< What's Al Jazeera's Role in the Egyptian Protests?

Transcript

Friday, February 04, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just as the regular Egyptians on the ground had to improvise after their government shut down the Internet for a few days, Al-Jazeera found ways to report in Egypt, changing its satellite frequencies, checking social media, fielding reporters on the scene, even as they were hunted by the authorities. When we spoke to Al-Jazeera’s Director General Wadah Khanfar last year, he told us that his network gave a voice to the voiceless, and Middle East expert Marc Lynch told us a few weeks ago that Al-Jazeera’s coverage had framed a narrative that united the whole Arab world, one of a single people struggling against many authoritarian regimes. The New York Times wrote recently that Al-Jazeera’s, quote, “aggressive coverage has helped propel insurgent emotions from one capital to another.” Al Anstey, Managing Director of Al-Jazeera English, says not so. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just as the regular Egyptians on the ground had to improvise after their government shut down the Internet for a few days, Al-Jazeera found ways to report in Egypt, changing its satellite frequencies, checking social media, fielding reporters on the scene, even as they were hunted by the authorities. When we spoke to Al-Jazeera’s Director General Wadah Khanfar last year, he told us that his network gave a voice to the voiceless, and Middle East expert Marc Lynch told us a few weeks ago that Al-Jazeera’s coverage had framed a narrative that united the whole Arab world, one of a single people struggling against many authoritarian regimes. The New York Times wrote recently that Al-Jazeera’s, quote, “aggressive coverage has helped propel insurgent emotions from one capital to another.” Al Anstey, Managing Director of Al-Jazeera English, says not so. AL ANSTEY: It’s not our job to propel, but obviously as a network which is covering the stories in the way that we do, then those pictures are seen in other countries. We're covering the stories and we're broadcasting those stories, and we're broadcasting in the way that we do, i.e., factually balanced, and that is enabling people to see what’s going on in the world. We're covering, not creating.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of journalists in Egypt have been targeted, but especially Al-Jazeera, because it’s been bringing the events of the Square to the world in a way that no other media outlet has been able to.

AL ANSTEY: We have been targeted in recent days. Unfortunately, we're seeing all journalists targeted today. But one of the fundamental reasons why Al-Jazeera, in particular, has been highlighted is because we are broadcasting live the events that are going on, which some parties in this story may not want to be seen. Not that long ago, weeks and months ago, if there’d been a protest against President Mubarak, that would not have been seen on state television; that would not have been seen on Egyptian television. It is unprecedented in Egypt, in modern Egypt, to have this level of opposition publicly seen.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think, given that the viewing of Al-Jazeera online or on various services expanded incredibly in the United States -

AL ANSTEY: Right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: - a market that the network Al-Jazeera English has found incredibly hard to crack – it’s been carried in Washington and hardly anywhere else – do you think there’s a chance now that you'll finally find a berth on an American cable system? AL ANSTEY: Our Web traffic in the first couple of days of this story was up two-and-a-half thousand percent, of which fifty percent plus was from the United States. And those are figures of people reading us online, but also live streaming us through Al-Jazeera English’s website and watching our TV output online. That is evidence of a demand, and it’s a recognition for me that we are putting out very high quality, very balanced content, which is appreciated because we've seen that demand rise and rise and rise.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a pretty reasonable assumption to draw, given the spiking viewership in the United States, that you've managed to blast through some of the prejudices about Al-Jazeera. It’s been called anti-western and accused of having institutional sympathy for Islamist extremists. In the days before the Egyptian uprising, your network began releasing a series of more than 1600 leaked documents, known as the Palestine Papers, which revealed confidential details of negotiations between American, Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, accused Al-Jazeera of distorting his positions – not for the first time – inciting violence and trying to destroy him by leaking the documents. His loyalists even attacked your network’s office in Ramallah. In the Al-Jazeera narrative, is the Palestinian Authority the repressive government and the Hamas the voice of the voiceless?

AL ANSTEY: It’s not for Al-Jazeera to say whether one side of a story or another is repressive or progressive, or one thing or another thing. It is for us to cover exactly what is going on on the ground now and provide the analysis and context, when necessary, when relevant, so that viewers and our audiences get the full picture of the story. It is truly objective reporting. And when we get documents, which we go through, and we apply the highest standards of journalism to those documents, we're reporting that story. We're not reporting one side or other of that story.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Al Anstey, thank you very much.

AL ANSTEY: Thank you.

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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Al Anstey is the managing director of Al-Jazeera English.

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.

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