Yes Means No for al-Jazeera in Canada

OTTAWA – Canada’s broadcast regulator has approved Qatar-based news channel al-Jazeera for the country’s digital cable TV market, but with censorship rules that are so stringent it is unlikely to be carried in this country, say television executives.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approved al-Jazeera for digital distribution last week, but accepted demands from Jewish groups that the network be censored for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comment.

The CRTC’s conditions "guarantee al-Jazeera would lose money in Canada," says Michael Hennessey, president of the Canadian Cable Television Association, which represents the country’s five large cable TV companies and several smaller distributors.

The CRTC said distributors of the al-Jazeera signal in Canada would have to monitor the network for "abusive comment" 24 hours a day, and "alter or curtail" programming deemed to be offensive, although it did not define the term.

Some companies applied to the CRTC for a license to carry the network, but did not offer to censor it.

Launched in 1996, al-Jazeera came to prominence in the West with graphic street-level coverage of U.S. military attacks on Afghanistan after Washington launched its "war on terrorism" following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Recently, it has angered U.S. officials for broadcasting the bloody aftermath of coalition attacks in occupied Iraq.

Digital television reaches just one million Canadian homes, and subscribers decide whether they want stations. Most are likely to refuse al-Jazeera because it broadcasts in Arabic. There are about 500,000 Arabic-speaking people in Canada, according to the last national census.

The network is available uncensored in the neighboring United States and Israel, but is under increasing pressure in Islamic countries. The government of Qatar, which owns al-Jazeera, says it gets about 400 official complaints each year from Islamic countries saying the network shows bias toward Israel and the United States.

Al-Jazeera has "a view permeated with hateful messaging and vile, anti-Semitic imagery and themes that should offend a Canadian public that values tolerance and respectful diversity," says Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada.

The network is considered "the mouthpiece for the terrorist al-Qaeda organization [and] also offers its viewing audience sympathetic portrayals of terrorist bombers," he told journalists.

B’nai Brith was one of the Jewish groups that successfully argued for censorship of the network.

But Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said the decision "is just a cowardly way of keeping al-Jazeera off the air."

"The CRTC knows that none of the cable companies will pay to have people watching al-Jazeera 24 hours a day and censoring it. They didn’t have the courage to turn al-Jazeera down, so they placed restrictions on it that are so onerous and unfair that none of the cable companies will carry it," added Elmasry.

Last week’s decision is the first time the CRTC has imposed censorship rules on a television station.

Ofir Gendelman, a senior official with the Israeli embassy here, said it is "absolutely true" that his country’s citizens can get unfettered access to the 24-hour-a-day Qatar-based station.

"We know there’s anti-Semitic content on al-Jazeera and that sometimes it has been a powerful incitement to suicide bombings," Gendelman said. But "we cannot block people from receiving it."

Canadians can receive al-Jazeera uncensored from U.S. satellite companies through "grey market" systems that are illegal here. Individuals are rarely charged with a crime for having such a system, although there is a large market in Canada for HBO, Fox News, MTV and other networks that are not approved for cable TV distribution.

Omar Alghabra, president of the Canadian Arab Federation, says he is "somewhat bewildered" by Canada’s hard line. Al-Jazeera is seen throughout the Arabic-speaking world, Israel and the occupied territories without censorship but is deemed to be "too dangerous to show in Canada," he adds.

"People in Israel are accustomed to seeing the narrative toward supporting Arab nationalism that is at the heart of al-Jazeera’s programming," Alghabra told IPS. "But this narrative is absent from here."