Why Al Jazeera English is blocked in the U.S.

Finally, I’m happy that I watched an episode of Frontline’s “News War” series on TV. The first three were very disappointing — stuffy, predictable, old-fashioned and dull.

In the fourth installment, “Stories from a Small Planet,” the series focuses on something that is not old and stale. It is the biggest uncovered story in the U.S. — the rest of the world.

The first half focuses on Al Jazeera and some other Arab or Near East-based television networks, including Alhurra TV, the U.S. government-funded network (where our tax dollars are hard at work, spreading propaganda abroad). While not quite as informative as the documentary Control Room (2003), “Stories from a Small Planet” provides a decently paced overview of broadcast journalism outside the Western countries. The second half skips around and ignores Latin America and Africa, but briefly looks at the Philippines and China.

Now, as to why the whole of the United States is prevented from receiving the global news channel Al Jazeera English — via cable or satellite network. Look no further than Accuracy in Media. Yes, the ultra-conservative media watchdog organization. There they are, proudly showing off letters from their campaign to inform every U.S. cable and satellite provider about just how harmful and dangerous Al Jazeera English would be if it were broadcast in the U.S.

Since when are Americans opposed to an open marketplace of ideas?

I’ve said it before — I would pay a premium to get Al Jazeera English on my cable TV lineup. I would like to hear other points of view. Not because I am anti-American, but because I don’t think we can know what’s true if opposing views are censored.

There’s a ton of supplemental material online for “Stories from a Small Planet” at the Frontline/World site:

Update: Here is what Accuracy in Media published about Al Jazeera English in November 2006:

The American people do not want Al-Jazeera International in their homes or businesses. In fact, a recent poll revealed that 53 percent of people oppose Al-Jazeera International, while only 29 percent support the channel. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has not responded quickly enough to the rise of Al-Jazeera International, and it was recently reported that the network will launch on November 15, though at this point there are no U.S. cable companies that have announced plans to carry it. When asked to comment on the new Al-Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, Director General of the Al-Jazeera Network, stated ominously, “The new channel will provide the same ground-breaking news and impartial and balanced journalism to the English speaking world.” Indeed, Khanfar sardonically supports Kincaid’s assertions that Al-Jazeera International and the Arabic Al-Jazeera are entirely similar. Kincaid warns that this issue is of the utmost importance, and if Al-Jazeera makes waves on American cable, then the possibility of suicide bombers in America could lurk close behind.

It is interesting that they refer to a supposed poll and never name the poll or provide any information about who sponsored the poll, when or where the poll was conducted, or what questions were asked in the poll.

If 29 percent of Americans polled supposedly “support” the channel, why is not being carried on any U.S. satellite or cable service?

And how is it possible that a supposed 53 percent of Americans “oppose” Al Jazeera — when they have never even seen it? How can you oppose something that you have no experience with — an information source you have never seen? Do they oppose it because the poll-takers described it to them as the network that will create “the possibility of suicide bombers in America”? Hm?

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23 Comments on “Why Al Jazeera English is blocked in the U.S.

  1. I was just about to write a post lumping on China for it’s latest censorship efforts (and drawing from your Malaysia post) when I saw this, which I’ll now put in my post as well.

    Censoring information just doesn’t do anybody any good, and every time I hear of another country doing it, especially my own, I hang my head and point to China. So much energy is spent on keeping up appearances instead of fixing problems. It’s amazing here, both the extent of the restrictions and the bluntness with which they’re applied.

    By the way, up until an hour ago I had to use a proxy to view your blog now, since all BlogSpot sites were blocked last week. Who knows what I’ll be able to access tomorrow.

  2. I look forward to reading your post, Chris. Funny how the minute you mention “free speech,” someone wants to shut you down or censor your words.

    Why is it not obvious that the only people who are afraid of free speech are the people with something to hide?

  3. Not that this addresses your concerns over censorship in mainstream distribution channels, but I watch Al Jazeera English almost every day and in Washington, DC at that. You can subscribe to it for about $6/mo. through Real’s extremely wonky interface. You can access it by cutting and pasting this link into Real Player “http://europe.real.com/smil/aljazeera_us_aj.smil”. It streams at either 320K or 500K, which looks pretty good. Especially so if you’re watching it on an analog TV. It is an excellent channel, calm, informative, and completely without the sensationalist tendencies of American and, increasingly, other Western media outlets. It’s well worth it until it becomes available in another way.

  4. If we are going to shut down news services based on popularity in polls, then Faux News should be banned as well. It’s owned and run by foreigners (Australian Rupert Murdoch), and certainly does not have the support of most of the American people. A substantial percentage of citizens think Faux has a malign influence on our polity, and Faux is notorious for slanting its news and outright lying.

  5. If only 53% oppose it, doesn’t that mean that 47% either want it or don’t care.

    What is with this tyranny of a small majority over the minority?

  6. Al Jazeera English is streamed live, free of charge, by Live TV. The video quality isn’t the best but the price is right.

  7. While I can’t condone the idea of censoring an entire television station in the U.S. (though there are exceptions, of course, as if Hezbollah’s channel tried to broadcast here), I don’t think we should fool ourselves that Al Jazeera is by any means an ‘unbiased’ news source. Anybody who’s watched the channel, read the website (where the anti-Shiite, pro-Sunni bias really comes out), or seen the “Control Room” documentary should know that.

    Time and again Al Jazeera’s reporters and executives talk about placing themselves in opposition to the American government and media — and whether or not you agree with them doing that, it places them right in “biased” territory. It’s just like how Fox News likes to present themselves as an alternative to a supposedly liberal media.

    But, either way, Fox News is allowed to broadcast, and so, most likely, should Al Jazeera English. Biased or not.

  8. It’s not really pertinent whether it’s unbiased or not, I think. It’s a reality that a lot of people watch it and the majority of them probably believe what they see on it. Consequently, it’s important. We don’t have to like it – I’m willing to be the people who study cancer or e coli don’t necessarily have a warm fuzzy feeling about it, but we don’t have to love something to think it’s important to understand it.

  9. Mindy,
    As a professor of online journalism, you really need to strive to be accurate, and yet the title of your post is not accurate. Al Jazeera isn’t “blocked,” no one carries the English version in the U.S. There is a big difference between “blocking” a channel and cable and satellite TV providers deciding not to carry it.

    Al Jazeera is free to do what Fox News did when Fox News started. Fox News bought a local TV station in New York so they would be carried on cable (because of the local must-carry rules for cable). No one is stopping Al Jazeera from doing this.

    I pray you are more accurate in the future and that you teach your students that a hallmark of a good journalism accuracy.

  10. Not that i think things should be censored, but im not sure that Al Jazeera should be categorized as a strict news agency either. The reason that im saying that is because the first (and only) experience where ive seen Al Jazeera report something was after an attack on American soldiers in Iraq several years ago. American news agencies were saying that the casualty count isnt known while Al Jazeera was saying that around 100 Americans died in the attack. About a day or so later, the news came out that less than a dozen (if memory serves) were killed. This seems to point that American news leans to “no info is better than wrong info” whereas Al Jazeera leans to “speculative info is better than nothing at all”. If im watching a so called news program, i tend to assume there is accuracy and accountability involved. I wish i could remember more details about the exact story, but unfortunately i dont. Maybe someone else reading this will remember or have a similar experience.


  11. Tom: Actually Rupert Murdoch is a naturalized American and has been since 1985. Speaking as an Australian you can keep him, we don’t want him back. Also News Corp (which owns Fox News) is a publicly traded company incorporated in the state of Delaware. The headquarters is in New York City.

  12. I would never say Al Jazeera is an unbiased news source.

    I would never say CNN is an unbiased news source, either.

    Fox is not the only American news channel that has a bias. Every American news channel has an American bias.

  13. Isn’t Al Jazeera still available for free on C Band satellite dish systems?
    Not sure about now but back in 2001 when I replaced my eye sore monster 10 foot dish antenna with one of the small neat DishNetwork systems, it was still on it as well as a bunch of other foreign news channels from Germany, China, Japan, etc…

  14. Besides the inaccuracy of the story with regards to not being able to get Al Jazeera, I would like to point out that the Guardian is anything but the finest newspaper in the English Speaking world!

    It is the Official newspaper of New Labour, and carries all the press releases of the government along with authorized comment. 40% of its advertising budget comes from the BBC, which in itself is a publicly funded organization – and it still can’t make any money!
    For my money, I find Google News is the best way of finding news that your local news broadcasters decide is unworthy of your attention!

  15. @perry: “What is with this tyranny of a [small] majority over the minority?”

    uhm, that would be called a democracy.

  16. I live in Uk, and watch Al Jazeera English as my main source. They have an ‘all-star’ cast of journalists which presents a UNBIASED news (the first unbiest news i’ve seen)and VERY infomative progammes and documentries.

  17. I would actually say the best newspaper in English is Haaretz.

  18. Just a quick post-script on my earlier comment:

    It looks like BlogSpot is blocked again in China. It came back for about two days, but we’ve since lost access to both the blogs and the Blogger dashboard. I’m using a proxy to put in this comment. Xanga, LiveJournal and WordPress.com are still blocked.

    What’s more troubling perhaps, at least from a personal standpoint, is how normal this is all becoming.

    Also, the post I mentioned is up:

  19. In reference to the opinion poll
    cited in the blog, several points merits attention:

    The survey serves as an example
    about how a polling agency exploited the lack of awareness of a few hundred respondents to imply
    a wider dislike towards Al Jazeera. A close scrutiny of the poll also hints about the prevalent indifference and ignorance about the channel or its contents.


    Some less publicised statistics from the survey:
    7% said they need to know more
    9% said they don’t have any idea
    Thus about 16% admit insufficient information; 29% reflect support while 17% say they may probably oppose. This adds up to about 62% saying that a position about a TV channel will remain subject to conditions and qualifications while 38% said they would ‘definitely oppose’ the English language news channel.

    Young adults (aged 18-24) were the age group most in favor of AJE as the demographic cohort most likely to support the new network.

    African-Americans were more likely than Whites and Hispanics to say the U.S. governent should allow Al-Jazeera to broadcast its new network to American Households (31% as compared to 24% and 26% respectively).
    Senior Citizens (aged 65+) were the age group most against AJE

    By and large the opinion gathered opinion from mostly uninformed individuals.

    American viewers will soon realize through the ever increasing comments, reviews, feedback and opinion pieces in print, electronic and cyber media what they are missing out in terms of content richness, analytical depth and toics covered by Al Jazeera.

  20. That poll is here (a PDF file) — THANK YOU for the link, “purplexed”!

  21. This is an old thread but I just found it when looking for info about Al-Jazeera being censored in the USA.

    According to British journal The Guardian Al-Jazeera has “just become available to computer users live over broadband on the Livestation Network in every country except the US, where it is blocked”.

    Does anyone know if Al-Jazeera indeed has been blocked or if they suffer the same with Livestation as they do/did with US cable distributors – that they are not delivered?

  22. Thank God for livestation! I love love love love aljazeera english. I love how they have correspondents in literally every corner of the world covering everything from chips to ships.

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