Al Jazeera Seen as a Force for Freedom in the Middle East

Mustafa SouagMustafa Souag, the head of the news department at the Arabic language station of Al Jazeera said this past Monday, “We knew something was coming. Our main objective was to provide the most accurate and comprehensive coverage that we could by sending cameras and reporters to any place there is an event. And if you don’t have a reporter, then you try to find alternative people who are willing to cooperate because they believe in what we are doing.”

And what Al Jazeera is doing, and has been doing for the past 15 years, is bringing an element of freedom into Arabic broadcasting of the news that exists nowhere else in this part of the world. And this revolution in freedom of the press which has been brewing for 15 years seems to have led to another revolution in the political fabric of Middle Eastern governments, so far in Tunisia and Egypt, with the possibility of more on the horizon.

Beginning in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Al Jazeera showed the world, but more importantly showed the people of the Middle East, that the Tunisian regime was in fact not impregnable nor its security forces invincible; this was just the government’s propaganda whose purpose was to keep the Tunisian people down. Al Jazeera broadcast live and in real time that it was in fact possible for the millions of disaffected people of Tunisia to demand more from their leaders; more from their government; to demand their legitimate rights. This news literally broke the bubble of oppression and showed Al Jazeera viewers that change was really possible everywhere in the region.

Al Anstey, the managing director of Al Jazeera English explained how Al Jazeera responded to the events they covered in Tunisia: “We did not foresee the drama of events, but we saw how events in Tunisia rippled out and we were mindful of the fact [that] things were changing, and so we prepared very carefully. We sent teams to join our Cairo bureau and made sure that we were covered on the ground in other countries in the region so when the story unfolded we were ready to cover all angles.”

As the unrest spread to Egypt Al Jazeera was forced to face-off with a more formidable foe. State-run Egyptian channels showed less-than-truthful versions of the dramatic events in a feeble attempt to answer Al Jazeera’s more accurate coverage. Some Egyptian journalists even resigned their positions in anger and disgust, including a popular TV talk-show host, Mahmoud Saad, who was later shown in Tahrir Square being carried on the shoulders of grateful demonstrators.

The outgoing Egyptian Information Minister Anas al-Fiqi tried to shut down satellite transmission and even had several Al Jazeera journalists detained, including Ayman Mohyedin, who was finally freed after 9 hours in custody. Despite this systematic campaign on the part of the Egyptian government to shut down Al Jazeera in Egypt they were able to keep broadcasting throughout.

“The regime did everything they could to make things difficult for us, but they did not succeed,” said Souag. “We still had the most comprehensive reporting of the events in Egypt.”

Now we are left with the question, ‘How far will the ripple effect of the popular uprising go?’ Hints of ripples have been felt in poorer countries such as Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain, but what about the wealthier states like Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, the wealthiest country in the world and the home of Al Jazeera?

Although a popular uprising in Qatar, where the GDP is heading past $145,000 per capita seems highly unlikely, political security for Saudi Arabian leaders does not seem a forgone conclusion. It might seem that, given Saudi Arabia’s power and wealth that they might be more able to silence Al Jazeera than Egypt was, but Souag disagrees.

“Al Jazeera was absent from Saudi Arabia for a long time, so we don’t have pictures or information from within the country,” explained Souag. “Finally the Saudis allowed us to open an office about two weeks ago, and so we have a correspondent there now, and if there is something that needs to be covered we will report it in the same way as events anywhere else.”