Africa, Media, Politics

Al Jazeera: In the centre of every Arab storm, now off air in Egypt – kind of

By Mandy De Waal 31 January 2011

Strongly opinionated and often positioned in the eye of storms in the Middle East, Al Jazeera is proving a thorn in the side of intransigent Arab governments. Hot off playing a pivotal role in covering the Tunisia protests that toppled Ben Ali’s government, Al Jazeera is now the channel to watch for insight into what is happening in Egypt. By MANDY DE WAAL.

The Daily Beast reports that even US President Barack Obama follows Al Jazeera and the White House has two televisions sets running, one tuned into CNN and the other with Al Jazeera streamed by satellite, covering developments in Egypt.

As the revolution intensified this weekend an announcement was made on Sunday by Egyptian information minister Anas al-Fikki that the government had suspended Al Jazeera’s local operations, revoked the channel’s licence and withdrawn the accreditation of all its staff. Of course, the announcement was made through Egypt’s state-owned media, Nile TV.

Al Jazeera was unfazed and vowed to continue what it does best – covering the revolution like nobody else. “Al Jazeera sees this as an act designed to stifle and repress the freedom of reporting by the network and its journalists,” a statement from Al Jazeera read. “In this time of deep turmoil and unrest in Egyptian society, it is imperative that voices from all sides be heard. The closing of our bureau by the Egyptian government is aimed at censoring and silencing the voices of the Egyptian people. Al Jazeera assures its audiences in Egypt and across the world that it will continue its in-depth and comprehensive reporting on the events unfolding in Egypt.

“Al Jazeera journalists have brought unparalleled reporting from the ground from across Egypt in the face of great danger and extraordinary circumstances. Al Jazeera Network is appalled at this latest attack by the Egyptian regime to strike at its freedom to report independently on the unprecedented events in Egypt.”

As signals were taken off one satellite channel, Al Jazeera simply sought new frequencies and resorted to reporting by phone and other means of working around the ban.

Earlier a producer for the channel in Cairo reported that security forces had invaded Al Jazeera’s offices. “While our correspondent and other staff were out, security forces (not army) entered the office and demanded filming permits and press IDs,” the unnamed producer said. “They were told that all the recently arrived staff hadn’t had time to get their paperwork in order and so didn’t have any. They ordered our bureau staff to take down the camera doing live shots from the balcony and threatened to take it if we didn’t.” Al Jazeera has taken to not identifying journalists and media workers reporting from Egypt so they can’t be identified or targeted.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that Al Jazeera is seen to have played a “galvanising role” in Tunisia’s revolt. “In many ways, it is Al Jazeera’s moment – not only because of the role it has played, but also because the channel has helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments (and against Israel) ever since its founding 15 years ago,” the paper said. “That narrative has long been implicit in the channel’s heavy emphasis on Arab suffering and political crisis, its screaming-match talk shows, even its sensational news banners and swelling orchestral accompaniments.”

The New York Times quoted Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, who said: “The notion that there is a common struggle across the Arab world is something Al Jazeera helped create. They did not cause these events, but it’s almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera.”

On CNN Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara faced uncomfortable questions including those that his channel was inciting revolt and fuelling Middle East insurrection. Speaking on CNN’s “Reliable Sources”, Foukara strongly refuted this, saying: “The viewership, the people who are directly involved in these events, they come to Al Jazeera because that’s who they feel they can trust with their grievances and their aspirations.”  

Although Al Jazeera’s English offering is well staffed by former BBC journalists (and other networks), the channel is growing in popularity precisely because it is opinionated and unafraid of taking a view, rather than pretending impartiality as many traditional and state-owned media do. More importantly Al Jazeera defies Arab regimes that seek to repress news. DM

Read more: EGYPT: As protests continue, Al Jazeera’s role debated in the Los Angeles Times; Seizing a Moment, Al Jazeera Galvanizes Arab Frustration in The New York Times; Analysis – Egypt’s Al Jazeera bans channel’s key role on Reuters; Upheaval in Egypt on The Daily Beast; Egypt instigates media blackout, police target journalists from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Follow Al Jazeera’s live Egypt protest blog; watch Al Jazeera’s live stream.

Photo: Palestinian journalists are seen through a glass window at the offices of the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera in the West Bank city of Ramallah July 15, 2009. REUTERS/Fadi Arouri


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