Perhaps it was unintended, but two or three weeks ago, at the height of the protests that was gripping the great cities of Egypt, the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, appeared on the channel’s flagship current affairs programme, ‘Newsnight’ in London as part of a debate on the future of newsgathering, and mentioned the BBC and Aljazeera in the same sentence.
I was sufficiently taken aback at Aljazeera’s apparent coming of age at the highest reaches of the BBC that I immediately forget – and still have – the context in which both channels got an equal mention. For those in the Middle East and beyond who have long appreciated the power and reach of the Arabic satellite channels, the reaction may be ‘so what?’ But for those of us who have lived and worked as journalists in Britain and the USA, and in my case also for Aljazeera in both countries, it is quite uplifting to see that a non Western channel has apparently ‘come of age’ – or more likely can no longer be ignored. The growing realisation that Middle Eastern audiences are less tempted by what the BBC or CNN have to offer is perhaps borne out by the decision of some Western media companies to branch out– most notably Sky TV, in collaboration with this newspaper to launch a new Arabic News channel in Abu Dhabi next year.
The uprisings across North Africa and the continuing turmoil in parts of the Middle East have brought a renewed focus on who is reporting the news and how the news is being reported. By fairly common accord, most of the western networks were caught napping as the crisis in Tunisia began to unfold. It was to be a different case altogether with Egypt. CNN and the BBC as might be expected produced highly polished reportage, and from some of their experienced journalists in the field. The BBC seemed to excel in some of the discussion programmes, and in a way that CNN did not. But, and here is perhaps the reason for the great leap forward that we have witnessed over the past weeks, it fell to the free Middle East media to report on exactly what was happening on the street from Cairo to Teheran, and from Sana’a to Tripoli. Arab journalists not only knew ‘the street’, they broke a succession of stories before the Western media even got close. Much of the Western media were obliged to retreat to hotel roof tops, with anchors interviewing each other. Speculative comment frequently gave way to the banal, as a seasoned BBC veteran offered the searing analysis that Hosni Mubarak wouldn’t budge “because he is a stubborn old man” on at least three prime time news bulletins.
And for Aljazeera, which launched its English channel in 2005 with a particular eye on breaching the seemingly impenetrable wall of American parochialism, the turmoil across the region is finally making the channel be noticed in North America. A Doha based Spokesman for the channel told me; “It's been astounding the amount of positive recognition that we've been receiving in the US from journalists at mainstream outlets such as the New York Times, ABC News, MSNBC, and others. We launched full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post as well as an online campaign across the US. A large share of our internet viewing now comes from the US”. This is an astonishing turnaround from the early days of Aljazeera during the Bush Administration.
According to a recent blog in ‘Orgzine’, “mainstream media covered the Egyptian unrest far more quickly and pervasively than they did with Tunisia – although Al Jazeera far surpassed US and UK news media in the quality of coverage. Their correspondents got outside the capital, interviewed a broader swathe of Egyptians and did a far better job of putting things in context, being less prone to attribute the uprisings to American-made technologies.”But there can be little doubt that these technologies have had a dramatic effect on the organisational ability of the mainly young demographic who have led the uprisings, as well as the ability of the State to track them. But where the new technologies have been key, it has been in supplying TV networks with a constant stream of cell phone video and twitter feeds. Speaking to The National Wadah Khanfar, Director General of the Aljazeera Network acknowledges the extraordinary rise of ‘citizen journalism’ across the Middle East; “Scores of citizens equipped with mobile phones, Twitter, and Facebook have continued to feed us real-time images and updates from the streets. They, in effect, have become our reporters, sending pictures, videos and news to our newsrooms. At Al Jazeera we have taken the voices of voiceless and have given them a place where they can be heard. But we are not the tool of these revolutions and uprisings. We have been able to amplify the voices of the masses so that people across the world are able to hear the importance of their aspirations, hopes, and dreams as they struggle to define a new political reality for themselves.” With a population of about 80 million and a median age of 24, Egypt has nearly four million Facebook users, representing about 5% of the population. Facebook exploded in 2008 with the April 6 Youth protests and has doubled in the past year. Google, Facebook and YouTube are the three most visited sites in Egypt, and have been essential to digital activism in the region.
This has given rise to an immediacy and rawness that is lacking in so much of the non Western news coverage that has been coming from the Middle East. It has also meant that the Iranian Government owned Press TV has been able to make some strides amongst Diaspora communities in English speaking lands. But Press TV will always struggle to be taken seriously until its journalists are able to freely report some of the turmoil that has shaken Iran. Likewise AlArabiya, the third most viewed satellite network in the Middle East is fighting hard to dispel claims that it’s all too frequent technical breakdowns that have frequently left TV screens blank during the Egyptian uprising, could be deliberate.
Of course some cynics might say that if the Middle East media can’t report the news on its own doorsteps, there would be little point in it. Clearly too, the picture is patchy, with some TV and newspapers freer than others to report. Clearly too, some sections of the Middle East media have found themselves drawn into the conflicts they are trying to report. Here is Wadah Khanfar again on the perils of being a reporter at the front line; “Three days ago one of our cameramen in Libya, Ali Hassan Aljaber, was shot and killed in an ambush by pro-Gadhafi forces. Previously, various governments have blocked our satellite TV broadcasts and our equipment have been destroyed or confiscated. Regardless, we have been committed to keeping a spotlight on these historic uprisings and revolutions that continue to shake the Arab world.”
And all that, as the perception grows that much of the Western - especially US media - is increasingly parochial, and is not coming to terms with the cultural and media rise of the Middle East. The continued rise of Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi as new global media hubs demonstrates how quickly power and influence can begin to shift.
This article first appeared in The National (Abu Dhabi)