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September 22, 2006

Watch That Box for al-Jazeera, and More

by Jim Lobe

LONDON - The appearance of an English-language service from al-Jazeera television will mark more than expansion of a company; it will come as one of the biggest challenges yet to the dominance of Western news providers, academics say.

"The forthcoming launch of al-Jazeera International, the English-language edition of the pan-Arabic news network, is likely to influence the way television news is received in newsrooms around the world," Prof. Daya Thusu from the University of Westminster in London told IPS. "It is likely to challenge the dominance of the Anglo-American news networks."

Given that the Arabic world that al-Jazeera covers closely is among the most newsy areas in the world, and is likely to remain so for a long time, this new development is a critical one, Thusu said.

"An Arabic perspective on what is happening in a geopolitically and economically important part of the world becomes very important for our understanding of international issues," he said following a seminar held at the University of Westminster last week on internationalizing the media.

"The United States has now labeled the 'war on terrorism' as 'a long war,' which may also be reflected in the war on the airwaves," Thusu said. "This may not be a bad thing after all."

The conference, which brought together media experts and academics from almost 50 countries, addressed many of the political issues arising from the internationalization of the media. It sought to address issues faced both by those in the media and those studying media.

"The idea of organizing an international conference on how we study the media emerged from a general sense of dissatisfaction about the dominance of Anglo-American models of studying the media at a time when media themselves have become global," Thusu said. "The conference succeeded in creating a much greater awareness about the need to be more cosmopolitan when thinking about the media."

The internationalizing of media is intensely political, and consequently unavoidably controversial. And al-Jazeera remains among the most controversial news providers.

But it is not the first challenger to established media. "Historically alternative media has been around, and it has always challenged traditional media," Robin Mansell, president of the International Association for Media and Communication Research based in the United States told IPS. "What has changed is the global dimension of the new media."

But simply a creation of new media is not challenge enough, Mansell said. "How far that new challenge works in parallel with existing media, and how far it presents an alternative viewpoint that is valued all over the world is a difficult question."

But was it a question of credibility? "I think credibility has always been an issue for media," Mansell said. "With new media, there is a similar problem of questioning the origin of stories."

And would the diverging political backgrounds of the news providers imply different news values? "I think there are arguments in every culture about what is news," Mansell said, "although it is something of a chimera. Values have changed with time."

The change is not coming by way of al-Jazeera alone. Other news providers from other countries are gaining ground – and air. News channels such as the Chinese CCTV9 and NDTV from India have been gaining audiences, Thusu said.

"Add to this the growing contra-flow of media products from the global South to the North and within the South; examples include Bollywood, Korean cinema, Japanese animation, Arabic news," Thusu told delegates earlier.

But such a shift to the south in media dominance is not new, he said.

"It is important to remind ourselves that an international approach to studying and researching media would acknowledge that it has a global history, that printing was invented in China, not in Frankfurt, that the first printing press in the Ottoman Empire was established in 1511, and the first printing press in the Americas was not in the USA but in Mexico, in 1535," Thusu said.

"India had a daily newspaper in 1780, while by 1870s more than 140 newspapers in Indian languages were circulating there. The first Arabic newspaper was launched in 1789, while the first overseas Chinese newspaper was founded in San Francisco in 1854. There is a long history of media outside the standard Anglo-American or European version of it."

India and China will have increasing impact on media and media studies, he said.

"The economic growth of India and the 'peaceful rising' of China – the two ancient civilizations with huge potential to influence the emerging global 'knowledge society' – are likely to affect the way media studies is theorized," Thusu said.

"The Chinese version of media marketization – where the state has played a central role in globalization – offers interesting sites for future media and communication research."

Thusu added: "If the cultural cracks that have emerged in the 'global village' in the wake of 9/11 and its aftermath are not to become chasms, inter-cultural communication will have to be deployed effectively. This would mean moving toward an innovative, more inclusive, and cosmopolitan research agenda, one that cuts across disciplinary, ethnic, national, and religious boundaries to encompass the multi-vocal, multi-directional, and multimedia flows that make up the landscape of global communication."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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