By Michele Chabin Special for USA TODAY
JERUSALEM - Media watchers in the Middle East say the Arabic news network Al Jazeera is well known for promoting radical Islamist causes overseas, but it remains to be seen how it will present the news on its newly purchased U.S. cable channel.
Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli research institute that studies Palestinian society and the Arab world through their media and educational materials, said there is "a big difference" between Al Jazeera's Arabic programming and its international English-language broadcasts.
"The Arab broadcasts very often promote a very radical Islamist approach," said Marcus.
"What's brilliant," Marcus said, is the way the company "binds this in with all the latest technology and even occasionally interviews with differing opinions, including Israeli leaders." This creates a "perception" of balanced reporting, Marcus said, "but in fact, the overall underlying agenda is very radical."
Daoud Kuttab, the Jordan-based director of the Community Media Network, a Middle East media group, said Al Jazeera's Arabic-language programming "is very different" from its English counterpart.
The tone of the English broadcasts "is much calmer, and the diversity of its reporters and anchors make it a much more international media outlet than an Arabic one."
Asked if Al Jazeera takes sides, Kuttab said it "tries to represent the Arab point of view, just as NBC presents an American point of view when reporting from Afghanistan."
Al Jazeera was begun in 1996 and owned by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, an Arab monarch who has offered support to Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group in Gaza, and presides over an authoritarian regime.
Freedom House, a U.S.-based group that monitors repression worldwide, has given Qatar its lowest rating of "Not Free." Homosexuality is a crime in Qatar, journalists are sometimes jailed and non-Muslims are discriminated against.
On Wednesday it was announced that Al Jazeera English bought Current TV, a news channel whose chairman is former U.S. vice president Al Gore. Al Jazeera English said it would provide international and domestic news on the channel in place of Current TV programming.
Current TV is broadcast to about 40 million homes, well above the 4.7 million homes that currently access Al Jazeera English.
Stan Collender, a spokesman for Al Jazeera, insisted that the new channel "will offer straightforward, in-depth journalism." Others are not so sure.
"There are two Al Jazeeras: one Arabic, one English," agreed Khaled Abu Toameh, a Jerusalem-based Arab journalist who closely follows media in the Arab world.
"The one in English is relatively good. I'd call it real journalism," Abu Toameh said. "The one in Arabic started off as a good TV station that brought something new to the Arab world" as an alternative to state-run media.
In recent years, he said there is a feeling among many Arabs and Muslims "that it is serving as a platform for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations."
"When you're sitting as an Arab viewer and the reporter says, 'Let's speak to Ahmed, an eyewitness in Damascus,' you don't learn who Ahmed is or his background. It feels like propaganda."
The news media watchdog Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America or CAMERA, which frequently takes U.S. outlets to task over errors in reporting on Israel, says the network has been assailed for bias even in the Middle East.
In 2004, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi temporarily shut down Al Jazeera's broadcast in Iraq because he said it was inciting violence and racial hatred. In 2008, former ABC-TV Nightline reporter Dave Marash, brought on to anchor Al Jazeera English for American audiences, quit after two years and said the anti-American bias at the station was "reflexive."
"The agreement by Al Jazeera cable television network to buy Current TV is not necessarily a plus for U.S. cable operators or their audiences," said Andrea Levin, president and executive director of CAMERA. Al Jazeera Arabic "is not the Middle East equivalent of CNN, as it is often but mistakenly described," Levin said.
CAMERA says one of the network's most popular programs is Shariah and Life, hosted by Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a former "spiritual guide" of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Qaradawi has called for conversion of Europe and North America to Islam and a Muslim-led genocide of Israel and the Jews, Levin said.
Although it is too soon to know what kind of broadcasts Al Jazeera will deliver in the U.S., Marcus said, "it will be very careful how it slips its radical agenda" into its coverage.
"We can be sure it will be there and that it will be subtle," he said.
Kuttab agreed that the Arabic version of Al Jazeera "has more spin" because he said it is appealing to an Arab audience.
"Does it have a bias? Yes, but that's true of every other media in the world," he said.
Viewers of the new U.S. broadcasts can expect "a different priority" and "emphasis" than what they're used to.
"They can expect the humanization of the Arab world rather than a mere dealing with Arabs as numbers or pawns in a political game," Kuttab said.
Abu Toameh believes that American viewers can expect "relatively fair coverage" of world events.
"Al Jazeera cannot try to sell the goods they're selling in the Arab world to Westerners."