South African flies the flag at Al Jazeera

2011-02-26 11:22

As the revolution spread from Tunisia and through Jordan to find a home in Egypt, Al Jazeera quickly became the network to watch for news on the ­region.

In the United States, where Al Jazeera is deemed controversial and can’t be found on ­cable or satellite systems, President Barack Obama had his eye on two television screens.

The one ­carried CNN and the other Al Jazeera.International media scrambled to cover the Middle East’s insurrections, but Al Jazeera was already there breaking the news.

Little wonder Egypt is a defining moment for Al Jazeera ­English (AJE).

It enabled the channel to enter the US market, one that’s been elusive.

“This has been AJE’s catapult – we’re already been out there for five years getting the story out from around the globe – but this has really thrown us out there,” says Heather Allan, who is the head of news gathering for AJE.

The channel runs non-stop news that is increasingly quoted by other media despite it having had its licence revoked, journalists arrested, correspondents brutalised and its offices raided.

“If you consider how many doors are being shut to us because of what we do, it makes us all the more determined to tell this story,” says Allan, who graduated from Wits, worked at the SABC and went to the US after becoming a field producer for an American network.

Allan moved to the Persian Gulf and AJE in 2009.“We’re unabashedly ready to work around these restrictions to get the story. We don’t want cookie-cutter news,” she says.

For Allan, this means staying on top of a ­never-ending series of crises.

At AJE’s Doha headquarters in Qatar, Allan is typically at her desk with a telephone receiver crooked in one ear, scribbling in a note pad with one hand, while typing on her computer with another.

She’s booking a flight back to Doha for a ­correspondent while simultaneously trying to find a replacement for one of the Cairo crew’s mobile satellites.

When she’s finished with one call, she’s on to another, this time counselling a journalist who was threatened by a crowd in the city.

And so the dramas unfold continuously.

This is a normal day for the veteran journalist who has 30-years’ experience and has covered major events such as the 1989 massacre of ­Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square and Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990.

“When you see events on television you still wish you were out there, but you also think somebody’s got to be in the office.

At the end of the day you need to work secure in the knowledge somebody back in the office is taking care of business,” she says.

The biggest change Allan has witnessed over the years is growing aggression towards the ­media, particularly by dictatorial governments.

“What has certainly changed in my lifetime is that up to a certain point, the press weren’t ­really targets. We operated a lot like the Swiss Red Cross.

You never really worried that you’d be deliberately hurt. Now, all of a sudden, we’ve become the targets.”

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