Thursday, June 24, 2004

The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) wants to start a 24-hour BBC Arabic television service that would rival Arabic channel Al Jazeera.

The media outlet is developing a proposal after a request from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO).

“The FCO asked the BBC World Service to develop a proposition for a BBC Arabic television service of news, information, discussion programs and documentaries,” the BBC said in a statement released Thursday.

The new BBC Arabic channel would compete directly with Al Jazeera, the Arabic channel known for playing tapes from terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Al Jazeera is not worried that the BBC will steal viewers.

“They might be a competition, but I think that Al Jazeera is strong enough to solidify its position. We are very popular in the Arab world — our audience trusts us,” said Hussein, a journalist for Al Jazeera who declined to give his full name.

Trust is a major issue as to whether a British-funded Arabic channel would succeed in Arab countries.

“It’s a question of credibility, and in any media outlet it takes time to establish credibility,” Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum of the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “If media is established in an open and balanced way, it will get credibility.”

BBC’s proposed channel comes five months after the U.S.-funded channel Al Hurra began broadcasting to the Middle East. Al Hurra has faced considerable mistrust and opposition from Arab viewers.

Ms. Kipper said she said doesn’t think that trust will be a problem for a BBC Arab station.

“It is certainly true that the BBC has more credibility than any of the U.S. outlets has,” she said.

The proposition for the BBC channel comes as the popularity of satellite TV grows in the Middle East.

The BBC would not discuss details for the channel, to be broadcast across the Middle East and Europe.

“BCC World Service has made it clear that this proposition needs to be seen as a discrete proposal,” the BBC statement said.

BBC World Services has attempted an Arabic channel in the past. Funded by Orbit Communications, which was controlled by the Saudi royal family, BBC Arabic Television lasted two years. It was forced to shut down in April 1996 when Orbit backed out over editorial disagreements.

Many of its staff members joined the upstart Al Jazeera station, which began broadcasting in November 1996.

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