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"India TV is like our organisation, it gives more importance to journalism, rather than to commercial considerations" : Wadah Khanfar - Al-Jazeera MD

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It may have been a modest beginning in 1996 for Al-Jazeera, the first independent Arabic language satellite news channel, with a core staff of less than 200. But today, the network --- criticism from the US military officials and pats from the Arab world, notwithstanding --- boasts of round the clock broadcasts, utilising cutting edge technology and news gathering techniques. Over 750 employees work at the network's headquarters in Doha, while another 180-odd work at Al-Jazeera's 24 bureaux and representative offices located around the world.

Free from the shackles of censorship and government control, as the network executives insist, Al-Jazeera has offered its audiences in the Arab world the much-needed freedom of thought, independence, and room for debate. As Al-Jazeera MD Wadah Khanfar pointed out, "For the rest of the world, often dominated by the stereotype thinking of news "heavyweights", Al-Jazeera offers a different and a new perspective, especially that of the Arab world."

The channel's rise to fame started during the invasion of Afghanistan by the US and was completed during the Iraq invasion when some US military and government officials suggested that Al-Jazeera should be boycotted or not seen at all. On hindsight, no marketing or communication strategy could have matched the publicity and recognition that Al-Jazeera received through US' boycott calls.

Not content with just a news channel, the company started Al-Jazeera's online version, which too became a great hit in the Arab world. In 2002, Aljazeera.net (Arabic) received more than 811 million impressions and 161 million visits. Boiling topics and heated debates, along with news reporting and interactive feedback, are the attributes that put Aljazeera.net amongst the 50 most visited sites worldwide, Khanfar says, adding that this encouraged them to start an English version too.

As Al-Jazeera embarks upon a new initiative to tap the huge Indian cable and satellite TV market, through a content exchange tie-up with Rajat Sharma's India TV, indiantelevision.com caught up with Al-Jazeera MD Khanfar in Delhi on the sidelines of a press briefing. In this interview, Khanfar discusses the various aspects of the Arabic network and some of its expansion plans.

Excerpts:

Let's begin with the beginning. For this particular tie-up, who made the first move?

India TV approached us first and we considered the offer because it fits in with our global policy of expansion through independent operations and alliances. We do have a policy whereby we have content exchange programme with various international networks around the world. We also feel that India is increasingly becoming an important market for us and so here we are.

What we liked about India TV also is that like our organisation, it gives more importance to journalism, rather than to commercial considerations.

Is this tie-up with India TV exclusive, or is Al-Jazeera free to chart its own expansion plans for India?

This particular agreement is for sharing of content, which we think would give the audience here a taste of what we do at Al-Jazeera that is based on objective reporting and unbiased analyses of developments. However, it is also another policy of ours that we do try to have our own team and correspondents. Even I have done some reporting (on Kashmir) in the past

How important is the Indian market for Al-Jazeera, considering the country's soft stance towards the US, which has been one of the staunchest critics of Al-Jazeera's reporting of the Iraq war?

Both politically and commercially, India is an important market for us. I don't think the country's political stand and viewpoints would be an impediment for our expansion plans.

On the business side, we are now aggressively looking at expanding our commercial interests around the world, including the United States, and India offers us a big market. (According to Rajat Sharma, India TV got a survey done on the acceptability factor of Al-Jazeera's programming in India. The survey threw up positive signals.)

You just now said that Al-Jazeera is looking at expanding its business in the US. Do you foresee problems at governmental level there owing to geopolitical developments, which intensified after 9/11?

We haven't encountered any up till now. There are Arab people settled in the US and some of them are very wealthy and would want to watch and know what is happening back home. Al-Jazeera would offer them that opportunity and option. Moreover, I think, even others would like to watch Al-Jazeera's programming that is not just restricted to news, but encompasses cultural and current affairs too.

We are in talks with some cable networks and other platforms for carriage in the US.

What are the various business options that the company is weighing to up commercial revenue?

Up till now, we had not been focussing too much on revenue, as we wanted to build up credibility and infrastructure. Now that part of it has been achieved, we are looking at various business opportunities, which range from programme syndication (that happens now also in a limited way), to advertising revenue. We are also looking at starting an English language news channel and a kids' channel to enhance our revenues.

As a network, we have not talked about the (financial) figures yet as we feel there's not much to talk about in terms of profit and loss.

Has it happened that some advertisers have kept away from Al-Jazeera channel because of political reasons?

Of course it keeps on happening in some of the Gulf states where companies are not encouraged to advertise with us. Rather, they are told to boycott Al-Jazeera. But that does not bother us much.

"We are exploring the possibility of starting an English news channel some time next year. The kids' channel may be started shortly. The network must have variety"

How much have the network owners invested since inception?

Cannot tell you those figures, but it would be in the region of 100s of millions of dollars. You realise that news channels round the world do not make much money, though investments have to be made and it takes long periods of time to establish oneself.

At present, Al-Jazeera is a free to air channel. Any plans to become encrypted to tap subscription revenue?

For the time being, in most parts of the world we'd continue to be a free channel, which can be accessed with the help of a box (integrated/receiver decoder). But for the US market, we are looking at an encoded feed.

I am told that in some places in India, the channel can be seen. We need to examine how this can be expanded.

Are there any distribution plans for India like tie-ups with an existing bouquet or a platform?

There are no plans as of yet. We hope the agreement with India TV will help us in creating awareness.

What are the plans relating to the new channels that may get launched?

We are exploring the possibility of starting an English news channel some time next year. The kids' channel may be started shortly. The network must have some variety.

Last November, we started a sports channel that followed in the footsteps of the flagship channel in detecting a need for a dedicated medium appealing to Arab sports enthusiasts. The channel has become one of the most watched sports channels and does spend money on acquiring the rights for various events from around the world.

Then, we also have the Al-Jazeera Media Training and Development Centre, which was started earlier this year. It's a self-sufficient operation and is aimed at developing professional skills in the media. The centre does not restrict itself to training in TV, but looks at the whole media, including print.

Like many other media companies around the world, is Al-Jazeera too is looking at going public some time in the future?

Whether to go public or go in for a limited listing on the stock markets is one of the options that we do have and are considering. But, whatever decision is taken, the tradition of Al-Jazeera's high quality reporting would not be compromised or redefined.

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