Al Jazeera Sport said it is taking legal action against whoever blocked its Arab world exclusive coverage of the World Cup opening ceremony and first match between hosts South Africa and Mexico.
Football fans watching the ceremony and the match on Al Jazeera Sports were shocked by the frequent interruptions that marred their viewing, with the picture disappearing for long periods of time in the first half.
Al Jazeera Sports, under tremendous pressure to honor promises it made in the build-up to its first coverage of the most popular games in the world, urged viewers to move from the Egyptian Nilesat provider to the Arabsat to be able to watch the match.
The call to switch satellites fuelled allegations throughout the Arab world that Egyptian hands could be behind the interruptions. However, Al Jazeera Sports refused to get dragged into the circle of accusations.
“We do not know yet who is behind the interference, but we will go after whoever has caused this terrible act that has deprived millions in the Arab world from watching the start of the World Cup,” said Nasser Al Khalifi, the chairman of Al Jazeera Sports.
“We are shocked by what happened because the World Cup is not a political programme that someone wants to block. It is a global sports event and we had spent months negotiating with Fifa to enable viewers in the Arab world to enjoy some matches for free. Unfortunately, there are some people who have political motives, but we will go after them,” he said.
Al Jazeera Sport had earlier condemned the sabotage and said that it was beyond its control.
“Al Jazeera Sport condemns the actions of those involved in the deliberate attempts to block its signal during its World Cup broadcasts on Friday,” the station said.
“Despite its considerable efforts to bring the best coverage to the most possible fans across the Middle East and North Africa, including 18 free-to-air games from the group stages, Al Jazeera Sport viewers repeatedly lost their signal through the course of Friday’s opening fixture,” the pan-Arab channel said in a statement.
This loss of signal was completely beyond Al Jazeera Sport’s control and its staff members share the frustrations of all those whose enjoyment was spoiled by what was a deliberate act of sabotage, said the station that is employing more than 350 people to cover all 64 matches of the World Cup.
Al Jazeera technicians said that whoever was behind the block “knew exactly what he was doing and that the interference was deliberate” while sports commentators from the channel said that they were shocked by the “immoral act” and would push for legal action against the perpetrators who wanted to spoil the global party.
“This is television piracy, but people should understand that they cannot stop Al Jazeera’s media power. People can choose from any of the four providers broadcasting Al Jazeera Sports,” Hichem Khalsi, a Doha-based lead commentator, told viewers.
Egyptian officials denied any involvement in the sabotage and said that it was looking into the matter.
“We have launched an investigation to find out how it happened. Egypt has no interest whatsoever in marring the reputation of the Arab world’s best provider, the Nilesat,” Mahmoud Juma, the head of Egypt’s radio and television, said, quoted by Al Jazeera Net.
However, Mahmoud charged that Al Jazeera could well be behind the disruption.
“Al Jazeera might have decided to punish Nilesat 10 minutes after the first disruption by claiming that its causes were unknown and requesting its viewers to move to other providers, such as Arabsat, Hotbird and Noorsat,” he said.
“That way, Al Jazeera is punishing Egyptian viewers and advertisers. Egyptians are not thieves or highwaymen and are gentlemen and professionals. We do not want to spoil the fun of Egyptian and Arab families watching the World Cup,” he said.
Egypt are not playing in the World Cup finals after they lost in a dramatic decider against Algeria on November 18 in Sudan.
Al Jazeera Sports, established in November 2003, is considered the most popular sports channel in the Middle East and has covered a wide range of major sporting events, such as the UEFA European Football Championship, Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics. It also has the exclusive broadcasting rights in the Middle East for major football leagues, like the Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A.
It has led a tough campaign to sell television rights to Arab countries interested in broadcasting the World Cup finals, but eventually said that it would beam 22 matches on its free-to-air channels.