Rite of passage amid Egyptian turmoil: Al-Jazeera is one of the grown-ups now!

6 Feb

As Egypt witnesses an unprecedented popular uprise demanding Hosni Mubarak’s immediate resignation, more and more television viewers all over the world witness the gripping live coverage of these events on Al-Jazeera English. The viewer numbers of the station’s online stream have multiplied as last week’s demonstrations throughout Egypt have grown more intense and violent in the past eleven days. Al-Jazeera covers this historic event openly, uncensored and keenly. The nice side effect? It also seizes the day by suggesting its American viewers to support a campaign to finally be broadcast in the USA. In this way, Al-Jazeera’s Egypt coverage serves as a giant, very successful advertisement campaign for the American market.
Since its establishment in 1996, the west has eyed Al-Jazeera warily, often suspecting fundamentalist propaganda. This view was solidified during the Bush administration years and the Iraq war, where the USA labeled the station’s portrayal of the military intervention as „anti-American“. The Bush administration feared Al-Jazeera’s broadcast as it was very aware of the station’s rather unfavorable depiction of the Iraq war, contrary to the then patriotism-laden American stations. Its fear not only bore the infamous “embedded journalism”, it also diminished Al-Jazeera’s chances to ever make it into American living rooms. In addition to that, the USA even attempted its own rather unsuccessful approach at Arabic news broadcasting in the region by creating الحرة (“Alhurra“), a station for the sole purpose of promoting its own point of view. Needless to say, Alhurra’s humble success in the Middle East dwarfed compared to that of Al-Jazeera’s, and the new player was quickly debunked as being American advertising for the Iraq war.
Today, Al-Jazeera experiences an unforseen success with its emotional coverage of the ongoing events in Egypt, sharing with the viewers voices from “within the picket lines” and Arab expert opinions, thereby managing to attract growing numbers of US viewers glued to Al-Jazeera’s English online stream who share the thrill with thousands of Demonstrators on al-Tahrir square in Cairo. Seldom in the past years, I have the impression, have American and European audiences understood the collective sentiment seething within an Arabic society better and more precisely than they do now, as they are virtually among those on Al-Tahrir square. In this sense, Al-Jazeera has become an important addition to the usual media suspects we consult, if we want to know the „truth“ about what’s going on.
But just as Al-Jazeera seems to be solemnly initiated into the West’s circle of reliable news stations with its coverage of the Egypt uprise, the Egyptian regime itself and surely a certain part of the Egyptian public show mistrust, accusing it of impartiality. True, Al-Jazeera is open, uncensored and cannot be forced into propagandistic coverage. But let’s be honest: What we rarely hear on Al-Jazeera are the voices of those possibly supporting Hosni Mubarak (for whatever reason they do so). Unless of course we see some of Mubarak’s violent hoodlums painting the town… well, any color. Yet it’s hardly imagineable that his supporters ONLY consist of a raging mob. So in this respect, Al-Jazeera is not impartial, because it does take a side: That of pro-democratic, tired-of-Mubarak Egyptians, be it old or young. That’s all right with us, because we’re on their side too. And that’s why we like Al-Jazeera. At least for now. It was a smart move of Al-Jazeera to immediately get a hold of and interview Shahira Amin as a symbolic figure changing sides, just as it was a wonderfully daring move of Shahira Amin to quit Nile TV, as the station prevented her to broadcast freely and openly about what’s going on on Tahrir square. As much as we admire Al-Jazeera today for the Egypt coverage, the Egyptian regime, its state media and supporters don’t. Accusations circle around, such as speculations that Israel and Al-Jazeera’s benefactor, the state of Qatar, have specifically employed Al-Jazeera to weaken Egypt’s stability (and with every good conspiracy these days, supposedly there’s even Wikileaks documents to prove the point).
But our admiration and their disapproval leaves out one tangible group we do not get to see on Al-Jazeera: Those annoyed by the protests because it affects their business. Those not pro-Mubarak or associated to his system, but still afraid of instability and detriment in case of an overthrow. Their invisibility makes Al-Jazeera’s partiality visible. Hence the network serves us only a certain angle of the truth. But again, let’s be honest: so does everyone. Including the venerable New York Times: „All the news that’s fit to print“, fit being the keyword of the paper’s motto. In the case of Egypt, we love Al-Jazeera’s stance, because it overlaps with our truth. Al-Jazeera cleverly uses this new wave of sympathy and compassion by inviting its newly acquired viewers to campaign for Al-Jazeera’s introduction to the US market. Having so far been denied a „licence to air“, this might be just the moment: On Al-Jazeera English, viewers can leave their ZIP code and “demand Al-Jazeera in the USA.” Al-Jazeera’s attempt to establish itself in the USA is an opportunity for us to think outside the box. Western media tend to hold on to certain concepts regarding the Middle East, and some of those are simply outdated or driven by the creeps. Yet in the case of the Egypt uprise, Al-Jazeera has managed to portray the concerns of an Arab youth and people more distinct, nuanced palpable than any portrayal I’ve seen on Western news stations.Granted, at some point in the future Al-Jazeera’s truth will inevitably deviate from our version of Middle Eastern truth. But the fact that Al-Jazeera alternately provokes our suspicion and then Middle East actors’ suspicion proves its unwillingness to subordinate. Al-Jazeera dares to immerse and change perspectives, be it at the expense of the United States’ or the European’s or an Arab Autocrat’s approval. It’s what makes Al-Jazeera an important and distinct addition to the Western media, and it will likely remain a bit of an Enfant Terrible among the circle of grand old names.

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