The municipally-owned telecommunications company launched two years ago by Vermont’s largest city – Burlington, also known as the “People’s Republic” – is struggling with a divisive dispute over whether to continue airing Al Jazeera English, the 24-hour news and public affairs channel headquartered in Qatar.
Al Jazeera English was added to the Burlington Telecom line up in December 2006, shortly after the channel started airing. Since then it has become one of the three largest global English language news sources, reaching an estimated 100 million households worldwide. According to the New York Times, it has distribution deals in markets as far-flung as Portugal, Ukraine and Vietnam.
The Burlington controversy escalated after BT General Manager Chris Burns decided to drop the channel in response to “dozens” of complaints from angry customers. Only a few other US cable systems – in Ohio, Texas, and Washington, DC – currently carry it, although Al Jazeera is available via broadband portals and some public access operations.
About 75 people attended a May 27 meeting at Burlington City Hall of the two citizen committees that monitor BT management. Comments from 28 area residents ran three-to-one in favor of keeping the channel on the air. Burlington’s Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss had suggested that a “broader discussion” should take place before a final decision is made.
Those in favor of keeping Al Jazeera cited the fact that the channel is extremely popular in Israel and provides a different perspective on international events. Rep. Bill Aswad, a Burlington Democrat, said the channel gives Burlingtonians the opportunity to learn about Muslims and Islam, and that "if someone doesn't want to learn more they can switch to a different channel." One person even pointed out that the channel is virtually the only news outlet that airs unedited speeches by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
Those opposed argued that Al Jazeera is intolerant and endorses terrorism, and that Burlington should “shun Jew hating.” One speaker called its local carriage as an insult to “any patriotic American.” In a report on the meeting, WCAX, the state’s largest commercial TV station, noted that some people blame the network for the deaths of US soldiers. Several on both sides of the issue threatened to drop their BT subscriptions if the decision went against their position.
Several speakers compared the Middle East-based channel with Fox News, arguing that Fox’s content is a greater “threat to liberty.” Regardless of how Burlington resolves the issue, a representative of RETN, the local educational channel, said that it will continue to air Al Jazeera broadcasts.
Frustrated with their cable company Adelphia (later purchased by Comcast) and phone company Verizon, Burlington citizens voted for a municipal fiber network in 1997. Two years later, the publicly-owned Burlington Electric Department partnered with Aptus Networks to build a citywide network. Since BT’s launch in 2006 it has attracted about 2100 customers and is rapidly expanding its reach. Basic service is available at half the cost of Comcast, and provides 20 channels, Internet service, and two cent per minute local phone calls.
Channels are selected based on what the competition offers, but so far BT has also included any channel that provides free content. That policy brought Al Jazeera’s English version to the city, but there is no contract between BT and the channel. Until recently, most of the opposition has come from blogs and people outside of Burlington.
According to the Boston Globe, Al Jazeera’s presence on Burlington TV screens became an issue due to the lobbying of the Defenders Council of Vermont. “The group, with 15 to 20 members, formed last year and says its mission is to ‘educate the citizens of Vermont about the nature, reality and threat of radical Islam,’ and to ‘honor the men and women of the armed services and their families,’ the Globe reported.
“In a city that gave both ice cream mavens Ben & Jerry their start in capitalism and socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders his start in politics, the debate over Al-Jazeera was bound to be a lively one,” the newspaper added.
The City Council has the authority to decide what channels are carried but has avoided becoming involved in content issues. When some subscribers complained about the titles of adult programs being available for anyone to see, BT decided to offer adult content only to those who wanted it, blocking even the channel listing for the rest.
Local roots and accountability to the community set BT apart from private companies. Both must provided funding and space for public access channels, but Burlington Telecom goes farther. When the community asked for additional channels for live coverage of events and a video-on-demand option for local programming, BT worked to provide it.
At the public forum the debate over Al Jazeera was described by some as a free speech issue. Others argued that the US is “at war” and that the channel is “a subtle way of undermining what we take for granted.” On its website, Al Jazeera English says that its purpose is to balance “the current typical information flow by reporting from the developing world back to the West and from the southern to the northern hemisphere. The channel gives voice to untold stories, promotes debate, and challenges established perceptions.”
Greg Epler-Wood, who chairs both the Citizens Advisory Committee and the Burlington Telecommunications Advisory Committee appointed by the City Council, says another public forum will be held in June before any recommendation is made. Epler-Wood also has invited written comments either via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or care of Burlington Telecom, 200 Church Street, Burlington, VT 05401. In the end, BT and Mayor Kiss will make the call.