KUALA LUMPUR Al Jazeera, an Arabic broadcaster accused by U.S. officials of biased reporting in Iraq, will begin airing an English-language television channel from Malaysia next year to win over viewers in Asia.
The English-language channel is an "attempt to gain credibility among" Western and Asian audiences, said Bruce Gale, a political risk analyst at Hill & Associates in Singapore. "It will be interesting" to see how they fare, he said.
Al Jazeera plans to operate a 24-hour English-language channel with 500 staff in four regional broadcasting centers worldwide, including Washington, London and Doha, Qatar, with Malaysia as its Asian hub, taking on Cable News Network and the British Broadcasting Corp. starting in the first quarter of 2006.
The broadcaster has been banned in some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for featuring guests who challenge the legitimacy of those nations' ruling families. Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy and Qatar's neighbor, discourages its companies from advertising on Al Jazeera.
U.S. officials have repeatedly criticized Al Jazeera for its graphic portrayal of the war in Iraq.
Al Jazeera "covers all sides of the story, but they do show the dirty side as well, and that's clearly upset some elements within this administration in Washington," Al Jazeera's managing director, Nigel Parsons, said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 22.
The Qatar-based network's Asian broadcasting center will operate from an entire floor of the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Parsons said.
"We're starting to build up quite quickly," said Parsons. "At the moment we have only a dozen people" in Kuala Lumpur.
"We are recruiting energetically and want to bring the staff numbers to at least 60," he added.
Malaysian government support, lower costs and close cultural and political ties to Qatar convinced Al Jazeera to select the Southeast Asian nation over Hong Kong or Singapore as its Asian base for the English-language channel.
The government "told us we would be free to operate here, which was obviously important," Parsons said. "They were keen to have us based here. It will raise the profile of Malaysia."
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who advocates a moderate brand of Islam, has long sought closer cooperation among Islamic countries.
Kuala Lumpur "is a natural place in the political sense," said Gale of Hill & Associates. Malaysia's government "has always called for an alternative news organization."
"We looked at Hong Kong and felt it's really part of China. We're not sure how much freedom we would have had there," Parsons said. "It's also a more expensive location. Singapore had all the facilities, but we felt costs were slightly higher and that it was a more sterile environment."
Malaysia is also located between Sydney and Beijing, so it covers the whole region, Parsons said.
"There are cultural and political ties with Qatar," Parsons said. Malaysia being a Muslim country "wasn't an overriding reason. Indonesia has an even bigger Muslim population. Malaysia has a good infrastructure, fairly low costs and a good labor force."
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"