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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 7 March 2021

Arab Spring brings Al Jazeera to full bloom

Hopes are now high in Doha that its acclaimed coverage of the Arab Awakening will finally win over the US cable companies it has been wooing for five years.
Hopes are now high in Doha that its acclaimed coverage of the Arab Awakening will finally win over the US cable companies it has been wooing for five years. Above, the newsroom of Al Jazeera English.
Hopes are now high in Doha that its acclaimed coverage of the Arab Awakening will finally win over the US cable companies it has been wooing for five years. Above, the newsroom of Al Jazeera English.
It seems as though every one of the journalists beavering away in Al Jazeera's English-language newsroom needs to talk to him, but Salah Negm, the channel's head of English news content, finally reaches the sanctuary of one of the side offices that fringe the studio floor.

There, his attention is immediately drawn to a monitor showing a live feed of the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect.

"It never stops," says Negm, smiling. Neither does Al Jazeera English, which followed its established Arabic stablemate onto the airwaves in November 2006 and has been broadcasting 24 hours a day ever since - but never to more effect than during the Arab Spring.

Al Jazeera's brand of journalism has caused waves before. Its visceral footage of civilian casualties in Fallujah in 2004 prompted Donald Rumsfeld, the then-US secretary of defence, to condemn Al Jazeera English's Arabic-language sister channel as "a mouthpiece of Al Qaeda ... vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable". Now, however, Al Jazeera is riding high in the US on a spring tide of widespread acclaim for its recent coverage.

Less than a decade ago, few would have predicted the phenomenal success of an English-language news channel based in the Arab world - including the Egyptian-born Negm, one of the most experienced Arab TV newsmen.

"I don't think there is any feasible project in the Arab world to launch a viable English language channel," he said during a 2002 interview for the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo, while he was working in Dubai for MBC.

"It's possible but the investment required is huge ... It would mean competing head on with CNN, BBC World, and Sky to build up the same network of correspondents and bureaus, a news agenda almost similar to theirs but with emphasis on Arab and Islamic perspectives and tackling the news from a different perspective and a different context that would at the same time be comprehensive for and comprehensible to a western audience."

And all that, of course, is exactly what Al Jazeera English has achieved. Today, it can be seen in 220 million households around the world, via a network of 15 satellites and countless cable companies serving viewers in 120 countries from Albania to Zambia.

But to tune in to the Doha-based news channel on a television set in the US you would need to be one of only an estimated 100,000 Americans with access to cable in Buckeye, Ohio, Burlington, Vermont, or Washington DC - or a customer of the specialist satellite channel supplier WorldTV (which also supplies Al Jazeera English to guests of the Bellagio, Mandarin Oriental and Wynn Resort hotels in Las Vegas).

The station has been flirting with the US market since the very beginning. Back in May 2008, Tony Burman, the former editor-in-chief of Canada's CBC, joined Al Jazeera with the confident announcement that "we are hopeful there will be a breakthrough in the American carriage situation soon".

In fact, aside from small deals with just a handful of local US carriers, it has made no significant inroads, negotiating with but failing to seduce the big players, such as Time-Warner and Comcast.

Without doubt, the channel has been hampered by US perceptions of its Arabic-speaking big brother, which got off on the wrong foot with the US shortly after its launch in 1996. The relationship has been a rocky and occasionally tragic one, as a visit to a small, faintly macabre museum in the Al Jazeera compound attests. Here, it is clear, Al Jazeera has paid its dues in blood.

Mounted behind glass on the wall can be seen broken fragments of broadcasting equipment, souvenirs of the destruction of Al Jazeera's Kabul bureau by three US missiles on the afternoon of November 13, 2001. Tayseer Allouni, the Kabul bureau chief, and all of his staff "managed to escape just a few minutes before the bombardment", reads the caption. "This [is] what remains of the Bureau."

The brief caption gives no background detail, but a month earlier, shortly after the September 11 attacks, Allouni had been offered, and carried out, an exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden. Allouni's coverage of civilian victims of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan had already triggered international outrage against the US. When his interview with bin Laden was aired on CNN in January 2002 - Al Jazeera had decided not to screen it - it outraged many in the US.

His next posting with Al Jazeera was to Baghdad, where he arrived in March 2003. The following month, two US missiles hit the station's Baghdad bureau. Once again, Allouni survived, but this time a colleague was killed and a cameraman wounded. In the museum can be seen "The vest worn by Tareq Ayoub under his bulletproof jacket at the moment of his death", along with his press pass and a handwritten draft of his final report.

After this, Allouni, a Spanish citizen, returned to Spain to recuperate. There, in September 2003, he was arrested on suspicion of collaborating with Al Qaeda. Jailed in 2005, he was subsequently released into house arrest.

Without doubt, says Negm, historically "the perception of Al Jazeera in the States [was] not very favourable", but "that misunderstanding is not only with the United States; the US was party in a war that was going on and of course it wanted, as any other country would want to, to give its story to the media in a way that it likes.

"Now Al Jazeera gave the story in the way it saw, and there's a difference between the two and that creates the misunderstanding. Take Libya; do you think Qaddafi would like the stories we are reporting there? We are putting his stories as well as opposition stories but he would like to have the media reporting his stories more."

Times and perceptions - not to mention administrations - have changed, however. In May, Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York named Al Jazeera English as the recipient of its Columbia Journalism Award, given in recognition of "singular journalism in the public interest". The faculty selected the channel for the "overall depth and quality of its peerless coverage of the ongoing protests in the Middle East".

There is hope in Doha that the station's frequently world-leading and widely acclaimed English-language coverage of this year's unrest in the Arab world will herald a new spring for Al Jazeera itself, in the light of which it will finally kiss, make up and tie the knot with a freshly enamoured United States.

Not that Al Jazeera itself uses the word "spring", preferring to describe the events as The Arab Awakening (the title of a series of powerful documentaries, Death of Fear, End of a Dictator and Seeds of Revolution). "What do you think is more representative [of] what's happening?" asks Negm, smiling. "Isn't it an awakening? Spring is happening every year."

Negm appears reluctant to acknowledge that the US is a supremely important market for Al Jazeera. "We are," he says, "as interested in getting into the States as into any other big English-speaking market, so we treat it like any other market. We are in India, I think, very soon, and India is a huge market of English speakers. We are working on getting in every English-speaking market in the world."

Click on the "Demand Al Jazeera" button on the station's website, however, with its scrapbook of dozens of post-Tahrir stateside media reviews, and it is clear the hunger for US exposure borders on the obsessively needy.

As the Arab world shifted on its axis, Al Jazeera English's coverage left other TV news outfits standing and the channel experienced what the Miami Herald called "its CNN moment", squeezing its way into the US consciousness, predominantly through the narrow portals of live internet streaming and Twitter.

In January The New York Times reported that White House officials were relying on Al Jazeera English to monitor events in Egypt, while at the same time "most Americans lack the same ability to tune in to the broadcaster ... because cable and satellite companies in the United States have largely refused its requests to be carried". Americans, declared Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker in February, were "falling for AJE", which they had "even managed to disassociate from Al Jazeera, which was tarred as anti-American when it showed videos of Osama bin Laden after September 11th".

In May, no less a figure than Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, gave the station a huge plug while telling the foreign policy priorities committee that the US was losing the international information war. Al Jazeera, she said, was "literally changing people's minds and attitudes" and, like it or hate it, "it is really effective ... In fact viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news".

Such acclaim, says Negm, "will help, for sure", but he stresses that for Al Jazeera its coverage of the Arab unrest has been business as usual. "We are covering all the stories, from every part of the world, with the same vigour and intensity."

The US drive, he says, is just "part of our distribution effort; we have people who are negotiating deals in Asia, Africa and Latin America ... But maybe what's different here is the size and magnitude of several events in several countries at the same time, changing a complete region, that made it a story of world importance, and I think we have done well in covering it [and] that gave us some opportunity to be much more noticed in the States than before."

But not always in a good way. Some say the channel's recent coverage has veered close to cheerleading - that the station has not been following events so much as leading them.

On January 20, Marc Ginsberg, the former US ambassador to Morocco, unleashed an acerbic attack in an article for the Huffington Post, in which he condemned the channel's "favourite political pastime of disgorging its anti-authoritarian editorial bias across all of its media platforms ... Through internet and Twitter feeds, Al Jazeera sees itself less and less as exclusively a news gathering organisation and more and more like a 'Wizard of Oz' type instrument for social upheaval in the region."

And not for the first time, he added: "Al Jazeera has proven worthy in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Iran of its reputation as a fiery instigator of public opinion and less an impartial reporter of it."

Certainly, the station has earned something of a Robin Hood reputation on the streets. "Al Jazeera is like a media brigade," a Jordanian opposition activist told Reuters in January. "By its coverage of events it has helped far more than any other outlet ... to spread the revolution from one city to the other"; in February AFP transmitted a photograph around the world of a slogan spray-painted on a wall in Tobruk,Libya: "Freedom = Aljazeera".

Negm hadn't seen it, but laughs. "That's a fantastic slogan, I can use it in a promotion. And I agree with it, because we are for free opinion and free journalism ... we are not a propaganda channel to push people intentionally onto the streets. We report events when they happen."

Equally serious is the suggestion that Al Jazeera operates as an extension of the Qatari government. "Skeptics," reported The New York Times in February, "doubt the objectivity of a network backed by the emir of Qatar", while in May Ginsberg's broadside also charged that "Al Jazeera gives quite a pass to the despotic Syrian regime as well as to its Qatari benefactors".

Last month, The Washington Post suggested that "although it supported uprisings against some longtime Arab regimes", the channel's coverage of events in neighbouring Bahrain in March had been "only sporadic and markedly neutral".

This, it said, had "brought fresh attention to Al Jazeera's close ties to the Qatari government, which owns the influential network, and prompted charges that the broadcaster is serving as an instrument of Qatar's ambitious foreign policy". This alleged lack of independence was a charge that first surfaced in a secret report sent to the State Department by the US Embassy in Qatar in November 2009 and leaked the following December through WikiLeaks. Al Jazeera, said the cable, "will continue to be an instrument of Qatari influence, and continue to be an expression, however unco-ordinated, of the nation's foreign policy".

Negm sideswipes WikiLeaks. "Listen, the whole WikiLeaks thing is that it is personal evaluations of events that happened and I am not very confident about how you take these as facts; it is opinions expressed in telegrams."

Secondly, he thinks "this is a little bit of hypocrisy to talk about Al Jazeera and independence because it is government-owned, while the BBC, Radio Netherlands, Voice of America, all of them are owned by the state ... and the level of independence varies between all these stations."

He denies point blank that his news agenda has ever been influenced by pressure from above, or that the station has exercised self-censorship. As for going easy on Bahrain: "I don't know how they get this conclusion ... if you want to have such conclusions you should do a content analysis. Give me figures. These are impressions."

As the former head of Al Jazeera's Arabic news operation, Negm is used to the storms of controversy that blow around TV Roundabout on the outskirts of Doha. The Arabic-language channel, which today reaches 50 million homes, raised more than a few eyebrows when it began broadcasting in 1996.

"At the time, it was a new style of journalism coming to the Middle East and of course officials, governments and people were not used to that kind of journalism. If we ask a question, we want an answer, and you are going to have a follow-up question, and the next follow-up question, saying: 'What do you think about that?' and he says a word and that's it. But we don't take this for an answer."

This has led to the station repeatedly being "banned, and then allowed again, and not in Arab countries only ... be it an official ban or putting difficulties in the way of our coverage of certain events". It happens, he says, "because we are dealing with several parties to any news event and everyone has his interest in telling the story and making his story dominate the media coverage".

The easiest step a government can take, he says, is to deny accreditation to Al Jazeera's news teams, "but then you can go undercover and we can send our correspondents to get the story" - which the station does, to the fury of impotent authorities.

"This channel," said the governor of Egypt's Minya province, speaking on state TV as revolution flared, "has caused more destruction than Israel for Egypt ... I call for the trial of Jazeera correspondents as traitors."

During the Arab Spring, the station bypassed official attempts to silence its news teams by tapping into social media and showing footage shot on cell phones.

"My belief is you cannot suppress the news," says Negm. "People are now participating in putting the news on the media, posting videos on YouTube; that is citizen journalism. It is not always accurate, it is not always objective; our work is actually to aggregate all that, collect it, start vetting it and make sense of the whole picture and then present it to the viewer in the most accurate and sensible way."

This tactic paid dividends in Tunisia. Al Jazeera, already banned in the country, nevertheless managed to lead world coverage of events, through channels such as Facebook, Twitter and online streaming of video footage. Similar tactics thwarted the state's closure of the channel's offices in Egypt in January and an attempt to block Al Jazeera's Nilesat signal.

On February 13, US technology media website TechCrunch analysed what it called "Al Jazeera's social revolution (in realtime)" and concluded that "where once people tuned into CNN to watch governments collapse, this time around they tuned into Al Jazeera on the Web".

Two days earlier, when Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak had resigned, "everyone wanted to watch and they flooded to Al Jazeera's English website ... Concurrent realtime visits spiked from about 50,000 right before noon ET to 135,371". The number of people on Al Jazeera's website at any moment - driven to it primarily by the station's Twitter feeds - rose to 200,000 and that, reported TechCrunch, "translated into millions of people watching on the Web".

Negm, a television newsman through and through - his CV includes stints at BBC Arabic and senior roles at Al Jazeera's Arabic news department, Al Arabiyah, Saudi news channel Al Ekhbariyah, Bahrain TV and MBC in Dubai - is not overly excited by such figures or by the impact of Al Jazeera's availability on the internet.

"It is a success and we have increased our internet use in the States during the past few months by 2,000 per cent or something like that. But I have a reservation about the word 'available'. When you know how people consume the news, the internet only is not enough for distribution. It's good enough to have a window to the States, or any market, but by itself it's not enough. We need cable distribution, satellite

The station is doing its best to get it, trying to capitalise on the praise for its coverage of the Arab Spring and foment its own grassroots revolution. On its website, fans of the channel in the US are urged to submit their zip code and encouraged to mount their own campaign for change, armed with an Al Jazeera "toolkit":

"Tweet all your friends to #DemandAlJazeera ... Organize a Meetup to watch Al Jazeera English ... Find your TV service provider and Demand AJE ... Embed your own Demand Al Jazeera banner ..."

The danger, of course, is that the acclaim, and the pressure for change, will evaporate as the spring turns to summer and the world looks away. And Al Jazeera has been here before.

"Al Jazeera English should be widely available," wrote Roger Cohen, a New York Times op-ed columnist, in November 2007, about a year after the station's launch. "America ... needs to watch Al Jazeera to understand how the world has changed. Any other course amounts to self-destructive blindness."

Nothing, of course, came of that ringing endorsement and, so far, there is no sign that Al Jazeera is about to convert its recent coverage of the Arab Spring into an awakening of the wider consciousness of the millions of Americans living in Cableland, USA.

"I don't have any update for you from the US, I'm afraid," said Osama Saeed, Al Jazeera's head of international and media relations, this week. "We're talking to all the main players."

Comcast, the biggest of these, is saying nothing. Alana Davis, senior director of corporate communications for video services, declined to be interviewed about Al Jazeera and instead issued this stonewalling statement: "We do not have a carriage agreement with Al Jazeera English on our video service."

Jonathan Gornall is a senior features writer for The National.

Published: June 24, 2011 04:00 AM


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