Amid crackdown, al-Jazeera endures

By Liz Sly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 10:45 PM

BAGHDAD - Though few foreign news organizations have escaped the onslaught of attacks against journalists in Cairo by supporters of Egypt's regime, none has faced quite so many challenges as the pan-Arab al-Jazeera satellite network.

Since the country's pro-democracy protests first erupted Jan. 25, the network's phone lines have been cut, nine of its staffers have been detained at various times, its satellite signal has been repeatedly blocked and on Friday, al-Jazeera said in a statement, a "gang of thugs" stormed its bureau, smashing equipment and setting it ablaze.

Yet throughout, al-Jazeera has remained on air, broadcasting live pictures of the masses gathered in Tahrir Square with pre-positioned cameras and airing phone interviews with analysts and correspondents across the country.

And in what represents perhaps an ultimate act of defiance to the effort to shut the network down, demonstrators in the square have rigged up a giant screen so that even those protesting can follow al-Jazeera's supposedly banned coverage of the event.

"The people are gathered here today with one message only: 'Leave, Mubarak,' " declared news anchor Jamal Rayan on Friday night, in a typically emotive telling of the day's events.

"This is a pilgrimage by the Egyptian people in homage to democracy," added Rayan, who famously wept on-air two years ago during Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip.

It is such unapologetically passionate coverage that has earned the network a devoted following across the region as well as the ire of many of the region's leaders.

Its bureaus have been shuttered in Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco and most recently Tunisia, until the government there was toppled. The network has not had an Iraq bureau since the government expelled it in 2004, citing its shamelessly sympathetic coverage of the insurgency.

The network's sister channel, al-Jazeera English, is run as a separate entity, and there has been no attempt by the Egyptian authorities to shut down its signal.

But it is the Arabic version that remains the most popular television news service in a majority of Arab countries, said Fares Braizat, of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, who has surveyed viewer preferences across the region.

"Al-Jazeera has given people a voice that they didn't have before," he said.

The network is partly funded by the Qatari government, itself as autocratic as any in the region, in just one of the curious idiosyncrasies that have endowed the tiny emirate with clout beyond its size. On numerous occasions, regional leaders are known to have placed frantic calls to Qatar's emir, begging him to curtail al-Jazeera's coverage - most recently Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh this week.

"The channel must stop excitement, exaggeration and distorting the facts," Saleh told the emir, according to the official Yemeni news agency.

Mahed Hattar, a secular democracy activist in Jordan, has been critical of the network in the past for focusing too heavily on the views of Islamists, but he says he has detected no such bias in its coverage of the Egypt protests.

"It's very balanced, more than at any other time. They're giving both sides," said Hattar, who like so many across the region has been glued to the television since the protests erupted, surfing mainly between three channels, al-Jazeera and the Arabic services of France-24 and the BBC.

Indeed, the days when rulers could blame al-Jazeera alone for spreading unwelcome news have passed. Dozens of TV stations have sprung up since it burst upon the Arab world in 1996, including al-Arabiya, the Saudi funded network that was intended as a moderate counterbalance.

Now the Internet is challenging television's role, notably the social networks Twitter and Facebook, which were used to organize the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Protesters in Tahrir Square on Friday were seen holding banners reading "Thank You Facebook."

Hattar dismissed suggestions that al-Jazeera's coverage is inciting Arabs to turn against their governments.

"It's the event itself. It's too historic," he said. "The region is having a revolution and for the first time it's a democratic revolution. Did you ever expect to see this day in your lifetime?"

Special correspondent Ali Qeis contributed to this report.

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