A Voice as Powerful as Countries Can Al-Jazeera Topple Governments?

The wave of protests in the Arab world has highlighted the power of Al-Jazeera, which has unparalleled influence in the Middle East. It has been banned from reporting on the unrest in Egypt, where its reporters have been targeted by Mubarak supporters. Governments in the region fear the station could be their undoing.

REUTERS

By and Yassin Musharbash


It is 10:22 a.m. and 7 seconds in Doha in the Emirate of Qatar, according to the red digital numbers on the studio clock. It's an hour earlier in Cairo. The anchorwoman, sitting in a sky-blue studio, is just switching over to the Egyptian capital, where several people were killed and wounded the night before in brutal attacks by regime loyalists against opponents of President Hosni Mubarak. Al-Jazeera is showing the images of the street fighting once again.

A professor is on the phone from Cairo. He is so distraught that the anchorwoman in Doha can hardly interject her questions as he continues to speak. Both the anchorwoman and the professor are speaking very loudly. On top of that, there are the images of violence and the news updates running across the bottom of the screen in red lettering, like warnings from another world -- a world descending into chaos. The Arab world is in crisis. Anyone watching Al-Jazeera at this moment understands that fact immediately. And a lot of people watch Al-Jazeera.

No other Arab TV network, no daily newspaper and no radio station reaches as many of the Arab world's 360 million people. Al-Jazeera's Arabic-language station is broadcast into about 50 million households.

The network is powerful in the Arab world, where it has more influence than CNN or the BBC. It determines which images are important for the people in the region -- and which emotions these images trigger in Tunisia, Egypt or Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.

Political Factor

Al-Jazeera isn't just a news network, but is also a political factor -- and one with a sense of mission. Its editors are particularly zealous in scrutinizing secular regimes like Mubarak's. Al-Jazeera is generally pan-Arab, but there is also a pro-Islamist spectrum within the network.

About two weeks ago, when Al-Jazeera revealed that the PLO delegation was allegedly prepared to make extensive concessions in its negotiations with Israel, the main beneficiary of the report was the radical Islamist group Hamas, which favors confrontation instead of cooperation with Israel.

In airing the story, Al-Jazeera set the stage for days of accusations. The PLO already accuses the network of waging a campaign against it and supporting Hamas with propaganda. And as nonpartisan as the network purports to be, it is certainly not entirely without bias.

Al-Jazeera seems to have been getting even more powerful of late -- so powerful, in fact, that governments are now asking themselves whether the network has the power to incite popular uprisings in the Arab world.

The Egyptian regime was hunting down journalists last week in an apparent effort to prevent the world from witnessing its thugs attacking the protesters. German journalists were also affected. An employee of the ZDF television network spent 20 hours in jail. And during the ZDF news show "Heute Journal," a laser pointer was aimed at a correspondent who was reporting live from Cairo.

'Why Are You Breaking the Law?'

The Qatar-based network was also affected. The Al-Jazeera office in Cairo was vandalized last Friday, an act the network blames on Mubarak supporters. But the reprisals had already begun at about 1:00 p.m. on the previous Monday, when four soldiers burst into a room on the 24th floor of the Ramses Hilton Hotel, from which all major TV networks are running their live reporting operations. The hotel is very close to Tahrir Square and offers a view of the center of the uprising. The soldiers, wielding Kalashnikov rifles, immediately pushed their way to the balcony, knocked over Al-Jazeera's cameras and began searching the room and collecting passports and mobile phones.

One of the uniformed men shouted at the journalists, saying: "Why are you breaking the law? You know perfectly well that we have closed your office here, and that you no longer have a license." Six employees were taken downstairs in a service elevator. The soldiers, their weapons at the ready, urged the reporters to hurry.

An army colonel, speaking politely but loudly, explained his quandary to the six journalists. "I know you're just doing your job," he snapped at the reporters, "but by doing your job you make my work more than difficult."

The journalists were released, but not before the colonel had confiscated their equipment.

Rough Treatment

But it is questionable just what benefits the regime will obtain through its rough treatment of journalists. In Tunisia, the government tossed out Al-Jazeera's journalists shortly before it was overthrown, but to no avail. A Tunisian anchorman for the network made arrangements for Lotfi Hajji, an old friend, to report from a secret location in Tunisia. In addition to being a journalist, Hajji also describes himself as a human rights activist, according to the New York Times.

When the uprising began, Tunisians sent him homemade videos documenting incidents of police brutality. Al-Jazeera broadcast the videos. More and more videos turned up, and they, too, were broadcast. Did the overthrow of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali originate in Doha? Could the same fate be in store for Egyptian President Mubarak?

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