like Current TV fizzled out by itself, the market will determine the future of Al Jazeera and not by unnecessary regulatory and unhealthy business decisions of selfish officials.
Moreover, the continued blockade of rival channels limits the choices available to the American audience. While the television sets of White House officials and lawmakers were tuned to Al Jazeera channel during the Arab Spring in 2011, ordinary Americans who wanted to watch had to find a live stream on the Internet. In fact, former Secretary of State, Collin Powel was quoted as saying that he is permanently tuned to Al Jazeera because of the kind of journalism they practice.
Let’s consider for a moment the concerns of many analysts regarding the independence of Al Jazeera. The news channel is owned by the Emir of Qatar. In other words, it is owned by the government and the history of press freedom in the Middle East is not elegant. Similarly, government interference in media content is common in societies where government owns, operates, and controls the mass media.
While these concerns are genuine, it is expected that the United States being a strong advocate of free flow of information should support visible attempts to change the culture of secrecy that have permeated the Middle East for too long. Providing all practical assistance to Al Jazeera might be an effective strategy to achieve just that. The channel has demonstrated in different occasions its readiness to open up closed societies of the Middle East through accurate and independent reporting of issues and events around the world.
Moreover, Al Jazeera will also help to open the eyes of most Americans who remain ignorant of international affairs and other civilizations. Americans need to learn more about other cultures, events, and issues happening overseas. Majority of US based news organizations are not able to cover the rest of the world effectively due to different reasons we cannot discuss in this piece.
BBC America is no doubt filling that gap in the American media environment. The inclusion of Al Jazeera America with its vast financial power may just move the coverage of the world for US audiences to another level. By acquiring Current TV, the Qatar news service gains access to more than 40 million American homes. This will be a modest start.
Dr. Uchenna Ekwo is a professor of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ and President at the Center for Media & Peace Initiatives, New York.
By Uchenna Ekwo