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Free Speech or Hate Speech? Canadian Groups Fight Al-jazeera

May 7, 2003
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Officials of Canada’s two leading Jewish advocacy groups are opposing plans to give Canadian cable TV subscribers the option of watching the Al-Jazeera news network.

“Our argument against Al-Jazeera has nothing to do with its political viewpoint. We don’t like it but that’s not the issue,” said Jack Silverstone, national executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

“They have on numerous occasions broadcast the most vicious anti-Semitic propaganda, any instance of which would have clearly been in breach of Canadian law,” Silverstone said. “We believe that if they are allowed to enter into this market, they will violate Canadian law on an ongoing basis.”

In April, the Canadian Cable Television Association, which represents cable providers across the country, applied to the federal telecommunications commission for permission to import Al-Jazeera along with four other ethnic or “third-language” channels.

The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission is currently studying the application before requesting public comments. CRTC officials say the process of accepting or rejecting the application may take several months to a year, or even more.

The Qatar-based network, whose name translates as “the peninsula,” first gained prominence in the West after broadcasting videotapes of Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It further increased its name recognition after the Afghanistan war of October 2001, when the ruling Taliban expelled all foreign journalists, leaving Al-Jazeera to supply exclusive war footage to Western networks.

Often described as the CNN of the Arabic world, the provocative news-based network enraged many Americans and their allies during the recent Gulf War by broadcasting prolonged, gory shots of American casualties and POWs in Iraq.

Critics, however, say Al-Jazeera has the external veneer of CNN — attractive anchors, expensive studios and fancy graphics — but lacks the U.S. station’s commitment to unbiased, objective journalism.

Al-Jazeera glorifies Palestinian suicide bombers and routinely broadcasts anti-Semitic diatribe and Holocaust denial, according to Keith Landy, the national president of the congress, who has documented examples to submit to the telecommunications commission.

In an Op-Ed piece that appeared in Toronto’s National Post and the Montreal Gazette, Landy argued that Al-Jazeera should not be allowed into Canada because it contravenes the nation’s core values. Canadian law, he noted, protects people from any abusive comment that promotes hatred or that is likely to expose them to hatred or contempt.

The Canadian Jewish Congress’ reason for opposing Al-Jazeera “has nothing to do with conflicting points of view or ‘undesirable’ material,” Landy wrote, but “has everything to do with opposing anti-Semitic hatred, affirming Canadian values, respecting Canadian law and upholding the Canadian public interest.”

In an April 15 statement, the Canadian Islamic Congress expressed support for the bid to import Al-Jazeera.

“It is a matter of morals and principles,” said Mohamed Elmasry, the group’s national president. “There are two Canadian rights which must be upheld here — freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

More surprisingly, the usually pro-Israel National Post also urged the telecommunications commission to approve Al-Jazeera in an April 25 editorial that began, “We never thought we’d be saying this, but we wish Canadians had some of the freedoms Iraqis enjoy.”

Acknowledging that Al-Jazeera “sometimes spews anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli vitriol,” the Post went on to argue that “content-based censorship has no place in a democratic society that puts its faith in a free marketplace of ideas.”

“If the Arab world is being stirred up en masse with satellite-broadcast demagoguery, it would be far better for observers in the West to be made aware of its malign influence,” the Post suggested. “Sticking our heads in the sand will get us nowhere.”

Some consumers already receive the signal by tapping into an American feed via satellite dish, which is illegal, said Janet Yale, president and CEO of the cable television association. In the United States, the Colorado-based Dish Network of Echostar Corp. supplies a satellite feed to a pool of subscribers that reportedly exceeds 100,000.

“I don’t think of this as a freedom of speech issue,” Yale said. “I think of it in terms of consumer demand and a presumption of lawfulness, because they’re already in markets all around the world.

“We’re just trying to make sure that there are a diversity of viewpoints available on an issue of significant international importance.”

Suanne Kelman, director of broadcasting at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto, acknowledges that many viewers would regard some of Al-Jazeera’s content as abhorrent, but argues that consumers should still be allowed to see it.

“I don’t think it’s right for the community to try to get it censored in advance,” Kelman said. “Let a distributor put in an application and once it starts running, if it violates our hate laws, then we can follow the proper legal channel.”

Even if the CRTC is presented with a list of recent examples of hate speech that Al-Jazeera has aired, it still should give the network the benefit of the doubt and allow it into Canada, Kelman said.

“I dislike censorship. I would like to have it available even though I know perfectly well that it’s anti-Semitic, because I don’t think it’s at a level of sophistication that is going to influence most Canadians,” she said.

“I’d rather have the window open on the Arab world to show how they think and how they see things,” she continued. “I think that some of the left wing here might get a healthy shock from seeing how the Arab world sees things.”

Jewish officials contend that it would be highly difficult to monitor the content of the network, which broadcasts in Arabic around the clock, and that even if it spews illegal hatred, it would be difficult to retract its license once approved.

“We can’t say, ‘Come into Canada, broadcast hate speech, and afterwards we’ll try to get you removed from the airwaves,’ ” said Frank Dimant, national executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada. “I think that’s ludicrous. We know the entity. We know the track record. Al-Jazeera simply doesn’t have a place in Canada.”

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