“Don’t believe those misleading dog stations,” Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi said this week. He wasn’t referring to CNN or the BBC.
Arab-owned television channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have been denounced by targets of the Middle Eastern revolts, showing they’ve played a pivotal role in the uprisings that have shaken countries from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Yemen. Gadhafi called them the “biggest enemy.” In Egypt, Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau was shut down at the start of rallies that led to the ouster of 82-year-old president Hosni Mubarak.
Beaming images of the protests and interviewing key participants, Al Jazeera in particular has moved from being perceived as a Middle Eastern talk shop to a catalyst for change. Although the Arabic- and English-language broadcaster has sometimes acted like a participant rather than an observer of the uprisings, it is winning praise in Europe and the U.S., which may help it extend its global reach.
“This is a bit of a breakthrough moment” for Al Jazeera, said Charlie Beckett, the director of the Polis media research unit at the London School of Economics.
Al Jazeera may gain credibility similar to that won by Time Warner Inc.’s then-novel CNN with its aggressive coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, Beckett said.
The channel, together with the Arabic-language only Al Arabiya, has been influential enough to cause Gadhafi, 68, to interrupt his hour-long, rambling televised speech on Feb. 22 to criticize their real-time coverage of his remarks after he was handed a note by an aide.
Libyan state TV, meanwhile, shows regular footage of pro-Gadhafi protesters denouncing Al Jazeera. Human Rights Watch says at least 300 people have died in the 10 days since the crackdown on protesters began in Libya.
Coverage of the protests by Al Jazeera, which is backed by the Emir of Qatar, “is lifting people’s perceptions out of their tribes and their nations and into the wider context of the Middle East,” said Claire Enders, the founder of London media consultancy Enders Analysis. “What’s happening now has a galvanizing and very rapid effect.”
During the Cairo protests that eventually forced Mubarak from power, Doha-based Al Jazeera’s correspondents routinely said that as many as 2 million demonstrators were gathered in the central Tahrir Square — an estimate higher than the hundreds of thousands cited by other media outlets.
Al Jazeera’s greater role as a key source of information from a region in the spotlight has meant balancing overt support for demonstrators with claims of objectivity and ambitions to displace the British Broadcasting Corp. as the region’s most trusted voice for news.
Al Jazeera English, which began in 2006, broadcasts to more than 220 million households in more than 100 countries. The network’s English and Arabic services are gaining ground just as rivals pull back.
The U.K.’s state-backed BBC, which has broadcast in Arabic by radio since 1938 and on television since 2008, in January announced it would cut more than 400 jobs in its World Service in response to government austerity measures.
Fresh regional competition, however, may arrive next year, as U.K. pay-TV company British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc plans to start an Arabic-language news channel as part of a joint venture with the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corp.
Al Jazeera has seized its moment in the spotlight, taking out ads in newspapers in the U.K., U.S., and Canada and dispatching executives to write op-ed columns promoting its coverage. Many of the journalists working for its English service are veterans of the BBC or Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, giving broadcasts a Western feel.
The network’s sometimes grisly footage has also found a second life through social networks and Google Inc.’s YouTube.
“That’s what people are cannibalizing on social networks, not CNN,” said the LSE’s Beckett.
While they are more independent than the slavishly loyal state TV channels in the Middle East, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya’s government ties have brought them scrutiny.
Dubai-based Arabiya this month suspended a popular news show hosted by Egyptian journalist Hafez al Mirazy after he said he’d use his next episode to discuss the impact of Egypt’s uprisings on Saudi Arabia. The next episode never aired.
Meanwhile, U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have suggested that Qatar’s ruling royal family has used Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel as an “informal tool” of foreign policy, offering to tweak coverage in exchange for favors.
Al Jazeera has contested that charge, with the network’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, writing on its website that “the Qatari government has kept its distance — it is similar to the kind of model one sees in other publicly funded, arm’s-length broadcasters such as the BBC.”
Skepticism of its objectivity and allegations of anti-Israeli and American bias have long held back Al Jazeera in the U.S. market, where it’s largely unavailable on cable systems except in a few cities, such as Washington D.C.
The network on Feb. 23 delivered 13,000 e-mails from Comcast Corp. subscribers demanding that the cable provider carry Al Jazeera, part of a wide effort to boost U.S. distribution. Al Jazeera’s English website now features a way for U.S. residents to send a form letter to cable providers.
Still, Al Jazeera’s increased prominence in covering Arab uprisings “may not be a fair test” of its ability to penetrate the U.S. market, since they don’t involve the main issues — Israel and American military action — on which its coverage has been criticized, said Steve Shepard, the dean of the City University of New York’s graduate school of journalism.
For that reason, the network’s difficulties finding U.S. distribution “are not going to change that quickly,” he said.
Even if the uptake of Al Jazeera in the U.S. is gradual, the network’s American reach has come a long way since former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described its reporting as “vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable.”
During meetings on the Egyptian uprisings at the White House last month, advisers watched two TV feeds in parallel: CNN and Al Jazeera.
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