Al Jazeera creditted for galvanizing Arab frustration

Friday, January 28, 2011

NEW YORK - Aggressive coverage by the Qatar-based satellite television channel Al-Jazeera helped propel insurgent emotions in the Arab world this week.

According to the New York Times, Al Jazeera TV has been widely hailed for helping enable the revolt in Tunisia with its galvanizing early reports, even as Western-aligned political factions in Lebanon and the West Bank attacked and burned the channel’s offices and vans this week, accusing it of incitement against them.

The NYT quotes analysts as claiming that in many ways, the civilian unrest in the Middle East is Al Jazeera’s moment - not only because of the role it has played, but also because the channel has helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments (and against Israel) ever since its founding 15 years ago.

The channel’s heavy emphasis on Arab suffering and political crisis, its screaming-match talk shows, even its sensational news banners and swelling orchestral accompaniments, have all contributed to the rise of public outcry in the region.

“The notion that there is a common struggle across the Arab world is something Al Jazeera helped create,” claims Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University who has written extensively on the Arab news media.

Lynch added: “They did not cause these events, but it’s almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera.”

Critics, however, said that Al Jazeera has tailored its coverage to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza against their Lebanese and Palestinian rivals.

They also claimed that the channel’s reporter in Tunisia became a leading partisan in the uprising there.

They speculate that the network bowed to the diplomatic interests of the Qatari emir, its patron, by initially playing down the protests in Egypt.

Al Jazeera’s freewheeling broadcasts have long made it the b�te noire of Arab governments, and in some earlier instances they have succeeded in reining it in.

In 2007, the channel received orders to soften its blunt coverage of Saudi Arabia after Qatar and the Saudis mended a smoldering political feud.

That remains a weak point for Al Jazeera - as for most of the pan-Arab press, which is largely owned by Saudi Arabia.

Yet for all its flaws, Al Jazeera still operates with less constraint than almost any other Arab outlet, and remains the most popular channel in the region.

Al Jazeera has been widely admired for its aggressive coverage of the Tunisian uprising, which was largely ignored in most Western outlets.

The channel succeeded despite serious obstacles: the Tunisian government had barred its reporters from the country, and a Tunisian born-anchor, Mohammed Krichen, arranged for an old friend, Lotfi Hajji, to work under cover as Al Jazeera’s eyes and ears on the ground.

Hajji, a freelance journalist who also calls himself a human rights activist, was followed and harassed by the secret police almost constantly.

After the uprising started, local contacts began sending Hajji amateur videos of police violence over Facebook.

Al Jazeera began showing the grainy cellphone videos on its broadcasts, as part of what the station sympathetically labeled “the Sidi Bouzid Uprising” after the town where a young man started it all by setting himself on fire on December 17. (ANI)

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