(photo credit: AP [file])
The controversial Arab network Al-Jazeera launched its English-language version around the world Wednesday, but not in Israel.
Contractual details have delayed the start of Al-Jazeera's English-language broadcasts here, but cable service providers said the channel would be available in Israel by the end of December.
American distribution has also been limited. While Al-Jazeera English can now reach more than 80 million homes around the world, it still has no major US distribution, leaving viewers there unable to watch the channel branded by some as biased against the US.
The network has also been criticized in many Israeli quarters for presenting an unbalanced, highly critical picture of the Jewish state's actions. At the same time, it features Israeli officials and perspectives usually lacking in Arab media coverage of the region.
In fact, the publicity campaign for the Al-Jazeera English station lists Israel's YES satellite service as one of the new international carriers of the Dubai-based network.
A spokeswoman for the HOT cable TV service said that her company was also finalizing details for carrying the new channel. Al-Jazeera in Arabic can already be seen in Israel and, once the financial arrangements have been sorted out, Al-Jazeera English should be added to the mix, she said.
The station hit the airwaves at 3 p.m. (12 noon GMT), broadcasting from its headquarters in Doha, capital of Qatar.
A screen graphic with a clock ticking down the minutes to airtime gave way to a photo montage of the biggest news stories of the past decade and an announcer saying the new channel would be "setting the news agenda."
"It's November 15, a new era in television news," anchor Sami Zeidan said, speaking in front of a flashy newsroom backdrop. The channel quickly jumped to live feeds from correspondents in various regions - starting with the Gaza Strip in a spot that reflected the channel's promise to focus on Arab concerns in the Middle East.
The station reported on a rocket attack earlier Wednesday by Palestinian terrorists that killed an Israeli woman - then cut to its Gaza correspondent reporting on the aftermath of Israel's shelling of the Gaza town of Beit Hanun that killed 18 Palestinians earlier this week.
The footage showed flattened apartment blocks and a scarred baby lying a hospital bed after being wounded in the Israeli attack. The correspondent delivered her report in front of a destroyed home.
That presentation was followed by a clip from an exclusive interview with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.
Later, the Jerusalem correspondent reported on Israel's growing anger over rocket attacks and fear among residents of towns near Gaza.
The station appeared eager to show its global reach, moving to live reports from correspondents in Sudan's Darfur region, Iran, Zimbabwe and Brazil and breaking in with a report on a tsunami warning in Japan.
Al-Jazeera, which is bankrolled by Qatar's royal family, said its 24-hour news programs could now be viewed by 80 million cable and satellite TV viewers, mainly in the Middle East and Europe.
The channel hopes to steal viewers from CNN and the British Broadcasting Corporation by giving the world's 1 billion English speakers their first chance to watch news from a non-Western perspective.
Al-Jazeera's feisty Arabic news channel is well known for angering leaders in the West and the Arab world, where it has been banned from operating in 18 countries at one time or another.
The station has broken new ground by covering taboo political, religious and social subjects and airing interviews with opposition figures and Israeli officials who previously were absent from Arab networks.
In Washington, Bush administration officials have branded the network's airing of messages from Osama bin Laden as an incitement to terrorism and criticized its often grisly coverage of bloodshed in Iraq.
Al-Jazeera claimed the messages and images are newsworthy. It has promoted its channels to US officials as the ideal venue to address the Muslim world.
Still, the station is burdened with a reputation among Americans as anti-US - an image Al-Jazeera insists is unfair. Its staffers argue that while the station adopts an Arab viewpoint, its coverage is balanced.
At least for now, most Americans will have no chance to view Al-Jazeera and judge for themselves. Al-Jazeera's list of US carriers included none of the major US cable TV providers: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications or Cablevision, and neither of the two major satellite TV providers, Dish Network and DirecTV.
Some US cable carriers are adopting a "show-me" policy, waiting to see what sort of opposition the station generates before agreeing to carry it, said Michael Holtzman, a PR spokesman for the network.
Al-Jazeera English will be available to American customers of GlobeCast, the subsidiary of a French company that offers a satellite TV service costing around $300 to install.
Al-Jazeera English said it also had agreements with Fision, a digital service that will be available shortly in Houston; Jump TV, which describes itself as "the world's leading broadcaster of ethnic TV over the Internet"; and VDC, a service that offers TV on the Internet to about 10,000 customers in the US.
The broadcast will also be streamed live on the Internet site english.aljazeera.net.
Al-Jazeera English will be widely available on major cable providers in Britain, Germany and Italy.
The launch was originally scheduled for early 2006 but was repeatedly postponed due to technical problems and licensing issues. Al-Jazeera executives said they were negotiating with carriers in the US, Asia and elsewhere to broadcast their signal.
Al-Jazeera English hired more than 500 staffers, poaching some of the world's best-known journalists from American and British networks, including onetime CNN anchor Riz Khan, the BBC's David Frost and former ABC correspondent Dave Marash.
It will broadcast in high-definition TV from four chief broadcast centers in Doha, London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.