In cafes and living rooms across the Middle East, the whirling montages and breathless journalists of Al Jazeera are defining the narrative of Tunisia’s upheaval for millions of Arabs riveted by the toppling of a dictator.
The Qatar-based television network, as it does with the Iraq war and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is airing visceral, round-the-clock coverage in a region of authoritarian states that rarely allow government-controlled media to show scenes of unrest. Al Jazeera is a messenger, pricking the status quo, enraging kings and presidents.
It is the big voice in a multimedia landscape of Arab dissent that encompasses bloggers and online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Whereas strategies of revolt on the Internet are largely the domain of the young and educated, Al Jazeera has for years been the touchstone for the masses seeking insight into the wider, mystifying world.
“Al Jazeera has really helped me understand what is going on in Tunisia,” said Ahmed Sanad, who was sitting in a Cairo cafe watching the network’s “Behind the News” program. “We didn’t know much or have much interest in Tunisian politics, but now everyone wants to know more about Tunisia, and the channel’s doing a great job in helping us.”
The satellite network, which has Arabic and English channels, uses its “coverage to pass messages. They look for sentences to make people compare and see the lessons of Tunis,” said Randa Habib, a political analyst and writer in Jordan. “This is an era where you can watch the revolution live. Al Jazeera’s reporting has mostly been solid … but Arab leaders worry that it’s fueling sentiments and pushing people into the streets.”
That influence troubles regimes increasingly unable to shape events in a media slipstream that moves more briskly than censors and security forces. Through their Tunisia coverage, Al Jazeera, which relishes elucidating the failures of U.S. and Israeli policies, and other major news organizations, including the Al Arabiya channel, are demonstrating their willingness to expose transgressions in the Arab world.
In December, Kuwait closed Al Jazeera’s bureau there after the network aired video of police beating political activists. The Kuwaiti government accused it of interfering in the country’s internal affairs. Egypt became so incensed by how it was portrayed that the state-owned newspaper, Al Ahram, ran a story in 2010 alleging that Al Jazeera’s female anchors faced sexual harassment. The headline read: “Al Jazeera an Island of Harassment.”
Officials in Cairo, Amman and capitals across North Africa criticize Al Jazeera, accusing it of slanted reporting on the pitfalls of their regimes while doing little to illuminate the sins of some Persian Gulf states, notably the network’s home of Qatar. These officials regard Al Jazeera as a tool to advance the political ambitions of the Qatari emirate at the expense of traditional centers of regional power.
In a sense, multimedia agencies symbolize the aspirations of a new Middle East looking, with provocative images and high-definition clarity, beyond the bankrupt ideologies of leaders who have done little to inspire their people. Al Jazeera has become a hallmark in a part of the world that increasingly craves unfiltered news.
Much of its coverage in Tunisia is raw and unvarnished, relying on cellphone videos sent by bystanders and call-in interviews that give those caught in the passion of events a chance to express observations and opinions. It is that same dynamic that stymied U.S. military officials trying to spin the news in the early days of the Iraq war against vivid Al Jazeera video of battered villages and dead civilians.
The network turned to the Tunisian story in December after a young college graduate trying to earn a living as a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest harassment by police and the hopelessness and lack of jobs under the government of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. Its footage of angry mobs and blood in the streets was a creeping threat to Ben Ali, who was attempting to censor Tunisian media in a bid for calm.
The Tunisian parliament accused Al Jazeera of distortion and bias in its coverage. It condemned the network for hurting the country’s reputation and creating a “spirit of hatred and resentment … to spread chaos, instability and distrust in the country’s achievements.”
It quickly became apparent, though, that Al Jazeera and other media were reporting on the unmasking and unraveling of a 23-year-old corrupt and autocratic regime. Images of protesters ransacking villas owned by the president’s family provided an egalitarian element that roused activists across the region, including in Algeria and Libya, where governments were attempting to quell their own unrest.
Some analysts noted that Al Jazeera focused on the religious aspect of the Tunisian saga. Ben Ali was considered a U.S. ally for cracking down on Islamic extremism, which included jailing militants and forcing opposition politicians into exile, such as Rashid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party. The network appeared to devote more time to Islamist voices than other opposition figures expected to have more of a role in the new political order.
Others, however, credited Al Jazeera with showing balance. “They did an excellent job,” said Hussein Amin, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo. “It was objective coverage with different points of view.”
Unlike some of its competitors, Al Jazeera, with an estimated 40 million to 50 million viewers worldwide, prefers a more rapid tempo.
“I was able to follow Al Jazeera’s minute-by-minute coverage of the revolution through my iPhone,” wrote Bassam Sebti on MidEastPosts. “The Qatari network has an iPhone app that live-broadcasts their news, in addition to its presence on Facebook, Twitter and Al Jazeera Blogs. It was simply everywhere and for free!”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.