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Al Jazeera launches English-language broadcast

CAIRO, Egypt—After prolonged delays and an aggressive marketing campaign, the English version of the controversial Al Jazeera television channel finally debuted Wednesday with an ambitious message: "Global media has changed forever."

That sentence flashed across TV screens as an estimated 80 million viewers in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East got their first look at Al Jazeera International's foray into the competitive market for round-the-clock news.

But few American eyes got to witness the maiden broadcast. U.S. distributors are still too wary of association with a brand that's been criticized as "the terrorist channel," so it's available only for a fee via Internet services VDC (www.vdc.com) and Jump TV (www.jumptv.com).

For all the hoopla surrounding Al Jazeera International, known as AJI, many viewers found the broadcast subdued and straightforward. There were no grainy hostage videos or Osama bin Laden diatribes, the kind of reports that created the Arabic-language version's notoriety. The channel broadcast for only 12 hours Wednesday; it hopes to begin 24-hour broadcasting in January.

Viewers saw in-depth reports on subjects that ranged from a tsunami scare in Japan to the Darfur crisis in Sudan.

"It looks and feels very much like BBC and Sky News," said Lawrence Pintak, director of the Cairo-based Adham Center for Television Journalism, referring to two British satellite broadcasts. "The story selection and approach is very akin to the BBC, and the emphasis on Africa is definitely not similar to Al Jazeera. The real test will be how they'll cover a major story involving the Arab world."

Many media analysts have hailed Al Jazeera as the catalyst for an information revolution in the Islamic world, the first Arab-owned station to challenge the region's authoritarian governments as well as their Western allies.

Critics, however, charge that Al Jazeera demonizes the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and whips up Arab anger with graphic footage of bleeding Palestinians or dead Lebanese children, for example.

Like the original channel, AJI is owned by the emir of Qatar, who allows the station independence that sets it apart from other satellite stations in the Middle East.

The startup of the English-language spinoff coincides with Al Jazeera's tenth anniversary on air, and the first broadcast paid homage to Al Jazeera journalists killed on the job. Footage showed the Al Jazeera offices in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq, which had been bombed by U.S. forces.

"I'm happy to see an English channel with an Arab perspective," said Janet Sandle, who works at the American University in Cairo. "I thought it looked very professional. They had coverage of breaking news, although it was their launch. It had a full bulletin and a variety of good stories."

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict led the first newscast, with anchors reporting on an Israeli woman killed by a Palestinian rocket. They quickly juxtaposed that development with a reminder of the much higher toll of Palestinians killed by Israelis in the Gaza Strip. Next came the tsunami watch off the coast of Japan, the misery in refugee camps in Sudan, and then updates on Iraq, Zimbabwe, Iran and Russia.

"I like how they have in-depth reports. It's not just a short report attached with a couple of pictures," said Andrew Bossone, a writer for a business monthly in Cairo. "For a major satellite launch, I'm very impressed."

The bulk of programming will still come from headquarters in the Qatari capital of Doha, with the rest divided among broadcast centers in Washington, London and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The new English-language broadcast employs about 800 people from more than 50 nations. The lineup includes news, analysis, documentaries, talk shows and a woman-focused program.

The channel recruited some big names in television: British television legend David Frost, Emmy-winning "Nightline" veteran David Marash, and Rageh Omaar, a Somali-born journalist famous in Britain for his Iraq reporting. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has agreed to be the first world leader interviewed by the network.

The months before the launch were marked with internal grumbling, with some Arab employees of the original Al Jazeera concerned that the new channel was hiring too many Westerners who would water down the distinctive brand. They also complained that their AJI colleagues were better paid and received more perks. AJI barred its journalists from speaking publicly about the dispute, but it issued statements saying it had formed a committee to bridge the cultural divide.

Nigel Parsons, the British managing director of AJI, has promised that the new channel isn't going to be simply a translation of the Arabic version. It will have original programming and separate staff and broadcast centers around the world.

"We are here to build on the heritage of Al Jazeera and bring their brand of fearless journalism to a much wider audience," Parsons told McClatchy Newspapers in an interview last spring.

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ON THE WEB

Readers in the United States interested in viewing Al Jazeera International can go to VDC.com or JumpTV.com to access the broadcast. Both sites require payments.

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(McClatchy correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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