Babylon & Beyond

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GAZA STRIP: In praise of Al Jazeera

December 29, 2008 |  6:46 am

Say what you will about Al Jazeera, but the landmark Arab satellite news channel has absolutely led the pack in conveying the realities of the ongoing Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

In both its original Arabic and fledgling English-language versions, Jazeera has blanketed the story, bringing real-time images that it's likely most American viewers will never see.

Last night, when desperate Palestinians traded gunfire with Egyptian border police and attempted to break through the border wall and escape, Jazeera was there live from both sides of the border. Its reporters also were standing alongside Israeli tanks as they massed outside of Gaza in preparation for a potential land invasion.

Here's just one example of the work being produced by two intrepid correspondents in Gaza, Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros. Be warned: The images here are far more graphic than U.S. news channels show.

One of the hidden realities of the Western media's coverage of Gaza is that most correspondents live in Jerusalem and only occasionally visit Gaza, once a month or so, for specific stories. What that means in the current conflict is that many of us were caught out of position when the Israeli air campaign began on Saturday.

Since then, Israel has shut down the border crossing into Gaza, citing security concerns -- effectively shutting out most of the Western press corps and forcing us to rely on local journalists in Gaza to serve as our eyes and ears.

But Jazeera already had a permanent position in Gaza, and its correspondents continue to risk their lives to crisscross the territory, bringing the most comprehensive coverage of the conflict available.

There's another crucial distinction between Jazeera and the Western press. The channel doesn't shield its viewers from the horrors of war.

An old friend of mine from Boston arrived in Jerusalem for a visit on Friday. The first time she saw Jazeera English's footage of casualties in a Gaza City hospital, she was shocked. She simply never had seen such graphic images.

Now here's the really weird part. Jazeera International, the English-language channel that launched in November 2006, isn't available on the vast majority of America's cable systems.  Nearly all cable operators in the U.S. refused to offer the channel to its viewers. As of July of this year, the channel was offered by just a handful of cable companies, including a small cable provider in Burlington, Vt.

I'll leave it up to our readers to debate just why, in a capitalist system based on the idea of free speech, most American viewers aren't even offered the option of paying extra to watch Al Jazeera in English.

I urge you to check out Jazeera's YouTube site.  The channel has also recently partnered with Livestation to provide broadband streaming through your computer.

If you're impressed by what you see, call your cable provider and ask why you can't subscribe.

--Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem

P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates" and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.