By OMAR ALGHABRA
Globe and Mail Update
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
On July 15, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued a conditional approval to the addition of the Arabic-language news channel Al-Jazeera for distribution by Canadian cable and satellite companies.
The conditional provisions stipulated that cable carriers could “alter or curtail” the programming of Al-Jazeera to ensure that no “abusive comment” is broadcast. But no specific definition of “abusive” was provided. This has placed the onus on cable companies to act as censors.
Most Canadians were perplexed by the harsh, ambiguous and unprecedented restrictions put forth by the CRTC decision. The controversy stirred a great deal of media attention at the time. Nearly all the editorials, commentaries and columnists agreed that the decision had amounted to unwarranted censorship.
Cable companies have already declared their refusal to carry Al-Jazeera under those terms. “Cable companies do not want to be forced into the position of having to decide what is appropriate for Canadians to watch,” said Canadian Cable Television Association president Michael Hennessy. “This sets a frightening precedent and virtually ensures that no distributor will ever carry this service in Canada.”
More than 500,000 Canadian Arabs are affected by the CRTC decision. They are being denied the right to information and news free of censorship in violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right ….. to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The CRTC is effectively denying Canadian Arabs the opportunity to seek and receive information and news from and about the Arab world through Al-Jazeera.
During the 15-month deliberation period before the decision was announced, some Canadian Jewish organizations argued that Al-Jazeera could spread hatred against Jews in Canada.
In an attempt to address those concerns, the CRTC decided to give cable companies the
unprecedented right to censor content – a responsibility usually reserved for federal and provincial regulatory bodies such as the Ontario Film Review Board. Considering that Al-Jazeera has never been viewed by most Canadians and regulatory bodies, claims against it have never been proved.
In their claim, advocates of censoring Al-Jazeera failed to make the distinction between news reporting and editorial positions. They also failed to differentiate between politically controversial discussions or racial/religious hate propaganda.
Al-Jazeera, now one of the most recognizable news organizations in the world, is arguably the most progressive civic institution in the Arab world. Its independence, professionalism and content have influenced the political landscape across the Arab region and around the world. This year, Al-Jazeera published a code of ethics governing news gathering and editorial policies, regulations that other equally professional and credible news organizations lack.
The fact is, Al-Jazeera deals, on a daily basis, with one of the world’s most dynamic and politically diverse regions. Controversial topics, provocative figures, underdeveloped political institutions and state-controlled media are elements that make up the reality of the Middle East.
Al-Jazeera does more than any other institution to deal with complex issues facing that region by drawing attention to them and challenging common assumptions. It does more for the relationship among Jews, Arabs and Muslims than many of the “peace initiatives.” It does this through interviews with officials, pundits and politicians from every side of the conflict, covering a wide range of opinions and viewpoints, thereby humanizing all sides.
Israel, which Canadian Jewish organizations say is the recipient of much of Al Jazeera criticism, has allowed the broadcast of Al-Jazeera in Israel with no restrictions.
That being said, Al-Jazeera should be expected to comply with Canadian laws and norms and should not be given any advantages. The promotion of hate against any ethnic or religious group should not be tolerated. Should it be found that Al-Jazeera has contravened Canadian laws, there are legal processes in place to address such potential violations.
The CRTC may not have intended to block the broadcasting of Al-Jazeera. But now that it is clear that this decision has led to the effective veto of its broadcast, the CRTC must reconsider the details of its ruling.
Instead of expecting the cable companies to act as censors, the CRTC, as an objective body, should monitor Al-Jazeera programming and report on its observations to Canadians. If Al-Jazeera fails to meet the professional and ethical standards of Canadian broadcasting, its licence can be reviewed or revoked.
Prejudging the leading Arabic-language news channel without due process has fed into much of the unfortunate stereotyping of Arabs that anything produced by Arabs is suspicious and questionable, an unintended consequence that should not be taken lightly.
Canada is arguably one of the most tolerant, open and multicultural countries in the world. In censoring Al-Jazeera – and, therefore, not practising what it preaches – Canada is conceding its moral high ground.
Omar Alghabra is president of the Canadian Arab Federation.