Al Jazeera’s English-language channel launched yesterday as (AJE) Al-Jazeera English, not Al-Jazeera International as previously hyped. While viewers around the world were able to watch the glossy production on their televisions via satellite and cable, Americans for the most part could only see it in 15-minute free streams on the Web, or uninterrupted with a monthly subscription.
CJR Daily tuned in for the first 10 hours. While the experience did not turn us into Holy Warriors, there were a number of messages — some subtle, others less so — that caught our eye:
Yesterday on AJE, Africa was not one monolithic continent evoked by hardscrabble savannahs and children with distended bellies. Rather, AJE presented an Africa of individual countries with individual realities. Those differences were made accessible to viewers through stories with human faces and voices: an interview with Joseph Kabila, who was elected president of the Democratic Republic of Congo; a conversation with people in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe who sit in their cars for seven days for a tank of gas; a Sudanese mother in a refugee camp who is missing her garden of okra and tomatoes; a profile of the founder of a non-profit that trains teenage girls to be car mechanics in Nigeria.
While the accents were for the most part British, the faces and names of the AJE cast yesterday came from all over the world. One consequence? No one bungled “foreign” names and places. One segment on Sudan that was repeated throughout the day was filed by a correspondent who was an African woman. This may be a first for U.S. news consumers, and what a difference from the typical white, female reporter who is invariably posed against a backdrop of war-ravaged or impoverished or disease-stricken Africans. In one visual frame the monolithic nature with which we see African women was no longer tenable because an African woman was cast as both reporter and subject.
Palestinians Suffer, Too
AJE carried the breaking news as Israel retaliated for the death of an Israeli woman by hitting Gaza, but it also had a segment on the devastation in Gaza caused by the withholding of crucial international funding in the wake of Hamas’s victory in elections; a story on a day in the life of a Palestinian ambulance driver; and Riz Khan talking separately with Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, and Shimon Peres, Israel’s deputy prime minister. Also, each time correspondents mentioned the Israeli woman who was killed, they also noted that she was the first Israeli casualty in six months of rocket attacks on southern Israel launched from Gaza, and that in the same period Palestinians had suffered 350 casualties at the hands of Israelis.
Several spots hammered home what AJE seems to hope will be its brand: “Every angle, every side.” These house ads included multiple images of world leaders, from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to Condoleeza Rice, each with different questions hovering above the image: “Deceptive?” “Role Model?” “Next President?” Then the words, “every angle, every side” appear next to the delicate Arabic filigreed calligraphy of Al-Jazeera’s logo. Similarly, another ad flashed the number of kilotons of ozone-depleting emissions that various countries produce, while still another flashed the sizes of countries’ nuclear arsenals. The kicker on that one, after flashing the names of countries with considerable stockpiles (i.e. Russia, Israel, India) was “Korea: 1? Iran: 0?” Not subtle, but rather effective in forcing viewers to consider the possibility of another side, another angle.
And in what was perhaps the best first-day advertising AJE could ever have hoped for, both Haniya and Peres prefaced their remarks to Riz Khan by congratulating the network for launching in English. One of Al Jazeera Arabic’s trademarks has been its interviews with Israeli officials, who often can only communicate to Arabic speakers through AJA. While Peres mostly spun the official Israeli line yesterday, he appeared unscripted when he said, rather poignantly, that he was glad to be on Al-Jazeera English and that maybe in English Israelis and Palestinians can better talk peace where they had failed in “the other two languages.”