Al Jazeera helps people against Arab regimes, angers oppressors

Al Jazeera’s Egyptian office was shut down last Sunday.

February 06, 2011, Sunday/ 13:30:00

With its round-the-clock coverage of the unprecedented uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Qatar-based satellite television channel Al Jazeera has become a medium inspiring people to rise up against dictatorships, and these oppressive regimes definitely do not like it.

Egyptian authorities shut down Al Jazeera’s office last Sunday, complaining that its continuous coverage was biased toward protesters and may encourage more unrest as the uprising in Tunisia drove its long-ruling leader from power. But the channel has become a voice for people who have been voiceless for decades because of the authoritarian nature of the regime. Even though its office was closed, Al Jazeera cameras, which found ground only on rooftops, showed crowds gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and the network aired those scenes next to Egyptian state television showing the peaceful shores of the Nile.

    Promising continuous coverage, the network had its journalists providing updates on Twitter, and they also posted clips from broadcasts on YouTube. Al Jazeera announced that the government shut the channel’s signal off from an Egyptian satellite and that Egyptians with satellite dishes could adjust them to other satellites beaming the Al Jazeera signal.

Authorities in Egypt also shut down the country’s Internet services in response to the organizational capabilities of social media websites.

Turkey-based media educator and critic Alper Görmüş said that Al Jazeera’s role has been immense in the people’s revolt in the Middle East but not appreciated enough as the roles of social networks like Twitter and Facebook have also affected the way the masses organize.

“Twitter and Facebook have been tools for people to get organized and get others to join the movement. But if Al Jazeera, which for years has had an influential role in showing people how corrupt the dictatorships of the Middle East are, did not exist, would the call to go to the streets find such a widespread answer? Al Jazeera is the track and the social media is the train in this story,” Görmüş said. He added that Al Jazeera has been characterized as “revolutionary” for being the voice of the people, instead of dictatorships.

With oppressors coming under the spotlight with the channel’s broadcasts, which started in 1996, Al Jazeera’s flagship Arabic channel has faced numerous bans and backlash across the Arab world. There have been complaints from the Palestinian Authority this month over the channel’s revelation of the Palestine Papers, which are the largest leak of confidential files in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Al Jazeera reported that it had numerous mentions in the documents, as the channel is often portrayed as “pro-Hamas, a biased impediment to the peace process.”

Even though the channel was largely funded by the Qatari government, it operates with considerable editorial freedom compared to other government-run media outlets in the Arab world. Al Jazeera has not been welcomed by authorities in the Middle East, as it faced bans and restrictions in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In December its offices in Kuwait were closed after it broadcast a clash between security forces and opposition groups.

“The network not only provides the Arab world with news that their own state-controlled media fail to cover, but it also gives the American audience a rich source of information at a time when US newsrooms have dramatically cut back on their international bureaus,” said Natasha Tynes, from the Washington-based International Center for Journalists’ (ICFJ) Middle Eastern programs.

“As far as I can tell, the coverage of the recent events in the Middle East has been handled very professionally,” she said. “There is no doubt that Al Jazeera has played and continues to play a significant role in covering the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. Al Jazeera’s extensive, on-the-ground news network is providing around-the-clock coverage of these critical events. The network is at the right place at the right time -- with seasoned reporters.”

As anti-government riots also have spread to Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh said the tone of Al Jazeera’s coverage incited “unrest, violence and sabotage in the Arab countries.” But some others decided to give more power to Al Jazeera. US based Link TV decided last week to simulcast about 12 hours a day of live Al Jazeera English, which reaches 140 million people worldwide. Link TV spokeswoman Julia Pacetti was quoted by The Associated Press as saying on Wednesday that the network felt it was important to see Egypt’s crisis from a perspective not filtered through Western eyes.

Sabiha Senyücel Gündoğar, foreign policy analyst for the İstanbul-based Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), said that Al Jazeera’s star shone during its broadcasts on the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“I followed the happenings in Iraq from Al Jazeera at the time. It continues its coverage with an independent view,” she said. “Without fear, it airs debates and news targeting both Western and Middle Eastern leaders. It can tackle the most sensitive issues.”

Al Jazeera has said that it would launch broadcasts in Turkish in the first quarter of this year. Al Jazeera Turk on Monday placed a $40.5 million bid in a tender for the sale of a national TV station. Görmüş, welcoming Al Jazeera Turk and saying it will have an educating role for the Turkish media, which is closed not only to the world but also to its own region, said, “Before events in Tunisia and Egypt, I’d say ‘just the right time,’ but now I say ‘right on target’ about the Turkish broadcasts.”

A new TESEV and KA Research survey conducted in 2010 found that positive feelings about Turkey have increased in eight Middle Eastern countries compared to a previous survey as Turkey ranked first with 85 percent of respondents having very favorable and favorable views of it. But the Turkish media outlets do not regularly cover events in the region unless there are crises.

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