Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt: The Al Jazeera Factor

Al Jazeera's coverage has been critical in bringing about the popular uprisings across the Arab world, with unparalleled focus on Egypt. That is true of both, it's "domestic" (i.e. Arabic) broadcasting, as well as its English-language coverage. And that is a fact.

I know you have probably read and heard many discussions on the implications that Al Jazeera's programming has had (and still has) for the events unfolding in the region... But since I had been gathering materials about it for several days now, I thought I'd just put it all together in one post. What makes the issue particularly interesting for me, is not just the network's ability to effectively mobilize such a wave of action, but also represent the voices of the Arab people to perceptive Western audiences, for a change.

Image courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine.

Although funded by Qatar's Emir and having been accused of promoting certain Qatari foreign policy interests, Al Jazeera has established itself as perhaps the most credible and reliable news source not just in the Arab world, but - in some cases - also beyond. The most peculiar thing about it is that it still comes from an Arab source, and yet provides a seemingly objective and thorough coverage (that said, I am making a big exception here: the Qatari government).

Al Jazeera, therefore, has created a true Arab public sphere - a forum for discussion and deliberation, debates, and expressions of frustration - at the same time fostering, what seems to be a sense of true Arab identity. And at the core of this identity is the Palestinian issue, of course.

Cartoon from New America Media.

Interesting to note: the release of the "Palestine Papers" - 1,600 leaked secret documents relating to the Peace Process that were supposed to be ground-shattering - seemed to had been envisioned as a watershed for the network and its influence, as well. Not only did they start a "special coverage" theme on these documents, with a series of daily "releases", they also made sure to provide enough air time and discussion space for numerous panels that featured various scholars, journalists, and policymakers who had been involved in the documents' analysis (since, apparently, summer 2010, when Al Jazeera is said to have obtained these documents).

The timing was unfortunate, however. The releases were scheduled for January 23-26, right when things started boiling over into Egypt. I presume the following post by Marc Lynch, from January 25, is pretty telling in that regard - "Watching Egypt (but not on Al Jazeera)":

"One key factor was missing, though, at least early on. Al Jazeera has played a vital, instrumental role in framing this popular narrative by its intense, innovative coverage of Tunisia and its explicit broadening of that experience to the region. Its coverage today has been frankly baffling, though. During the key period when the protests were picking up steam, Al Jazeera aired a documentary cultural program on a very nice seeming Egyptian novelist and musical groups, and then to sports. Now (10:30am EST) it is finally covering the protests in depth, but its early lack of coverage may hurt its credibility. I can't remember another case of Al Jazeera simply punting on a major story in a political space which it has owned."

Later, in an update he added:
"Al-Jazeera's lack of coverage of the protests has become a major story.   It doesn't seem to have gotten any better since this morning --- since getting back on line I've seen an episode of a talk show, more Palestine Papers, and only short snippets of breaking news on Egypt.  Al-Arabiya apparently hasn't done any better."

Nevertheless, soon after, the network caught up with the rapidly unfolding situation, not only improving its focus on the Egypt coverage, but essentially becoming one of the major sources, if not the major source of more or less credible information on the situation there. Al Jazeera kept fueling the enthusiasm and aspirations of the people in Egypt and all across the region - effectively itself becoming an actor in the events and the process - and seemed to have been playing an important role in mobilizing and maintaining foreign interest and support (which, undeniably, plays a critical role in this case).

Good they realized soon enough that this is the the story from the Middle East (and perhaps, around the world) right now. (Funny: there was very little talk of the Palestine Papers since they fully focused on Egypt, and even the "special coverage stripe" shows up only on the very bottom of its home page! Wonder why...?) Besides 24/7 almost non-stop coverage of the events, with exclusive footage, on-the-ground reports, extensive backgrounders, and up-to-the-minute reporting, Al Jazeera also set up a whole multimedia enterprise, facilitating a social networking info platform, as well as featuring podcasts and live blog updates.

Here you can watch Al Jazeera's Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief talk about the network's experience with the Egypt story:

Major emphasis is on the spike in American viewership. And rightly so. After all, it has been dubbed as "The Al Jazeera Revolution", in the Western audiences' minds, at least. Although Al Jazeera is currently not carried by most of the cable providers in the U.S. due to past "grievances" and hostility between the American government and the television network, they still streamed all their coverage - in English - live, online, for free, thus experiencing an almost 2,500% increase in online traffic, 60% of which was said to have come from the U.S. alone.

Being the expert on the issue, representing a wide spectrum of views, perspectives and angles, and in essence very Western reporting values, Al Jazeera proved itself a credible and legitimate information source. What is more, the availability of such depth of coverage in English was certainly instrumental in attracting more audiences than its potential competitors (BBC Arabic and Al Arabiya. Although the latter does provide some English-language content online, it cannot even begin trying to match Al Jazeera's reach; while BBC itself - i.e. the non-Arabic service - could not, probably, afford giving non-stop 24/7 attention to Egypt, only).

This, of course, came as a stark contrast to the shortage, or the complete lack of proper reporting from more "traditional" American media outlets. Dare I say: even when they did try getting "exclusives", this is what they came up with (more resembling a Hollywood action movie, than a serious report, in my humble opinion):

That aside, the network apparently gained so much momentum, that even the White House had reportedly tuned to Al Jazeera for information. Noteworthy, given all the history and the bad blood. But then, it was a different administration...

Having built up this momentum among the American public, Al Jazeera is now trying to capitalize on it. Firstly, there was the whole Twitter "promotion" story. (Great call, I should say, since most of those obsessively following the news were doing so through Twitter, too.) Then, there is this new campaign to encourage Americans to "Demand Al Jazeera" - apparently a revitalized push to make the cable providers carry AJE, too. (Whether it will work or not, only time will show, especially as the things in the Middle East calm down a bit.)

Also, I started noticing ads, and many more non-Qatar commercials, which are, obviously well placed, but certainly not in the true "Al Jazeera spirit". I wouldn't like to see AJE going down that path, as I am afraid that certain interests (beyond those of its hosts and current benefactors) will come to influence its actual reporting, very much like the case in Western countries, thus stifling its voice and hindering it from providing its main function - resistance to the oppressive regimes in the region. But I think Western, and especially American, audiences will look at this phenomenon as normal, and perhaps even appreciate this effort much more than the funding coming from the Emir himself.

Image courtesy of Business Insider.

What is especially noteworthy, however, is the role of Al Jazeera in (I guess) its true public diplomacy work on behalf of the Egyptian people. Itself a transnational, and supposedly independent actor, Al Jazeera broadcast, live, the plight of the Egyptian (and before that, the Tunisian) people as they were trying to exercise their democratic right to freedom. There was no Egyptian government censorship (as much as they tried), and the usual Western-centric "interpretive lens" were missing, too.

Thus, it managed to appeal to the values and beliefs of the Western audiences, sending a direct message that resonated with the public (and more importantly, the domestic media) to the extent of becoming a force pressing their respective governments to react to the situation. (I just suggest you Google "Egypt" news, and take a look at the number of relevant articles that come up in English...)

Seems like they've got most of the major ingredients for effective "new" public diplomacy right :

- Coverage (has been extensive, thorough, and very professional, risking the lives of its reporters)

- Appeal ("democracy"! certainly...)

- Legitimacy/Credibility (which, despite being scarce before, surprisingly sky-rocketed over the past two weeks)

- Infotainment / "Coolness" aspect (some of the programming has been dazzling, increasingly resembling the entertainment "hype" in the American style, inevitably grabbing attention and interest from the public)

 Social Media (reporters live-tweet and live-blog; the engagement/interactive aspect is incredibly addictive and provides a personal touch, which only adds to the perceived credibility; also, all the various social media networks have provided a great way to "impart" news as the information cascaded through their various layers and dimensions, across time, borders and languages).

Whether they will get to sustain this "momentum," however, can be debatable. Especially with competing coverage from certain "reliable" domestic alternatives, as highlighted in this CNN report:

(I won't comment on Fox News, or even the CNN tone here. Just wanted to highlight - in case you missed it - that when talking about "objective and reliable reporting in the Middle East", the reporter did not even mention Al Hurra, referring to Al Jazeera as the only source of such news in the region. Ironic?)

To conclude: it seems that we are, indeed, witnessing the perfect example of an "Al Jazeera Effect", where not only regional, but potentially global politics are essentially influenced (if not shaped) by the television network. After all, especially in their English-language coverage, they are not only focusing on the Arab world, but are providing thorough reporting on all of the "Global South" (while most of the Western domestic media are painfully lacking any coverage of those issues).

I'll leave you with an excerpt from the great study by Mohammed el-Nawawy and Shawn Powers on Al Jazeera English from a few years ago:

"With its avowed promise of giving a “voice to the voiceless,” AJE could represent a new style of news media that challenges existing research regarding transnational media organizations and media and conflict scholarship more broadly.

"[…] In terms of news media today, AJE is an anomaly when it comes to its role, mission and identity. It stands out from its competitors in that it presents a challenge to the existing paradigms guiding international news broadcasters. It is neither dominated by geopolitical nor commercial interests, and is the first of its kind to have the resources, mission and journalistic capacity to reach out to ideologically and politically similar audiences throughout the world.
"[...] The findings confirm that people are drawn to news media that help them connect with others who share similar stories, a process that provides them with a sense of social stability. […] Our finding that AJE was seen as a conciliatory media, and that the longer a viewer watched, the less dogmatic they were in their thinking, provides hope in a world in desperate need of much cross-cultural reconciliation."

Watch Al Jazeera! :-)

1 comment:

  1. Regarding Al Jazeera, whom I watch and listen to as well, please watch this short video for a different take on it ... it is not all that and a bag of chips at all.

    CIA led "Arab Revolutions" Predicted Back In 2003 - Don't Be Fooled By Plans For A "Greater Israel"


    This charming, erudite, absolutely lovable and brilliant Imam is right on target and that includes his words about Al Jazeera.