- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Despite the govern- ment’s strict press regulations, the decision last month by Arab satellite station Al Jazeera to make Kuala Lumpur its Asian head-quarters for a new 24-hour English-language channel was welcomed by officials here.

“It gives us an opportunity to be a model and example and inspiration to the rest of the world,” said Information Minister Abdul Kadir Sheik Fadzir.

Al Jazeera’s presence will offer Malaysia another chance to raise its profile among viewers in neighboring countries. The station plans to begin broadcasts of its English-language channel in November, with a local staff of about 50 and a startup budget of about $200 million, Malaysian officials said.

Hong Kong and Singapore also submitted bids for the station, but insiders say Kuala Lumpur was chosen because operating costs would be lower and Malaysia is a stable Muslim country with adequate infrastructure.

Gauging by what Al Jazeera broadcasts on its Arabic-language channel, available in this country with dubbing and subtitles in Malay, there may be little to celebrate by hearing it in English. Although many Muslims laud the station for reporting the “truth,” others blame it for fanning the hatred and self-pity that is hobbling the Islamic world, with its repeated airings of civilian Muslim casualties, obfuscation — like calling suicide bombings “martyrdom operations” — and the generous airtime offered to those preaching anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism.

Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for instance, on his influential program, recently issued a fatwa urging the killing of all foreign “occupiers” in Iraq, military or civilian. He is hardly an exception.

But Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al Jazeera, said, “We are seeking to appeal to a global audience, not just Muslims. We might have a ready and interested audience in non-Arabic-speaking Muslims, but they are not our sole target.”

In effect, Al Jazeera will be competing against Western channels to capture English-speaking audiences. If it succeeds, said one Al Jazeera correspondent, it will be the station’s second major breakthrough in its eight-year history — the first being its founding as the first unrestricted 24-hour Arab news network.

To reach non-Muslims in the region, Al Jazeera will need to drop the incendiary tone that has made it a smash in the Middle East — a move it plans to make, said Nicholas Shariff Mazlan Collins, head of assessment and marketing for the Multimedia Development Corp.

“There will be a different editorial team, different presenters — a different look and feel,” Mr. Collins said.

He said all the Al Jazeera officials he met who came to Kuala Lumpur to finalize the deal were British or British Broadcasting Corp.-trained. “They told us they’re fed up with slants, they don’t want to have an Arab slant.”

Conspicuous slants on other satellite news operations such as Fox and CNN have alienated some viewers, opening the door to hopefuls like Al Jazeera, which claims 35 million daily viewers worldwide. But Al Jazeera has a history of “mimicking Western norms of journalistic fairness while pandering to pan-Arab sentiments,” said Middle East observer Fouad Ajami.

It will be tempting not to continue the trend.

Al Jazeera and the few Arab competitors that have risen in its wake are arguably the most potent form of retaliation to Western cultural and military dominance available to Muslim countries. With the stations’ rise, the Arab world suddenly finds itself standing toe-to-toe with the big guns of Western broadcast media, able to react or respond at a moment’s notice, and their mass appeal is palpable.

Most Malaysian analysts say they eagerly await a greater Al Jazeera presence in the region, whatever shape it takes, because it will offer viewers a different perspective. Indeed, 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 governments to change or risk being ignored.

In places like Malaysia, which consistently lands at the bottom of press-freedom indexes, a strong challenge to the status quo will be welcome. Mr. Collins said the Malaysian government has no intentions of tampering with Al Jazeera’s content.

“Al Jazeera is nothing to fear. They will challenge local [Malaysian] media to do better,” said Mohammad Hamdan Adnan, head of Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission.

But can they challenge people to do better?

The answer may lie in whether Al Jazeera’s intention is truly to grow — or just to expand.

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