Al-Jazeera International revolution set to launch

My following article appears in today’s Crikey newsletter:

This week’s launch of Al-Jazeera International (AJI) – the English language version of the incendiary Qatar-funded news channel – is bound to bring fresh perspectives to the reporting of world affairs. Its four main bases – Kuala Lumpur, Doha, London and Washington – will allow the service to follow the sun to deliver news across the globe (though Foxtel informs me that at this stage Australians will be unable to access the service).

The Arabic channel has upset virtually every dictator in the Muslim world and enraged the Western powers for allegedly displaying bias towards “terrorists”, a charge vehemently denied.

George W Bush supposedly wanted the Doha headquarters bombed but was cautioned against such action by Tony Blair. Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld echoed the view of many in the pro-war crowd when he claimed the channel broadcast “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” reports over Iraq. Translation? “How dare you show civilian casualties caused by our bombs.”

The launch of AJI has been hampered by technical delays and political clashes but London bureau chief Sue Phillips tells the Guardian that because “Africans will report Africa and Asians will report Asia”, this diversity will ensure that Western “experts” won’t be the only ones telling their stories.

Carmela Baranowska, the Walkley-award winning filmmaker based in Melbourne, is one of the channel’s new recruits. She tells me that she was drawn to AJI because of its interest in news away from the headlines. Her documentary, Lives on the Edge – due to screen in early 2007 – will examine the goings-on in East Timor. She was already filming the crisis in the new nation in May before Australian peacekeepers arrived, and returned from September-November to finish the shoot.

“For us in Australia”, Baranowska says, “Timor is our next-door neighbour, but for other countries it is a forgotten part of the world, and that’s why Al-Jazeera wanted to cover it.”

She continues: “Although in Australia we’ve had so much coverage this year about Timor, we still don’t really know what’s going on there in people’s everyday lives and how they’re dealing with the current crisis.”

Her film – to be introduced by star BBC recruit Rageh Omaar, who will present a nightly documentary series called Witness – marks the beginning of a vital new experiment in global media. Al-Jazeera reaches around 50 million people in the Arab world, so AJI will undoubtedly face numerous challenges, not least the ways in which it uses language and tone. Bureau chief Sue Phillips says there will be differences between the Arabic and English channels principally because the goal is to bring the “south to the north, rather than the other way around”.

Let the revolution begin.