Online, satcasts of Mideast unrest put Al Jazeera on map

LONDON — Much has been made of the role of social media in the recent rebellions in Arab countries, but in their focus on the internet, commentators may have overlooked the part played by satellite television — especially news channel Al Jazeera.

“It was a massive factor in the raising of consciousness,” says Simon Bucks, associate editor at the U.K.’s Sky News, speaking at a debate at the Royal Television Society in London on the interplay between television news, new media and the Arab revolutions.

Alex Thomson, chief correspondent at the U.K.’s Channel 4, who has covered 20 wars in his 22 years with the channel, calls it a defining moment for the Qatar-based TV group, which bowed in 1996.

“There is no question, Egypt was Al Jazeera’s CNN-Desert Storm moment — it came of age,” he says, referring to CNN’s ground-breaking coverage of the first Gulf War in 1990.

In truth, it was probably the cross-fertilization between new and traditional media that helped spark events, as well as a shift in cultural attitudes in Arab countries, particularly among the youth.

“They criticize the president, the religious establishment, the Muslim Brotherhood. … You can feel it is a new breed of young people who are not scared of expressing themselves,” says Mohamed Yehia, online editor at BBC Arabic, the pubcaster’s Arabic TV service.

This rebellious mood has encouraged the younger generation to grasp new media tools — in particular 3G cell phones with videocameras and Internet access — and to demand a more interactive relationship with news channels.

Al Jazeera embraced this new mood, and its coverage of the protests against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in particular, has been praised.

While it was CNN’s live coverage that held the world in thrall 21 years ago, in 2010-11, it has been Al Jazeera’s pioneering use of social media and citizen journalism that has been a striking feature of its output, both on its Arabic service and its English-language channel.

“What Al Jazeera has done is show us that there are ways of doing stories that in the past we possibly wouldn’t have done,” says Bucks, whose channel is launching its own Arabic-language channel in the Middle East next year.

Al Jazeera’s use of social media and video supplied to them by people on the ground was born out of necessity. Various Arab regimes have for many years seen Al Jazeera as a threat, whereas, for the protestors, the channel was a powerful ally in their struggle.

“The downside of this is that in Egypt in particular, but also in Libya, the regimes made satellite TV in general and Al Jazeera in particular part of the story,” says Jacky Rowland, a former foreign correspondent for the BBC who is now one of Al Jazeera’s senior correspondents.

As protests mounted in Egypt, Al Jazeera’s offices were raided and the accreditations of its journalists were revoked.

“We had people beaten up; we had people detained. It was extremely difficult for us to operate. Just going out of the hotel with a camera was difficult,” Rowland says.

In Libya, it has been even more dangerous, with Al Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber murdered in an ambush, likely by supporters of Muammar Gadafi. Another Al Jazeera journalist was wounded in the same attack.

Rowland has recently returned from Libya, and said that the news crew that replaced hers left the country after only four days when their security advisor observed that they were being tailed and filmed by what he described as two highly professional surveillance teams.

Such hostility encouraged Al Jazeera to call on viewers to help it cover the conflict by sending in videos from the scenes of breaking news and interviews via mobile devices in places its journalists couldn’t get to, with some viewers evolving into regular contributors.

“It is a lot more democratic and a lot more authentic in some ways,” Rowland says.

However, amateur reportage is no substitute for old-fashioned journalism, with experienced reporters witnessing events first hand. Al Jazeera has been commended for the bravery of its journos, and the breadth and depth of its coverage, going to places that other newsies sometimes fail to reach. “If Al Jaz were there, they were the people you turned to,” Thomson says.

Still, the interweaving of old and new media has proved compelling for viewers.

“Television sifts through the social media — it shapes it, puts it into context. It frames it,” Rowland says. “For that reason, satellite television, and Al Jazeera in particular, was very powerful, and a big threat to Mubarak and Gadafi.”

Others have followed the trail blazed by Al Jazeera; most of the main newsies now use citizen journalists in the region to supplement reports from their own crews.

“It is a very important tool, and it has brought us news that we couldn’t have gotten any other way,” BBC Arabic’s Yehia says.

In January, Sky News set up a desk devoted to sourcing such reportage. “It is absolutely fundamental to our news gathering effort,” Bucks says.

However, the use of social media is not without risk. All the newsies have had to work hard to verify the authenticity of the videos sent to them, and the eyewitnesses they have found through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Yet new media sites like these have helped build awareness of Al Jazeera among the population in Arabic countries, especially those in which the channel’s distribution has been blocked. It also has helped build the channel’s profile far beyond the Middle East.

Rowland says her report on the nuclear bunker in one of Gadafi’s palaces captured by the opposition went viral in Switzerland when she reported that two Swiss companies had helped supply the bunker. After 600,000 people viewed the clip, mostly in Switzerland, questions were asked in the Swiss Federal Assembly.

The link between the traditional news channels and social media has become a two-way street, with content being passed from old to new media and back again. “They take what we do and it takes on a life of its own,” Rowland says.

She says that this relationship is constantly evolving and has now entered a new phase, with social media helping shape the news and not just follow it.

The morning after Mubarak’s resignation, Rowland did a live report on citizens who had suddenly come out to sweep Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Expressing her surprise at what she thought was a spontaneous event, she was told by one of the young activists, “That was a Facebook event, Jacky.”

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