The live feed from Egypt is riveting. We can’t get enough of revolution video — even if, some nights, Middle West blizzards take precedence over Middle East battles on the networks’ evening news. But more often than not we have little or no context for what we’re watching. That’s the legacy of years of self-censored, superficial, provincial and at times Islamophobic coverage of the Arab world in a large swath of American news media. Even now we’re more likely to hear speculation about how many cents per gallon the day’s events might cost at the pump than to get an intimate look at the demonstrators’ lives…
…That we often don’t know as much about the people in these countries as we do about their Tweets is a testament to the cutbacks in foreign coverage at many news organizations — and perhaps also to our own desire to escape a war zone that has for so long sapped American energy, resources and patience. We see the Middle East on television only when it flares up and then generally in medium or long shot.
Staring down governments that want to monopolize information in the Arab world, however, is hardly new to Al Jazeera. At this moment, though, I question whether this is exactly what has also happened to Al Jazeera English in America. There, too, we are almost completely shut out.
That’s quite concerning, as the U.S. media market rests on sturdy democratic principles, namely the First Amendment and the freedom of expression. But ever since Al Jazeera’s English channel first sought to broadcast in the States, roadblocks have marked every turn.
The news that the Egypt has revoked Al Jazeera’s license to broadcast has rippled across the world, further demonstrating the desperation of a government under siege.
The Doha, Qatar-based network, which operates semi-autonomously from its funders, the Qatari royal family, has emerged as perhaps the strongest voice in the uprising, save that ofthe Egyptian people. The government’s move today to censor Al Jazeera is nothing if not a recognition of their position of strength, and the government’s inability outflank or outmaneuver journalists.
The story of how a satellite cable network became a feared opponent of an oppressive regime says a lot about our times, but it was by no means an accident.
[P]art of the puzzle is obviously that Al-Jazeera has its base of operation in the region. But the fact that so many people seek out Al-Jazeera’s English-language online feed also has to do with the unique history of the network. Al Jazeera intended to make significant inroads in the U.S. news market when it launched in late 2006. It hired a number of high-profile reporters and anchors, including David Frost and the former U.S. Marine Josh Rushing.
However, the news network couldn’t gain a foothold in the U.S. cable market. Comcast, Time Warner and Cablevision all declined to carry the channel.
Hurt feelings and pressure from the Bush administration may have been to blame, writes GigaOm’s Janko Roettgers. However, an organization as scrappy, and well-funded as Al Jazeera would not be held back.
Without access to the majority of TV households, Al-Jazeera turned to the next best thing: the Internet. I did an interview with Russell Merryman in 2007, when he was working as the editor-in-chief of web and new media at Al-Jazeera English. Merryman told me a big part of embracing new media was an attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Americans, and he quoted from a review that called Al-Jazeera “the best cable news channel Americans can’t watch” as an early proof of success for that strategy.
Al-Jazeera embraced YouTube early on for daily news clips, and soon after, opened a 24/7 live feed on Livestation. The network also more recently embraced Creative Commons licenses for some of its raw footage, and Nanabhay said it will make some of Friday’s footage from Cairo available under a Creative Commons license.
In addition to a prevalent anti-American, anti-Israel bias in the network’s news reports—which may not come as a surprise to many—Robert Worth and David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times recently wrote that Al Jazeera has seen its role transform from broadcaster to instigator during the winter of discontent.
Yet Al Jazeera’s opaque loyalties and motives are as closely scrutinized as its reporting. It is accused of tailoring its coverage to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza against their Lebanese and Palestinian rivals. Its reporter in Tunisia became a leading partisan in the uprising there. And critics speculate that the network bowed to the diplomatic interests of the Qatari emir, its patron, by initially playing down the protests in Egypt.
Al Jazeera was at first thought to be dragging its feet to cover the swelling tide of anger that flooded the streets of Egypt’s cities beginning on January 25. However, when it did again train its cameras on the Egyptian protesters, it did so with the typical aplomb.
Setting aside political leanings, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the contagious rebellion that has swept through the Maghreb, has been aggressive, courageous and compelling, setting a high bar for other media outlets. Furthermore, the decision to release some of its Egypt footage with a Creative Commons license is almost certain to make Al Jazeera the outlet of record for this seminal event.
How important is it that Egypt has censored Al Jazeera and restricted Internet and SMS access to to stanch the flow of information? It has been variously noted that people who are bored or restless will naturally congregate in the streets, adding bodies to the jittery mass of protestors.
Maybe keeping the lines open is a better option, since what is happening on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and elsewhere in Egypt is no secret.
With streets empty of law enforcement in many Egyptian cities, and with the Army playing the role of passive observers, it seems that the day belongs to Al Jazeera, as much as the Egyptian people, even as a last effort is made to silence both.
A small group from computer-assisted reporting and interactive news, with advice from the investigative unit and the legal department, has been discussing options for creating a kind of EZ Pass lane for leakers.
Bill Keller, Executive Editor, New York Times, discussing the possibility that the paper will create an anonymous WikiLeaks-style submission system for would-be leakers.
Note: Al Jazeera currently has a system like this in place called Transparency Unit.