As events in Egypt have riveted world attention on the Middle East, the region’s dominant messenger again is taking fire. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based pan-Arabic broadcasting network, is proving a vital source of breaking news as a popular rising threatens to topple the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
From the start in Egypt, Al-Jazeera has been ahead of the competition, not only in broadcasting images of the unrest but in interviewing key players, from former international nuclear watchdog Mohamad ElBaradei to pro-democracy dissident Ayman Nour to Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Kamal Helbaw.
Inevitably the network also has become part of the story as it has been banned by Mubarak's government but relied on by viewers around the world for images unavailable elsewhere.
Al-Jazeera often is attacked as “anti-American” and anti-Semitic for its willingness to, for instance, interview al-Qaida officials, air statements from Osama bin Laden and provide air time to declared enemies of Israel. But its approach to news coverage is more complicated than that.
While critics fulminate about the use of terms like “martyrs” to describe Hamas suicide bombers, it is also true that Al-Jazeera is virtually alone among Arabic broadcasters in maintaining a bureau inside Israel and that its sharp-eyed reports fiercely target the region’s corrupt regimes.
Al-Jazeera has faced bans and expulsion from virtually every country in the region at one time or another since its founding in the late 1990s by journalists left jobless when the BBC’s Arabic television network imploded in a fight with its Saudi-backers over editorial independence.
In the midst of protests on Jan. 30, Egypt banned its broadcasts and rescinded its media credentials. Al-Jazeera’s offices in Cairo were attacked and burned by angry pro-Mubarak mobs on Friday, according to the network.
“Regimes kicking journalists or entire news organizations out of the country is a desperate calculation," says Andrew Nagorski, director of public policy at the EastWest Institute, who himself was kicked out of the Soviet Union in 1982 during his stint there as a Moscow correspondent. “I think you look back at it as a kind of badge of honor, and after all it’s a good indication that you were doing your job.”
Egypt’s ban on Al-Jazeera, in the age of the Internet and satellite television, has had little effect. The network's round-the-clock reporting from Tahrir Square in Cairo continues to find satellite dishes that dot Egypt’s landscape, and its video is widely accessible on the Internet. Al-Jazeera also has images beaming out from other Egyptian cities like Alexandria, Port Said and Luxor, places Western media outlets have had difficulty reaching.
Such is its influence that the White House felt compelled to arrange a special feed of Al-Jazeera’s English language television service, which is not available on any U.S. cable channel, apparently because no other media outlet has been able to report on the tumult in Egypt with the same depth and context. The Egyptian unrest has sparked a new campaign on Twitter and elsewhere to make the network more widely available in the United States.
The question of whether Al-Jazeera plays fair and reports objectively by U.S. standards has frequently been a source of criticism. Al-Jazeera’s defenders respond by comparing the network’s marketing strategy to that of Fox News: Know who your audience is, tell them the news they want to hear and how they want to hear it, and they will come back regularly.
This strategy, applied to the Arab world, invariably has clashed with American interests, particularly early in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” President George W. Bush and his senior aides regularly denounced al-Jazeera, even though Bush granted an interview to the network later in his tenure.
U.S. friction went beyond words, however. An ongoing court case in Britain has established that there was at least talk among senior U.S. officials of bombing al-Jazeera’s offices in Kabul and even its headquarters in Qatar.
Al-Jazeera’s Afghan office was destroyed by an American airstrike in 2001, and an attack on the Basra Hotel in Baghdad killed several journalists working in its offices there in 2003. Bush officials have described these incidents, and others, as accidents of war.
Among the chorus of American critics denouncing al-Jazeera more recently is a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Marc Ginsberg. He alleges the network’s coverage of unrest in Tunisia last month stoked the rebellion that overthrew that country’s dictator and then inflamed anger against repressive regimes across the Arab world.
Ginsberg, writing last month in the Huffington Post, argued that Al-Jazeera is stoking hostility against Arab rulers with its "anti-authoritarian editorial bias."
"Through Internet and Twitter feeds, Al-Jazeera sees itself less and less as exclusively a news gathering organization and more and more like a 'Wizard of Oz' type instrument for social upheaval in the region," he wrote.
Bias or perspective?
Whether Al-Jazeera's approach is a matter of bias or perspective becomes a difficult question: Bias, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. And that means the consumer of news, regardless of the source, must beware.
“You have to have a critical eye about any media outlet you rely on for news,” says Nagorski. “I don’t think that disqualifies them in any way, but you have to figure out what their agenda might be.”
No one who watches Al-Jazeera can argue that it isn’t driven by a missionary zeal to upend the status quo in the Middle East. Its targets include pro-American despots (Mubarak, the Saudi monarchy or Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika) and anti-American despots (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). That has given it unrivaled credibility in the eyes of an Arab public that long ago concluded its own state-run media outlets were often little more than propaganda outlets for the regime in power.
Al-Jazeera's news agenda has caused discomfort for its ultimate patron, the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who bankrolled the network’s startup with a $137 million investment in 1996 and gave it facilities in his capital city, Doha. Ad revenues reportedly have long since made the station financially self-sufficient.
Since its inception but especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, those attempting to follow events in the Middle East have had to rely at least in part on reporting by the network, which has more than 400 reporters in over 60 countries, according to its Web site.
Most Americans have little sense of how much of what they have viewed on U.S. television networks was video purchased from Al-Jazeera. This includes now-famous images like the initial air strikes on Baghdad, footage of Iranian security forces beating pro-democracy demonstrators and virtually every videotaped message from Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, since 9/11.
Michael Moran, a former msnbc.com columnist and editor, is executive editor and chief geostrategist for Roubini Global Economics in New York, as well as a foreign affairs columnist for Globalpost.com and an adjunct professor at Bard College.