Don’t censor Al-Jazeera

Last week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission managed to eviscerate free speech in Canada – under the pretense of protecting us from harm.

For the first time in its history, the CRTC has asked cable television distributors to censor all "abusive" material from a news network, the Arabic-language satellite station Al-Jazeera, as a precondition for them carrying its 24-hour-a-day programming.

Why target only Al-Jazeera? Why not other news networks like CNN, BBC or even our CBC?

The new CRTC rules are designed to keep anti-Semitic or other abusive comments off the air. In principle, this apparent concern for human rights is laudable. In practice, however, these limitations will prove virtually impossible to enforce.

To turn commercial distributors into unpaid censors is impractical and flies against any notion that Canada is a liberal democracy whose constitution protects free expression. Moreover, to target only Al-Jazeera with this unprecedented condition is beyond discriminatory – it is racist.

No distributor can afford to monitor a 24-7 news network: Even if they wanted to, the costs of compliance would be astronomical. If CRTC chairman Charles Dalfen is so ignorant that he does not know this, he should step down. But in all likelihood, he knew perfectly well what the attendant would be. In effect, the decision is the same as if he’d denied the Al-Jazeera license application outright. But he didn’t have the guts to do that, so he opted for the devious route. Nice try, Mr. Dalfen.

What about allegations by the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) that Al-Jazeera has broadcast material that is anti-Semitic? These allegations are old news and are repeatedly issued in place of legitimate arguments. In fact, Al-Jazeera’s management has maintained categorically that no employee of its organization has ever uttered statements that could be characterized as anti-Semitic. And I believe them, because this news network – known far and wide as "the CNN of the Middle East" – recruits only the best from among Western-trained professional journalists, whose backgrounds span major British, European, and North American networks, including the BBC.

If what the CJC has alleged is true, would it not make more sense that Israel itself would ban Al-Jazeera reporters from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories? So far, it has never done so. It seems the CJC is more concerned about potential anti-Jewish hate speech than Israeli Jews themselves.

Al-Jazeera offers news and views from an area of the world dotted by hotspots of conflict and political tension – such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Sudan and Algeria. It has more of its own reporters working in these dangerous zones than any other news network on the planet.

Such intense, on-the-spot coverage of Middle East news has certainly resulted in outbursts of harsh criticism from all sides. "Poisonous," "hostile," "destabilizing" – such terms have been used to describe the popular satellite news channel ever since it began broadcasting from its headquarters in Qatar in 1996.

the fact that Al-Jazeera regularly invites Israeli officials to comment on news of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Egyptian magazine Rose El-Youssef argued that a boycott of Al-Jazeera is even more urgent than a boycott of Israel. When the network began covering the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, the government of Sudan confiscated Al-Jazeera reporters’ equipment and detained them. For the past year or so, the Bush administration has also voiced ongoing criticism of the network’s coverage in Iraq. Washington asserts that Al-Jazeera broadcasts encourage anti-American feeling in the Arab world and accused it of being a co-opted mouthpiece to spread terrorists’ statements to the world. But the charge makes little sense: As American military bases and armament stores within Qatar’s borders demonstrate, nobody can accuse Qataris of working against U.S. interests.

Since 1996, the Qatari foreign ministry has received more than 400 formal complaints from governments – mostly Arab governments – with some closing Al-Jazeera bureaus within their borders in protest. Such censorship is to be expected from the developing world. Now, however, Canada is effectively following suit.

In a democratic society, all voices should be heard – even ones whose viewpoint some of us might oppose. My organization, the Canadian Islamic Congress, disagrees with much of what is published in this newspaper, for example. But we still support its right to publish, and the right of people to buy it.

Canadians must question the CRTC’s decision to sacrifice Canadian rights of free speech to silence an Arabic-language news network whose only sin, ironically, is that it believes in the Western notion of freedom of speech.


First appeared in the National Post (Canada)