At a market on Lawrence Avenue in Toronto, where halal meat is sold and customers trade news from home as they buy olives, fresh chickens and whole lambs, Mostafa Elmnini wondered aloud why the Canadian government recently approved broadcasts of the Arabic-language news channel al-Jazeera, but imposed such severe restrictions that it may be impossible for the network to be aired legally in this country.
Last week, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission announced that it had approved al-Jazeera, but required cable and satellite distributors to monitor its programs 24 hours a day. The agency also took an unprecedented step in allowing cable companies to alter or delete "abusive comments" from al-Jazeera programs. Currently, it is illegal for distributors to delete programming, but in this case, the commission made an exception.
The decision has provoked a debate among Canada's 500,000 people of Arab descent, with some saying the ruling amounts to censorship. In Canada, where the government encourages immigrant groups to maintain their cultural identity, more than 148,000 people say that Arabic is their mother tongue.
"This is just a way of keeping al-Jazeera off the air," said Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, a nongovernmental organization for Muslims in Canada. "The conditions are almost impossible to put into practice. In effect they did deny a license to al-Jazeera."
Elmnini walked out from behind his counter, where he sells meat conforming to Islamic dietary laws, to explain. Most people he knows already watch al-Jazeera, buying it from unauthorized satellite systems. Does he know it's illegal? He shrugs. It is the only news he trusts.
"It's what goes on in the Middle East. This is what keeps us connected back home," said Elmnini, 37, who moved here from Lebanon. He said he disagreed with the government's decision to allow the programming to be censored. "We like it as it is. We get the full truth."
Al-Jazeera, one of the largest and most controversial news channels covering the Middle East, has gained a reputation worldwide for having reporters in places Western reporters are unable to reach and for giving what some viewers call the other side of the war in Iraq. Many of its reporters have been trained by the BBC. Based in Qatar, the station became famous after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it aired messages from Osama bin Laden.
The commission said in a statement that the channel met the main criterion for approval: It did not compete with existing Canadian stations. But during the application process, a number of groups raised concerns about the content of previous broadcasts.
Canadian officials said they could not bar the station, which had never violated Canadian regulations because it had never been allowed to air legally in Canada. Instead, the agency decided to require that cable distributors be responsible for the channel's content. The agency mandated that the distributors keep tapes of the program but left it largely up to cable companies to decide how they would regulate the broadcasts.
The agency, known as the CRTC, declined to make officials available for interviews on the subject.
Elie Kawkabani, president of Reach Media, a Los Angeles-based media marketing and distribution company, which holds the rights to distribute al-Jazeera, said the channel has been marketed in the United States since 1998 with no such restrictions. "A big percentage of Arab-Americans pay for the channel," he said. "The State Department has it, the White House has it."
Kawkabani said that the Canadian restrictions pose impossible hurdles for distribution in Canada and that his company and cable firms plan to appeal the decision. "They've given us approval but made it difficult for cable companies and satellite companies to carry it. They are not set up to monitor and decide what is appropriate or not appropriate. Their role is not censorship," Kawkabani said. "They should not be concerned or involved in the content they deliver. The CRTC has made it impossible for us to find distribution in Canada."
Kawkabani said al-Jazeera is no more controversial than other channels. "It's on the sky in England, France and the United States. It is an established channel," he said. "Canada needs to join the rest of the world in media distribution laws. It doesn't endanger anybody. It just reports the news. It doesn't take sides. It is a news reporting station much like CNN or Fox."
But the Canadian Jewish Congress argued to the commission that al-Jazeera has disseminated anti-Semitic hate speech, providing a platform for "hatemongers" and broadcasting "stereotypical characterizations of Jews that resort to classic Judeophobic themes such as the image of the Jews an alien, evil, world-dominating conspiratorial force," according to commission records. "Moreover, the CJC argued that al-Jazeera has gone further by broadcasting threats to the physical security of Jews and engaging in Holocaust denial."
According to Audrey Jamal, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation, a national umbrella organization representing Canadians of Arab descent, broadcasts of al-Jazeera are not restricted in Israel.
Al-Jazeera recently released a code of ethics, pledging to draw a line between news and commentary to avoid "the trap of propaganda and speculation." The service, founded in 1996, promised to acknowledge a mistake "as soon as it is made and take the initiative to correct it and avoid repeating it."
Nesreen Melek, an employment counselor at the Canadian Arab Federation, says she watches the news station with friends. "I'm Iraqi and I do watch al-Jazeera. I don't know why they are making a big deal out of al-Jazeera. On 'The Simpsons,' they make fun of Arabs. They never ban those cartoons. But when it comes to al-Jazeera, it is not fair."
Melek said she saw images of the Iraq war on al-Jazeera that she had not seen on other stations. She remembers the image of the Iraqi boy who lost his legs and arms to U.S. bombing. "The first channel that showed the picture was al-Jazeera," she said. "CNN showed when they took him to Kuwait like they were saviors."
Al-Jazeera, Melek said, is broadcasting "out of real life. They are not making it up."