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Al Jazeera International to Cover Burlington Telecom Meeting

Local Matters


Published May 26, 2008 at 8:33 p.m.


As supporters and critics gear up for this week’s public meeting on Burlington Telecom’s recent decision to stop airing Al Jazeera English, the conflict has attracted international media attention.

Richard Gizbert, a veteran reporter for the Arab news network in London, has hired a local film crew to cover Tuesday’s meeting of two citizens’ advisory committees.

He plans to air a report on the controversy in an upcoming segment of his international media-watch program, “Listening Post.”

Gizbert, who is not an official spokesperson for Al Jazeera, says he was intrigued when he first read about the controversy in Seven Days. The city-owned cable system is one of only two in the United States — the other is Buckeye Cable in Ohio — currently offering Al Jazeera English.

Critics of Al Jazeera have long accused the network of an anti-American and anti-Israeli bias, particularly for its coverage of the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Burlington, a number of the network’s opponents belong to the Israel Center of Vermont, which has urged its members to write to BT in support of its decision to drop Al Jazeera English.

On the official website of Temple Sinai in South Burlington, Rabbi James Scott Glazier calls Al Jazeera “nothing more than a political and religious voice piece of radical Moslems.

“While I do not endorse the silencing of opinions,” Glazier continues, “I do believe the telecommunications industry has the responsibility of presenting material which will not incite civil unrest or religious prejudice.”

Interestingly, Glazier’s posting also includes an editorial by Judea Pearl, father of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in February 2002 by Pakistani terrorists. In it, Pearl writes, “I wouldn’t call for banning Al Jazeera in the United States even if that were possible. It is important to extend a hand to the network because it can become a force for good; but it is as important for our news organizations to scrutinize its content and let its viewers know when anti-Western wishes are subverting objective truth.”

Apparently, many Israelis share Pearl’s sentiment that it’s better to “scrutinize” Al Jazeera than quash it. As Gizbert pointed out, when the main cable system in Israel began carrying Al Jazeera — bumping the BBC off the air in the process — the decision was met by virtually no local resistance. As Gizbert put it, “Israelis like to know what’s going on in their own neighborhood.”

Which is not to suggest that Israel always plays ball. Although Al Jazeera was the first Arab news network to interview Israeli government officials, in March the Israeli government announced a boycott of the network for allegedly bias coverage of the Gaza Strip conflict.

Burlington isn’t the only place where Al Jazeera has faced organized opposition from pro-Israel groups. In 2004, when the Québec-based cable company Vidéotron Itée applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for permission to broadcast Al Jazeera’s Arabic content, the petition was met with staunch opposition from Jewish and pro-Israel groups, including B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Christian Friends of Israel. About a half-million Arabic-speaking people reside in Canada, according to the country’s last census.

In its ruling, the CRTC declared that it was “not persuaded” by opponents’ claims that Al Jazeera is not a legitimate news service. In fact, many Al Jazeera reporters, like Gizbert, come from mainstream news outlets in the West, including CNN and the BBC. (Gizbert is a Canadian-born journalist who worked for ABC News in London for 11 years before being fired for his refusal to cover the war in Iraq. Later, he successfully challenged his dismissal, citing the UK’s occupational health and safety laws as a defense.)

Nonetheless, CRTC imposed broadcast restrictions so onerous — Al Jazeera would have to air on a 12-second delay and Vidéotron would need to monitor the network’s content 24 hours a day — that no cable or satellite company in Canada has been willing to carry it.

But Al Jazeera English’s opponents will likely face a much tougher fight in Burlington. Several weeks ago, BT General Manager Chris Burns told Seven Days that the decision to drop the network was in response to “dozens” of complaints he’d received from angry subscribers. In a subsequent written statement, however, Burns offered a different explanation, claiming that an annual review of BT’s network contracts found that it didn’t have one with Al Jazeera, which he said raised liability issues.

That claim couldn’t be independently verified with Al Jazeera; emails and phone calls to the network’s New York City offices went unanswered.

Local attorney and activist Sandy Baird, who opposes the decision to drop the network’s programming, said that if BT, a taxpayer-funded city department, proceeds without a public discussion, it likely won’t stand up to a legal challenge.

Baird points to a 2006 U.S. District Court case in which the ACLU of Florida and several parents challenged a decision by the Miami-Dade School Board to remove a library book because it was a sympathetic portrayal of life in Cuba. Because the library is city-owned, the court ruled, the book should remain on the shelves.

“This [decision by BT] amounts to censorship by the government, because this is also a publicly owned city utility,” Baird said. “It’s not a privately held company that can decide for itself what is shown.”

The joint meeting of the Burlington Telecom Advisory Committee and the Citizens Advisory Council will be held Tuesday, May 27, at 4 p.m. in Burlington City Hall Auditorium. Watch the meeting live on Burlington Telecom Channel 317.