Listening in on conversations on the Stockholm subway, it appears that Arabian revolts of 2011 will be for Al Jazeera what the first Gulf war was for CNN. Suddenly Al Jazeera is a household name, repeatedly referred to by other media outlets and viewed directly by thousands of others through a variety of channels.
And it should not be forgotten that it’s also symbiotic relationship between the world and the people who gets to tell its story. It goes both ways. Just like CNN made the first Gulf war into the type of conflict it became, it is indeed very difficult to see where Al Jazeera end and begin in the recent upheavals. The pan-Arabic protest movements owe a lot to the efficient distribution of news between different parts of the world. Often social media in particular, and the Internet in general, are given a lot of the credit for this (and rightly so!) but the power of television should not be forgotten.
The International Audience
I believe that Al Jazeera’s underdog position and difficulty getting distribution by cable networks, especially in the United States, made them go back to the drawing board to find alternative channels. The result has been to have a great Internet presence, with live-feeds available for viewing on computers and mobile devices. In fact, I find myself tuning into Al Jazeera’s app ever so often for a quick update.
I can only speculate into the reasons for why they seem to gain explosive growth. Primarily, of course, there is the indisputable fact that Al Jazeera’s reporting is second-to-none. With western media houses downsizing it’s not uncommon for them to have only one reporter covering the whole of Africa, for example. Or the entire Middle East. It goes without saying that both coverage and depth will suffer as a result. But, there might also be other, subtler, reasons. At least some people surely appreciate the fresh perspective and the — often quite blatant – western centric worldview that permeate the outlets such as CNN.
Duh, Doha! Protests Heading Here?
With protests spreading like wildfire throughout the Arab world, the inevitable question is what would happen if the revolt would spread to Al Jazeera’s native Qatar. Historically, the TV channel has enjoyed unparalleled freedoms to act independently – compared to the standard in the region, that is. It’s not really saying much, considering.
As rulers topple and falls on top of each other in nearby countries, even Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is bound to be at least a little edgy; however liberal he is, he is far from an elected leader. Would he allow for the channel to cover protests in the same way they did in Tunis or Egypt?
The Emir has given Al Jazeera a very long leech in the past, and even though he is considered a liberal leader, with his eyes set on reforming the status quo, somewhere in the sand there is a red line.
Like in many countries (insert standard caveat that the West is also doing it) the Internet is filtered in Qatar. Mostly the filter is designed to block pornography and alternative critical views on Islam, but a lot of other information is also difficult to access, either by design or mistake. To add insult to injury, another category that is quite tightly regulated is access to censorship circumvention tools, in the likes of Psiphon, TOR and other proxy servers.
One thing that always worries me is state control over central data exchanges, and Qatar, though its national telecommunications company Qtel, is no different.
By centralizing exchange though a single point there’s always the temptation to tamper with the data, simply because it’s easy to do it. Pulling the plug on the Internet is infinitely harder if there’s a plethora of exchanges, each operating independently of one another. If pushed into a corner, would the Emir use his power to further limit free expression? It’s hardly inconceivable. Would he flick the kill-switch? Probably not. Qatar is a huge economy, with the highest GDP per capita on the planet, and such a country would have a meltdown in a matter of hours following a complete disruption of communications.
Avoiding the FUD
Al Jazeera has matured into a solid product and they’ve proven themselves over and over again in the last 15 years. In the last months their influence have been pivotal the development of a whole region. As with any news organization its motives and loyalties can be questioned – and they should be! Just like we discuss media centralization and ownership in the western sphere. That discussion should not however, spread fear, uncertainty and doubt on whether or not Al Jazeera is a legitimate player in a globalized world.
It only took a few revolutions to prove it.