As it happened to CNN with the Gulf War in 1991, the coverage of the uprising in Egypt marks the arrival of Al Jazeera English in the big league of global news.
A war or uprising becomes a take-off point for a particular medium or media outlet. The Gulf war in 1991 made CNN a household name and marked the advent of cable in India. Kosovo in 1999 was the first Internet war — after the Serbs expelled Western journalists, email helped ordinary people get news out about the NATO attacks. In 2009 Twitter told the world what was happening in Iran. And in 2011 in Egypt, the channel of the moment has been Al Jazeera English (AJE), with Americans, of all people, clamouring for cable networks to offer it in the US, and the White House avidly tuning in.
Al Jazeera's live streaming on its website quite simply brought the upheaval into homes all over the world. It became a window on Cairo any time one wanted one, sometimes with a split screen to also show what was happening in Alexandria, or more tellingly, to show what Egyptian state TV was showing — calm and normalcy!
Launched by 2006 end, Al Jazeera English, with its promise of breaking the hegemony of Western-owned media on global news, has found itself shut out from many markets including the US and India. The former partly because cable networks were reluctant to carry the channel, the latter because the government did not grant it uplink permission. But its telecasts from Tunisia and then from Egypt over the last fortnight made it simply the most important channel to watch at this time.
As for perspective, if you watched Al Jazeera the picture you got of Vice President Omar Suleiman who was emerging as a key figure in the possible transfer of power was a little different from what CNN and BBC were projecting. The AJE website had an article titled “CIA's man in Cairo” which talked about his links with the CIA as well as his rather direct role in torture in Egypt. By mid-week last week human rights lawyers were being interviewed on what they thought of him. CNN, by way of contrast, had an article by former CIA director Gen. Michael V. Hayden on its website suggesting that Suleiman had “shown remarkable pragmatism when dealing with Israel, the Palestinians and Hamas” and that he might be the one to simultaneously hold things together while building toward an alternative future. The BBC profile too had no mention of torture or about him being “the CIA's man”.
Al Jazeera English told you in rather bald terms how Israel was viewing events in Egypt, and why it had been comfortable with Hosni Mubarak. “Israel has shown it can handle Arab repression, Arab democracy may prove more difficult”. And on Suleiman: “Associated with torture, with the US, the clear worry is that he will obviously not respect human rights. That does not mean he won't be good for business or stability and security for the country. Is that not what matters right now?” asked a brisk AJE anchor of a human rights lawyer in Washington DC.
Ironically, just as the uprising in Egypt began, BBC began cutting its Arab language services as part of an announced 16 per cent savings target imposed on it by budgetary cuts. (The same budgetary measures that saw it announce the closure of its shortwave Hindi radio services last month.) That included evening shortwave radio broadcasts in Arabic that were part of BBC World Service and “significant reductions” to BBC Arabic television service. According to the BBC, there are approximately 400,000 listeners to the BBC's shortwave services in Egypt, and over a million other listeners to its broadcasts through FM frequencies or local radio partners but that audience will now shrink substantially, and guess who is poised to fill the gap.
In an article titled “Al-Jazeera's coverage of Egypt protests may hasten revolution in world news” the Guardian speculated last week that even as Western news networks grapple with budget cuts, Arab and Chinese backers of global news services were stepping up funding for an expanding role in the global TV news game. While AJE is staffed largely by Western journalists, it is financed by the Emir of Qatar and is under no pressure to deliver profits any time soon.
The Guardian quoted Richard Sambrook, the former director of BBC Global News, saying that AJE's emergence is part of a wider trend which could have far-reaching implications. “Western journalism and newsgathering, including the international networks, is shrinking as news organisations close bureaux and make staff redundant to cut costs. At the same time, states in other parts of the world are investing in journalism including international coverage and networks — Al-Jazeera, Iran's Press TV … and the Chinese have just invested $7bn in expanding [state news agency] Xinhua and CCTV [China Central Television]. So we may be seeing a shift from western dominated international news to Mid East and Asian dominance in the long run.”
India's otherwise aggressive English news channels, alas, have no bottomless backer to propel them into this game.
Technology triumphs: When the Internet went down for a few days in Egypt, Google announced a way around it to keep up the tweets from Egypt. It quickly launched Speak to Tweet, which allowed people to call phone numbers, leave a voicemail, and the message was then sent out as a tweet under the hashtag #egypt. As for Blackberry services in Egypt, its encryption triumphed. It allowed most users of the devices to escape the Egyptian government's crackdown on communications with the outside world.
Correction: In response to last fortnight's column which said Al Jazeera English had projected a different picture of Omar Suleiman compared to CNN, CNN points out that they did air an interview with author and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind where he talks about Omar Suleiman's record on torture and killing in Egypt. And that cnn.com also carried Suskind's views on this topic.