Pan-Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera, famous for incurring the wrath of autocrats and pushing boundaries in political coverage, witnessed an upturn during the Egyptian revolution as debates, criticism and a vicious campaign to close it down by the Egyptian government brought it to center stage. But if anything, the negative publicity brought with it a surge of popularity for the channel across the Arab world, and a demand for it to hit the airwaves in the United States.
Off to a rocky coverage
On January 28, the Friday of Anger, the state-run satellite company Nilesat suspended Al Jazeera Mubasher, the network’s live broadcasting channel. In the days that followed, Al Jazeera bureaus across the country were shut down, and the transmission of the network’s Arabic channel was blocked. However, it was reported that at least 10 other Arabic-language TV stations stepped in and offered to carry Al Jazeera’s content. Only the English-language channel remained open in Egypt and to the rest of Nilesat subscribers.
The Doha-based channel faced other hurdles: six Al Jazeera journalists were briefly detained and their camera equipment by the Egyptian military. Pro-Mubarak supporters allegedly attacked two unnamed journalists for Al Jazeera’s English channel. On February 4, Al Jazeera’s Cairo office was stormed and vandalized, the equipment set on fire. The Cairo bureau chief and another Al-Jazeera correspondent were also arrested and later released. On its website, the international organization Reporters Without Borders named Al Jazeera the “media most targeted” during the January 25 Revolution.
Osama Saeed, head of Al Jazeera’s International and Media Relations says that these attacks from the government were expected.
“The authorities have tried to disrupt Al Jazeera’s coverage, that’s not something we are unused to. It happened in Tunisia, it happens in many countries,” Saeed says. “What they should do is let the press go on with their jobs, our job is to report what’s going on the ground in a very straightforward manner.”
Repressive measures by authorities aside, public opinion was also split regarding the credibility of Al Jazeera’s coverage, with some labeling it as “sensational” and “inflammatory.” Many local political and media figures, in addition to regular viewers, accused the channel of being biased and deliberately exaggerating to create unrest in Egypt.
The Al Jazeera’s Arabic website was also a source of controversy. In a press release, Al Jazeera claimed that from 6:30am to 8:30am Doha time on February 4, its website had been hacked, with an online advertisement banner replaced with a slogan reading: “Together for the collapse of Egypt,” which linked to a page criticizing the broadcaster.
In the wake of these accusations and attacks, many formed groups and pages on social networking website Facebook with names such as “Together to Shut Down Al Jazeera (A Zionist Channel),” “Al Jazeera Haters” and “Anti-Al Jazeera.”
Ahmed Kamel ElBahey and Mohamed Khattab founders of “Together to Shut Down Al Jazeera,” explained that they created the group in response to the website incident. “I got angry, created the group, invited friends and posted some videos. That’s all, I don’t know, may be I am wrong but that’s how I feel,” said ElBahey. He added that he never liked the coverage of Al Jazeera, finding it “very offensive” in its coverage of Egypt.
Khattab holds a slightly more moderate view regarding the channel, acknowledging that the channel offered extensive coverage of the events in Egypt. “I know they broadcasted a lot of true facts but repeating every bad piece of news 10 or 12 times a day is not acceptable,” he says. “I can’t deny that we knew almost everything from the beginning of the events through Al Jazeera and I also can’t deny that they gave us a lot of true events on the whole situation, but they tend to exaggerate the bad news.”
Saeed, however, brushed off the criticism. “Who’s been criticizing? We covered the story, that’s all we do,” he says. “I don’t think there has been a lot of criticism, I don’t recognize what you’re saying.”
No outsiders looking in
Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera English Channel’s lead correspondent for Egypt and himself an Egyptian, says he understands where the heavy criticism for its Arabic coverage could be coming from.
“It’s one of those things where if you’re an Egyptian, you don’t like other people to criticize you, but you are allowed to criticize yourself,” Mohyeldin explains. “This applies to everywhere in the world: You can take criticism from your family but you have a hard time taking criticism from others.”
He adds that this could explain why some people went so far as to accuse Al Jazeera of being deliberately provocative.
Mohyeldin was detained briefly by the Egyptian military and was released after nine hours in custody. In his account of the detention, he clearly indicates that it wasn’t because of his affiliation with Al Jazeera.
“When I was stopped, I was essentially stopped because the officer must have found it suspicious that I was an American [but] originally Egyptian, coming to the protests,” Mohyeldin explains. “Then I told him that I was a journalist, I didn’t tell him that I worked at Al Jazeera. I think it says more about the way journalists were treated.”
Mohyeldin also condemned the attacks on the media, saying that perhaps the government wasn’t stable or confident on its stance if it was trying to silence the opposition.
“I think that the criticism was unwarranted, and I think the government’s response toward Al Jazeera, and the public incitement and the harassment was unfortunately very negative,” the correspondent says. “It was a government that we knew would do anything to control the message and what people think.”
Hogging the spotlight
The attacks on Al Jazeera’s journalists have been criticized and globally condemned. Media expert Said Sadek, a mass communication professor at the American University in Cairo explains that the attacks on Al Jazeera were violations of basic human rights, freedom of press and freedom of expression.
“The brutality and savagery of the Egyptian police and regime were being exposed by Al Jazeera, while the state-run-Egyptian media abstained from revealing this black aspect.” Sadek says. “The government tried to block Al Jazeera to cover up its own violation of human rights.”
He notes that the regime felt threatened, as they sensed that Al Jazeera had more credibility and influence than Egyptian state-run media.
Apart from the violations the channel has faced, it is clear that the channel has gained a lot of popularity in the region and even internationally. A “Demand Al Jazeera in the USA” campaign has been launched after their breaking news and reports gained popularity in the US.
“The channel asserted its credibility and popularity,” says Sadek. “Many important shots and videos on this episode in Egyptian history were recorded and aired by Al Jazeera.”
Al Jazeera’s Saeed says with what the staff has faced and the channel’s continuous coverage, people are acknowledging what the channel has to offer.
“The correspondents we have are incredibly brave, some of them have been detained by the military and by other forces within Egypt over the last weeks,” he notes. “That’s also why our coverage has been so popular, because people recognize the risks that they have been under, given the situation in Egypt.”
For many, the experience of reporting the events was emotional, especially for Mohyeldin, an Egyptian who understood the implications of the events for his countrymen.
The correspondent explains how it was very personal to cover the story, especially since he lived through so many of the discussions, and understood the things happening to the people. In that sense, the challenge for him was to keep it simple and explain to the world why this revolution was important for the country, the region and the world.
“At the end of the day, this wasn’t a labor strike for better wages; it wasn’t an issue against the government in terms of the cabinet of ministers,” Mohyeldin says. “This was truly an amazing experience because it was a struggle for people’s freedom.”
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