Egypt takes aim at Al-Jazeera for protest coverage

2011-02-10 14:40

The Egyptian government has made clear that it believes a chief culprit stoking the anti-government protests roiling the country is pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

Security forces have detained, and later released, at least nine Al-Jazeera correspondents since the protests erupted last month.

Authorities have banned its Arabic and English language channels from broadcasting and revoked the press credentials of all of its journalists.

The channel has continued to report despite the restrictions.

Pro-government thugs set the Qatar-based network’s Cairo offices ablaze, along with the equipment inside, as part of a broad pattern of attacks on journalists covering the unrest.

The network has won accolades from many around the world for its near round-the-clock coverage of the unprecedented unrest in Egypt, and seen a spike in interest in its report from US viewers.

But it has collided head-on with Egyptian authorities, who have sought to portray the broadcaster – the Arab world’s most popular – as a malevolent force fuelling the unrest.

Egypt’s newly-appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman told Egyptian newspaper editors on Tuesday that “certain satellite channels” are provoking the protesters and insulting Egypt.

A week earlier, Suleiman said: “I blame some friendly countries who own unfriendly channels that have fuelled the youth against the country by lying and showing the situation as worse than it is.”

While he hasn’t named Al-Jazeera outright, it is clear to Egyptians whom Suleiman has in mind, and such comments have served as a clear signal to the regime and its supporters to hit back at the network.

And they have.

Besides the attack on its Cairo bureau and the detention of its reporters, Al-Jazeera said its website was hacked.

A banner advertisement on its Arabic-language site was taken down for more than two hours and replaced with a slogan reading “Together for the collapse of Egypt”.

The slogan provided a link to a page criticising the broadcaster.

The network has even had trouble staying on air because of high levels of interference in its broadcast signal.

Al-Jazeera said the government shut off the channel’s signal from an Egyptian satellite.

Egyptians with satellite dishes could adjust them to point to other satellites beaming the Al-Jazeera signal, but that is not easy to do.

Since the cut-off, the channel has provided viewers the co-ordinates to make the change.

Despite the challenges, Al-Jazeera’s flagship Arabic station and its English sister channel have both managed to continue broadcasting, although the crackdown has driven their Egyptian reporters off air over fears of government reprisals.

One Al-Jazeera correspondent in Egypt said the network’s reporters have removed all of the broadcaster’s logos from their equipment to keep a low profile.

“I am being mobbed by people on the street,” the reporter said on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

“They are watching State TV and think we’re the enemy.”

Pro-Mubarak supporters and soldiers at military checkpoints have asked whether reporters work for Al-Jazeera.

This is not the first time the network, whose aggressive coverage of populist causes in the Arab world has angered governments, has been at odds with authorities in the Middle East.

It has faced bans or restrictions in the past in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

In December, its offices were closed in Kuwait after it broadcast a clash between security forces and opposition groups.

The George W Bush administration demonised Al-Jazeera during the US-led war in Iraq, accusing it of biased coverage of the conflict and of sympathising with the insurgency.

In 2003, a US missile hit Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad offices, killing one correspondent.

The network’s facilities in Kabul were struck by an American missile in the opening days of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

The crackdown by Egyptian officials comes amid one of the most critical political showdowns in the Arab world in decades and a possible watershed moment for Arab networks expanding their presence on the web.

The round-the-clock coverage offers another example of how international outlets such as Al-Jazeera and the worldwide reach of the internet have destroyed the once-unchallenged control of the press by autocratic governments.

“Media in the Arab world is still controlled by governments with huge limits,” said Nashat Aqtash, a professor of media studies at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.

“Though Al-Jazeera is a government-funded channel, it is permitted to cover all of the hot issues regardless of who it upsets.”

“They mean to tackle the topics that concern people, that no one else in the region talks about, and that has made it the first source of information in the Arab world,” Aqtash added.

The Qatari government bankrolled Al-Jazeera when it launched in 1996 and is believed to still fund the station, but it operates with considerable editorial freedom compared with other government-run media outlets in the Arab world.

Modelled on CNN and other international news channels, the network claims to reach 220?million households in more than 100 countries, including Israel and parts of the US.

The network is a rarity among Arab broadcasters for offering a platform to controversial voices.

It runs extensive interviews with Israeli figures and allows pro-Israeli comments on its website.

The stark contrast between Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Egypt protests and Egyptian State TV’s coverage was clearest in the first days of the unrest.

While Al-Jazeera showed images of police beating protesters and demonstrators torching police trucks and vans, State TV broadcast a serene panoramic view of the Nile River and the landmark Cairo Tower.

But critics have accused the network of bias and pushing a political agenda that mirrors that of Qatar’s rulers.

Last month, for example, the network published leaked documents about Middle East peace talks.

Supporters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas claim Al-Jazeera spun the reports in a bid to undercut Abbas and favour his rival, the Islamist militant Hamas.

Al-Jazeera English’s coverage of the Egyptian unrest has won it – at least for now – a growing interest among Americans.

The network’s telecast and other content has been available online for more than two years.

During the Egyptian crisis, it has seen its online traffic increase by 2?500%, with computer users from the US responsible for half of it, the station said.

Link TV, an independent broadcaster seen primarily on the DirecTV and Dish satellite systems in the US, said last week it is simulcasting about 12 hours a day of live Al-Jazeera coverage to about 33?million of the nation’s nearly 116?million homes with televisions.

Al-Jazeera hopes to capitalise on the current spike in interest for its work to win acceptance in the US market after years with nothing more than a toe-hold in the country.

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