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Al-Jazeera English hits the airwaves

Al-Jazeera’s English-language news channel hit the airwaves on Wednesday with a heavyweight cast of presenters and the ambition to compete with Western broadcasting giants.

Al-Jazeera English, sister channel of Qatar’s Arabic television al-Jazeera, said its launch ushered in “a new era in international news” as it began broadcasts at 12pm GMT with a news bulletin featuring reports from Gaza, Sudan’s Darfur region and Tehran.

Anchors Shiulie Ghosh and Sami Zeidan stood in the ultra-sophisticated studios at Doha headquarters as the channel flashed “breaking news” about a tsunami warning in Japan.

In an apparent attempt to immediately establish its credentials as a balanced network, al-Jazeera English showed a snippet of an interview with Hamas political supremo Khaled Meshaal and said it would later air an interview with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

At least two Israeli journalists are among staff covering Israel.

Al-Jazeera English, which has broadcasting centres in Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington as well as Doha, has said it hopes to reach a potential audience of 80-million viewers by cable and satellite, mostly in Asia, Africa and Europe.

But the channel said on Tuesday it would not be available on cable in the United States for at least a year as “there is no free space for us on the US cable network”, according to the channel’s commercial director Lindsey Oliver.

Al-Jazeera English, which will have to compete with such household names as CNN and the BBC, has recruited big name Western journalists, including BBC veteran Sir David Frost.

It will initially have 12 hours of live programming, which it plans to boost to 24 hours on January 1.

Al-Jazeera English, whose launch was delayed from its original date of late 2005, has 20 bureaux other than its main broadcasting centres.

It will also benefit from access to the facilities of Arabic al-Jazeera, which became a household name through its exclusive reporting of the US-led war in Afghanistan in late 2001 as well as the airing of videotapes of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Frost told London’s Guardian newspaper in remarks published on Wednesday that he made sure the station had no al-Qaeda links before signing up.

The 67-year-old British broadcaster will anchor a current affairs programme called Frost Over The World, and will welcome British Prime Minister Tony Blair as one of his first guests on Friday.

“We are here to build on the heritage of the achievements of the Arabic channel. We are working very closely … but really we have … different agendas” given that the new channel has an English-speaking audience, said managing director Nigel Parsons, a Briton.

A French international news channel, France 24, is expected to start broadcasting on the internet in French, English and Arabic on December 6, before becoming available on cable and satellite 36 hours later.

The BCC is setting up a new Arabic television service expected to launch in 2007.

CNN was unfazed by the new competition however.

“There are almost 100 news channels around the world and al-Jazeera English and France 24 will soon be added to the list,” spokesman Nigel Pritchard said.

“Most operators tend to benchmark themselves after CNN and after 26 years on air, we are happy with that.” — AFP

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