Bringing Al-Jazeera to Canada

TORONTO, July 26 (JTA) — Canadian Jewish officials have mixed feelings about a precedent-setting ruling by Canada’s telecommunications regulator that would allow cable distributors to import Al-Jazeera — provided they expunge any objectionable content. According to Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, allowing the Arabic-language news station into Canada in any form would open a “Pandora’s box of anti-Israeli and anti-American propaganda in Canadian living rooms.” Other Jewish officials, though, applauded the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission for its decision, which also requires cable distributors to videotape all Al-Jazeera broadcasts for review in case of later complaints. Cable industry representatives characterized the commission’s conditions as prohibitive, saying no cable company would willingly take on the responsibilities and costs associated with monitoring and censoring Al-Jazeera. Commission spokesman Philippe Tousignant said the national regulator was attempting to balance the right of Canadians to access the channel — for which there clearly is a market — with their right to freedom from hate speech. It’s the first time the commission has imposed such conditions, Tousignant said, adding that the burden placed on distributors “would not be excessive.” Commission chairman Charles Dalfen told media that cable companies would not necessarily have to censor objectionable material in advance, but would have to respond to any well-founded complaints about objectionable content or risk losing their license to carry the network. Ed Morgan, national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the ruling sensitively reflected the recommendations the Jewish group made to the commission last year. “We said, first of all, you should not license them, but if you do, you should license them with a strict regime of monitoring and you should put the onus not only on Al-Jazeera itself but on the carrier,” Morgan said. “In addition, we also recommended that videotapes be kept of everything, so if there’s a complaint we can review a show after the fact.” According to B’nai Brith Canada’s Dimant, the content of the Qatar-based network threatens Canada’s core values of tolerance and multiculturalism. The commission’s “ruling might prevent overt anti-Semitic material from being broadcast, but that doesn’t change the tone and nature of the network, which is still virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and anti-American,” he said. “Having such material coming into this country 24 hours a day is simply not conducive to a better Canada.” In a July 24 op-ed piece in Toronto’s National Post, London-based writer Mamoun Fandy wrote that, after studying Al-Jazeera for eight years, he had concluded that it was not an objective news source. He described it, instead, as “a media arm and recruiting tool of Al-Qaida” and said “it should be treated as such by all those who would permit it entry into Canada’s media market.” Michael Hennessy, president of the Canadian Cable Television Association, was one of several industry insiders to criticize the commission’s ruling, which he said violates “a long-held principle in Canada that there should be a separation of carriage and content.” “The distributors should not be permitted to alter or curtail the content they carry,” he said. “The reason for that is fundamentally to protect freedom of speech.” Hennessy also noted that cable companies do not have expertise in determining what is appropriate comment and what crosses the line into hate speech. “We’re not in the censorship business,” he said. “That’s the role of the courts.” Some commentators have noted wryly that regardless of the decision, Canadians intent on receiving Al-Jazeera may easily do so because the signal is also distributed through the DISH satellite network in the United States.

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