Australians with satellite pay TV are entitled to feel a little duped this morning – and not just those who paid out $50 to watch Anthony Mundine beat up that Argentinean. Al-Jazeera International (AJI), the English language service of the controversial Doha based broadcaster, was launched around the world last night but while it was live and free to air on the Optus C1 satellite neither Foxtel nor Austar allowed their subscribers to watch.

Screenshot taken from the first minute of transmission of Al-Jazeera International following its launch yesterday.

Had AJI been visible, over half a million Foxtel and Austar homes could have seen Al-Jazeera International’s experienced correspondents cope with a live tsunami alert from Japan, while crossing to live reporters in rarely seen places such as the Palestinian territories (and Israel), Darfur, Somalia, The Congo, Brazil, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. Despite its ramifications, Britney’s divorce didn’t rate a mention.

Since it launched a decade ago, presidents, mullahs, dictators, kings and emirs have largely failed to silence Al-Jazeera despite occasionally resorting to bombing or banning it. But in Australia, the Sun King has used the unparalleled control he holds over Australian set top boxes to make it disappear.

Nigel Parsons, the head of Al-Jazeera International, flagged his concerns about Foxtel’s effective monopoly and lack of regulatory oversight to the ABC last year. While AJI were having difficulties getting the network shown in other markets, Australia was cited as a uniquely difficult case:

[T]here are monopolies in place and unlike in the UK where we cannot be denied access to a cable platforms (sic) by law because that goes against the monopoly law in the UK, in Australia you can be blocked and so Australia’s quite a difficult market to get access to … If, for example, one of those cable networks [Foxtel or Optus] turned around and said, “No, we refuse to carry you”, they can do that. They can’t do that in the UK.

Foxtel didn’t officially resort to “we refuse to carry you”. Instead The Age was given the pseudo-technical explanation that showing AJI was impossible because the system was “running at capacity” and there simply wasn’t any room. This is despite the fact that the Optus C1 satellite was already showing a promotional channel for Al-Jazeera International at the time.

Since it launched at 11pm last night, viewers with their own set top boxes have been watching AJI – casting serious doubts on Foxtel’s claims about capacity. Both Foxtel and Austar’s set top boxes are programmed to only show services authorised by them – a privilege that they have not extended to Al-Jazeera. With your own receiver and the right details, AJI – for the time being at least – is readily available and free from a Foxtel or Austar dish.

In the UK Murdoch’s Sky TV set top boxes allow access to over to 120 independent channels offering up news, variations of the BBC and ITV, music videos, 24 hour phone-in quizzes, religious broadcasting and even a channel called “Bad Movies”. They vary in quality but are all free to air and rely on a combination of advertising, 1900 numbers, commercial sponsors, and state broadcasters for revenue. In the spirit of media diversity, the only two free to air channels that Foxtel allows through its set top boxes are the home shopping channels Expo and TVSN.

Foxtel Spokeswoman Rebecca Melkman told Crikey this afternoon that she was not aware that Al-Jazeera was broadcasting on their satellite but that Foxtel is a closed subscription system that chooses which channels appear on its platform. She emphasised that Foxtel has an access regime approved by the ACCC and that Al-Jazeera could apply for access as the racing network TVN has recently done.

Foxtel’s Corporate Affairs Manager Rebecca Melkman writes: In Marcus Westbury’s story, Al-Jazeera claims there is no access regime for the third party channels wishing to access pay TV platforms in Australia. The fact is that Foxtel has an open access regime that was accepted by the ACCC. The access regime works well and has resulted in the racing channel TVN successfully operating on the Foxtel platform as an access user. Al-Jazeera can also seek access to the Foxtel platform via this open access regime but it has chosen not to. Westbury then upholds the UK as a haven for more than 120 free to air channels available through BSkyB set top boxes, but he neglects to mention that every one of those channels has agreed to pay BSkyB for access, which is precisely what Al-Jazeera could do in Australia. In the spirit of media diversity Foxtel carries more than 140 channels on its platform, owned by more than 50 different companies. Al-Jazeera can access the Foxtel platform using the open access regime if it chooses.