For the Arab world, the revolution will be televised, on Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera's rapid-paced, visceral coverage of the Tunisian upheaval
has riveted viewers across the Middle East. Many see it as a big voice
in a landscape of burgeoning Arab dissent. But governments accuse it
of bias.

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By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

January 19, 2011

Reporting from Cairo —
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

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"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

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

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

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

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.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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