The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Al Jazeera in English

Al Jazeera is launching its English-language station in November 2005, and its chosen different headquarters than for its Arabic channels (it has sports channels in Arabic as well as the famous news channels): Kuala Lumpur.

Most Malaysian analysts interviewed for this article said they eagerly await a greater al-Jazeera presence in the region, regardless of what shape it takes, because it will provide viewers with a different perspective. But when it comes to news, celebrating diversity for its own sake can be dangerous. Consider how big media have tended to celebrate diversity in the divisive post-September 11, 2001, era. Outfits such as al-Jazeera, CNN and FOX are ossifying allegiances and exacerbating gaps in understanding as they inexorably pursue their nationalistic agendas.

On the other hand, al-Jazeera is a young station. It is bold and irreverent. It has challenged traditional barriers of press freedom in the Middle East and has forced outlets subservient to draconian Arab governments to either change or risk being ignored. Who's to say al-Jazeera can't become the same inspiring equipoise in Asia? In places like Malaysia, which consistently lands in the basement of press freedom indices, and where the variety of print and broadcast media eerily mirrors the choices on an old Soviet-era supermarket shelf, a stronger challenge to the status quo is sorely needed. (Despite plans to drop its incendiary tone, Collins said the Malaysian government has no intentions of tampering with al-Jazeera's content.)

This reflects an interesting trend for the Gulf to look Eastward to India and South-East Asia rather than to the Arab world and the West. The Asia Times article quoted above is rather snarky about Al Jazeera in my opinion, sometimes unfairly. But it raises some interesting questions as to whether it will provide the same critical take on South-East Asia that it has on the Arab world. Their coverage of China, in an area where big media's desire to get inside the homes of 1.2 billion Chinese has made them rather coy about criticizing Beijing (see Murdoch's pandering for instance), will be particularly interesting to watch.