Al Jazeera English begins broadcasting

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LONDON -- After a gestation period that turned out to be a year longer than expected, the Western world got its first taste of Al Jazeera English, the English-language sister channel to the controversial Arabic news network, as it went to air Wednesday.

Broadcasting from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, the channel began broadcast at 12 GMT to more than 80 million cable and satellite households across the globe. It highlighted its editorial independence by broadcasting clips of former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein's former information minister both roundly condemning Al Jazeera Arabic's news coverage.

News anchors Shiulie Ghosh and Sami Zeidan hosted the first news reports and coverage moved round the clock to broadcast centers Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington.

In addition to coverage of a Japanese tsunami and the death of an Israeli woman killed in a Palestinian rocket attack, the broadcast focused on reports relating to the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the deepening crisis in Sudan. Interviewees on the debut show included Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal. Reports about female mechanics in Nigeria and the damaging effects of skin-bleaching products also followed.

At launch, Al Jazeera English has 60 global news bureaus, including five deployed in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and promised "unprecedented" coverage of regions including Latin America.

The channel has feeds from Darfur, Somalia, Harare and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while in Latin America the channel's correspondents will report live from Brazil and Venezuela.

"I am absolutely delighted to have launched Al Jazeera English. I firmly believe there is a gap in the market which we will exploit, and that the world needs Al Jazeera in English to bring a new perspective and understanding to world events," managing director Nigel Parsons said. "I would like to thank everyone involved in the project including all those distributors who are carrying the channel from Day 1."

Al Jazeera director general Wadah Khanfar said the channel has launched with much higher distribution than expected -- despite failing to secure distribution on any of the major U.S. cable groups -- and said the group hopes to add to its existing footprint.

"Our launch figure is more than double the original target we set for ourselves and is unprecedented in the broadcasting industry -- no other international news channel has launched with such a high number of homes across the world," he said. "We will continue to build on this figure after launch and will be looking to expand our reach significantly. This is another reflection of the strength of the Al Jazeera brand."

In the U.S., Al Jazeera English will be available to American customers of GlobeCast, the subsidiary of a French company that offers satellite TV service, as well as Houston-based soon-to-launch digital platform Fision. The broadcast also will be streamed live on Al Jazeera English's Web site.

Across Europe and the Middle East it is being carried on major cable providers in the U.K., Germany, Italy and Israel.

The launch was originally scheduled for Christmas 2005 but was beset by technical problems and licensing issues.
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