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‘Canada a prisoner of stereotypes’: Al Jazeera’s Burman

Tony Burman, managing director of Al Jazeera English, urged a pluralistic, international approach to news reporting in Canada at a Media Democracy Day speech in Vancouver Saturday.

“Canada is a prisoner of stereotypes, like other countries with access to only limited coverage of events from abroad,” said Burman, former chief news editor for CBC Television.

“I want to bring to Canada stories and issues of the developing world.”

Al Jazeera English is an arm of the Qatar-based Arabic language news network Al Jazeera (meaning Peninsula), whose mandate is to reverse the information flow that has traditionally moved from wealthier nations north of the equator to poorer nations south of it, Burman noted.

“The power’s shifting in our world,” he told an audience of more than 200. “The U.S. is no longer the sole power....And I think it’s important we keep up with it.”

The day-long Media Democracy event held at the Vancouver Library central branch examined issues confronting independent media through panel talks with journalists, academics and activists.

Burman, who spent decades as a top news director at the CBC, expressed a wary optimism about where Canada’s news media is going, and the broadening choices audiences face.

“There’s a growing public awareness that commercialization of the system has gone so far over the top,” he said. “We see this with Fox. And we’re naive to think it won’t migrate to Canada one day.”

“But news is moving in the direction that is less conventional and more diverse in its sources,” he said.

Al Jazeera English, established in 2006, began broadcasting last May in Canada, a news media environment dominated by a few large corporations struggling to adapt to fragmented audiences increasingly seeking their news online. Some of Canada’s media giants have cut investigative and international reporting as they jostle to create economies of scale and deliver their information over various digital platforms.

The Al Jazeera network’s funding by the Emir of Qatar frees it from certain commercial constraints but has not prevented it from struggling to gain a foothold in countries like Canada and India -- where it will likely begin broadcasting this month.

Discussion of North American media content and ownership took form Saturday in a follow-up panel that included Burman as well as Donald Gutstein, adjunct professor of communication at Simon Fraser University.

“Harper, the think tanks and the right wing media infrastructure are all aligned,” Gutstein said.

Other publicly open panels drew attention throughout the day to environmental, copyright and gender issues in Canadian media.

“It’s important that we support you,” Burman said to his audience. “And it’s important that you support networks and organizations that espouse or value going from the ground up that really can change things in a positive way.”

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