There has been a lot of comment about the role of Facebook and other social media in publicising and facilitating the uprisings in the Arab world and beyond. Lawrence Pintak writes about the indispensable role played by Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite TV channel.
As darkness fell on Tahrir Square the night of Feb. 1, a giant makeshift TV screen broadcast Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the Egyptian uprising to the enthusiastic crowd. The channel would later transmit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s speech, in which he announced that he would not stand for reelection but would stay in office for the remainder of his term; below the screen, the protesters chanted their displeasure at what they viewed as this insufficient concession.
It was a moment that spoke volumes about the unique link between the Qatar-based channel, the uprising in Egypt, and the Tunisian revolution that was its inspiration.
It also underscored the new reality facing Arab regimes: They no longer control the message.
Since Jan. 28, Al Jazeera has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Mubarak regime, which knocked it off the government-controlled Nilesat satellite, shut its bureau, seized its transmission equipment, and arrested some of its staff.
But over the weekend, at least 10 other satellite broadcasters in the region began replacing their own programming with Al Jazeera’s feed, foiling the Egyptian regime’s efforts to prevent its citizens from watching the channel that has become its chief nemesis.
“We have been working round the clock to make sure we are broadcasting on alternative frequencies,” Al Jazeera said in a statement on its website. “Clearly there are powers that do not want our important images pushing for democracy and reform to be seen by the public.”
And therein lies the reason Al Jazeera has emerged as such a central player in the drama now unfolding in the region. Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station, or its more conservative, Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo.
“The genius of Arab satellite TV,” Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, once told me, “is that it [has] captured a deep-seated common existential pain called Arab sensibility and turned it into a picture narrative that speaks to something very deep in the Arab psyche.”
Put another way: There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.
If you don’t know the history of the channel, Pintak fills in the gaps here:
Change was Al Jazeera’s raison d’être from the day 15 years ago when the upstart ruler of the tiny emirate of Qatar founded the channel, which he called Al Jazeera (“The Peninsula,” named for the tiny thumb of desert that comprised his Gulf fiefdom). He hired a bunch of out-of-work Arab journalists who had lost their jobs with the BBC and gave them a mandate: Make his rival autocrats uncomfortable — and boost his political juice throughout the region in the process…
That is not to say the Arab media is a monolith or that Al Jazeera is without its critics in the Arab world. Just as Fox and MSNBC attract partisans in the United States, Arabs turn to Al Jazeera, its Saudi-owned rival Al Arabiya or various other channels, depending on their politics. Many claim Al Jazeera supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, a notion bolstered by its recent WikiLeaks-style release of secret documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which has undermined the Palestinian Authority. And there has long been a perception that the Qatar-based channel is anti-Mubarak. Whether that is a good or bad thing lies in the eye of the beholder.
Among many other things, it shows you the continued significance of television, even in an age of digital communication and social media. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the English language 24-hour news channel here. I’m not clued-up enough to know where it sits in terms of politics, bias, etc; but it certainly gives you a different perspective from the usual UK channels.