Occupy protesters join effort to get Al-Jazeera on Comcast

Posted: February 13, 2012

The English-language offshoot of the Arab network Al-Jazeera claims a viewership of 250 million households in 120 countries on six continents, but in the United States, it is available in only five markets.

On Monday, about 40 demonstrators descended on the Philadelphia headquarters of Comcast Corp. to demand that it add Al-Jazeera English (AJE) to its lineup of cable offerings.

Organized by Rethink Press, a Washington group critical of mainstream media, the protesters brought 23,092 signatures advocating for inclusion of AJE. It was created in 2006 as a spin-off of the 16-year-old Qatar-based channel known for aggressive coverage of the Middle East.

Although then-Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Al-Jazeera for appearing too close to Osama bin Laden when it repeatedly broadcast his taped propaganda, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton more recently recognized it for thorough and independent coverage of the Arab Spring.

Al-Jazeera English has struggled to gain an audience in the United States, where other cable companies offer it in Washington; New York City; Bristol County, R.I.; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vt.

On Monday, Philadelphia police and Comcast security guards barred demonstrators from entering the building as a group. Rethink leaders Xi Wang and Mike Haack were admitted briefly under escort. They brought the signatures, printed on 1,000 pages and tied with a ribbon, to the mail room for delivery to Comcast officials.

"While we are not currently in discussions, we have met with representatives of Al-Jazeera in the past," Comcast said in a prepared statement. "We regularly examine our channel lineups and talk with a wide range of programmers to ensure that we are bringing the content that our customers want the most."

The signatures had been collected online through Change.org, a website that promotes social change through Internet petitions.

After delivering the signatures, the demonstrators engaged in a bit of street theater. Using a cardboard frame to simulate a TV screen, they stood behind it and presented stories from Monday's AJE offerings, including a demonstration at the Syrian Embassy in London and a car bomb in Afghanistan.

Demonstrator John Schwarzenbach, a retired mortgage banker from Montgomery County, said he supported the protest's goal of bringing more diverse media to the Philadelphia area.

Among the group were members of the Occupy Philadelphia movement, who assembled at Independence Mall and marched along Market Street, through the courtyard of City Hall and to the apron of the Comcast building at 17th Street and JKF Boulevard.

Julia Alford-Fowler, 33, an Occupy member, said there was minimal diversity in coverage by major networks.

"To not have [Al-Jazeera] is censorship," she said. "If the American public is going to be educated, they need this viewpoint."

The crowd chanted outside the building, and some Occupiers yelled insults at Comcast employees standing by the doors.

Although the protesters did not meet with Comcast officials, Wang said, "we were successful in delivering the people's voices to them."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Liz Gormisky contributed to this article.

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