USA: Al Jazeera Blackout?

When Al Jazeera announced its plans to release English-language channel in 2005, the announcement was met with both support and protest in the United States. And so, although the US government doesn't prevent access to the channel, many cable companies are reluctant to carry it; after all, Donald Rumsfeld had accused the channel of “inciting terrorism”. On the other side of things, the U.S. cable market experiences a strong competition for bandwidth, and simply cannot carry every channel.

Subsequently, the channel has remained largely unavailable in the United States. In order to access the channel from most places within the country, Americans must pay upwards of $45 per month in addition to their usual subscription fee (on the DishTV network) – prohibitively expensive for many.

Recently, however, Burlington Telecom, owned by the small city of Burlington, Vermont (population 39,000), decided to carry Al Jazeera English, sparking debate amongst its residents and leading some groups to protest for its removal. Bloggers in the city and around the world jumped on the story. KABOBfest‘s Will (Palestine/US) explains the debate and concludes:

As we approach the end of the Bush presidency, it should be apparent to everyone that the the old thinking of “us good, them bad” is failing and having destructive repercussions. It is time Americans engage the world and expose themselves to voices beyond our borders. Al-Jazeera, English represents just that. Burlington, VT is exceptionally progressive, but these questions should be raised in every community around the country — most of which do not have televised access to Al-Jazeera, English.

Hanaan, also from KABOBfest, introduces a video (from Al Jazeera English itself) on the story, saying:

Despite its reputation for open-mindedness, there are more than a few idiots in Burlington, with the Israel Center of Vermont and the Defenders Council of Vermont leading the way:

From Burlington itself, two letter-writers are quoted in the Burlington Free Press‘ blog section. The first, Scott Baker, argues that to drop Al Jazeera from Burlington Telecom would amount to censorship:

Part of the very problem in relations between the U.S. and the Middle East is that their citizens don’t know enough about each other. Our relationship is defined by government policies, not open communication and understanding of different perspectives. Yes, Al Jazeera discusses Al Qaeda, because it’s a very real issue on its home turf. Yet, if you read and listen extensively, most Arabs and Muslims are just as angry at Al Qaeda as most Americans are.

In the same post Steve Flemer argues against Burlington Telecom's choice to host Al Jazeera English:

…It would seem to me that this fledgling city-owned outfit, already struggling with customer subscriptions far below expectations, would want to provide a varied cable menu without having to feel like they needed to make potentially self-harming political statements.

A comment on the website of Seven Days, a popular local newspaper, sums up the sentiments best, saying:

Forget conservatives versus liberals – the real debate over Al Jazeera in Burlington and elsewhere is increasingly turning into a debate between those who have watched the channel and those who have not. Those who have watched Al Jazeera on air will benefit from its strong global perspective on international news and affairs. On the flipside, most of the sections of society insisting Al Jazeera be dropped have never even watched it. Even when sets aside the fact that one group should not be allowed to impose itself on the other, the question of whose views are more credible is easy to answer.

This article also appears on Voices without Votes.


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