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Wadah Khanfar

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Al Jazeera English Should Be Available on American Television

Posted: 01/31/11 07:18 PM ET

This has been an unprecedented month in Al Jazeera history. Transformational events in the Middle East have brought enormous demand for news about the region.

As director general of the region's largest TV network, I am proud to say Al Jazeera Network has been reporting from the region's hot spots well before they "mattered" in January 2011. From Sudan to Tunisia to Palestine to Egypt, our trademark "journalism of depth" has been on display for all who are able and care to see. Our courageous teams were long ago embedded among the populations, capturing their stories, and helping our wider audience find context and meaning to events taking place at home and half a world away.

At this moment, scores of our reporters are in Egypt to cover the unrest, which requires changing locations often, dealing with arrest/confiscation of equipment, and reporting with stealth as secret services threaten to jail them. Our journalists there fully appreciate these challenges. For years Al Jazeera has reported on how the Egyptian population is affected by economic hardship and political stagnation. Other networks may choose to focus on headline-grabbing stories simplifying extremist threats, or framing violence against human beings as merely a factor in global oil prices. Other networks, of course, have provided excellent coverage in many parts of the world. All along, Al Jazeera continued apace, offering more pedestrian, if nuanced, perspectives, even when our home region is not the topic on everyone's minds.

No one would accuse us of failing to forecast Egypt's boiling anger, or Tunisia's for the matter. That's not because our journalists are superheroes -- though, if you watch, you appreciate their determination to get the story right. I would posit a simpler explanation for their successes: our journalists exist in the right places and are given the space and resources to get the job done. Most importantly, they have editorial freedom.

Even still, there are many places where we cannot do our jobs. The governments of Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, and Bahrain will not let our journalists step foot on their soil.

We were also banned in Ben Ali's Tunisia. We overcame this through the use of social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Images of Tunisia's uprising went from local villages to our global audience of over one hundred million viewers. I am proud to say we were not only first, we were everywhere, deploying well ahead of the tipping point, arriving to cover the demonstrators when they gathered on the Ministry of Interior -- a symbol of torture and repression in most Arab countries.

Before Egypt's street protests exploded last week we made the historic presentation of the "Palestine Papers," an unprecedented leak of more than 1,600 records of secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Papers were produced by the newly formed Al Jazeera Transparency Unit, and became a world exclusive for both our Arabic and English broadcasts. It was also a top story of our colleagues and partners at the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom.

Through investigative and on-location journalism, our ultimate goal is to bring greater awareness, painting a more complete picture of the Middle East's realities. Armed with more information, we believe the people of this region and further afield can make better choices to guide their lives -- hopefully ones that will lead to a more peaceful and democratic future, regardless of where they live.

As I write, Egyptian President Mubarak is closing our offices and arresting our journalists. The Egyptian government has removed Al Jazeera from NileSat, the state-owned satellite carrier, delaying our ability to be found on the dial in Egypt and North Africa. We have reappeared through other carriers, while instructions on how to find us go viral across the Internet.

Elsewhere, in the United States, Al Jazeera faces a different kind of blackout, based largely on misinformed views about our content and journalism. Some of the largest American cable and satellite providers have instituted corporate obstacles against Al Jazeera English. We are on the air and on the major cable system in the nation's capital, and some of America's leading policymakers in Washington, D.C., have told me that Al-Jazeera English is their channel of choice for understanding global issues. But we are not available in the majority of the 50 states for much of the general public.

We believe all Americans, not just those in senior governmental positions, could benefit from having the option to watch Al-Jazeera English -- or not to watch us -- on their television screens.

We know the demand is there. We have seen a 2000 percent increase in hits on our English-language website, and more than 60 percent of that traffic originates in the United States. We have seen Jeff Jarvis, in the pages of the Huffington Post, make the case publicly that many are making privately. While millions of Americans have turned to the Internet and to Internet-connected-devices, many more millions should have the freedom to flip to our channel on their remotes -- especially when the Middle East is on everyone's mind.

We will report the news however we can. If we have to use flip cams in Egypt, we will. If we have to use online platforms in the US, we will. Yet we will work hand in hand with partners everywhere -- including American cable and satellite companies -- to ensure that even more people have the option to watch Al Jazeera. Even those with access can choose to change the channel and watch something else -- Fox News or Desperate Housewives. But the last month has shown us something that America can no longer ignore: millions of Americans want to watch our channel and better understand our region, and too many are deprived that opportunity.

Wadah Khanfar is the director general of Al Jazeera Network.