What Al Jazeera did right: This revolution was televised

Despite their journalists being attacked, Al Jazeera continued to tell stories no one else would.

Farheen Hussain February 18, 2011
My friend, a fellow news junkie, asked me, “What’s the difference between CNN and Al Jazeera?”

Answer: “CNN shows the missiles taking off, Al Jazeera shows them landing.”

If any amongst us had doubts about this subtle difference, they were most certainly removed after following the Egyptian revolution unfold on Al Jazeera and its sanitised coverage on other mainstream western news networks.

To further substantiate Al Jazeera’s credentials as the peoples’ news network that brings forth the people’s perspective devoid of an imperialist agenda, I can tell you this; Donald Rumsfeld condemned it, George Bush allegedly said he wanted to bomb it and all those hard core tea-partying, Republicans consider it their Fox News.

For over two weeks till the ouster of Hosni Mubarak I found myself drawn into the romanticism, passion and hope that only a true peoples’ revolution can inspire.

I followed Al Jazeera’s phenomenal coverage of the Egyptian revolution through its live streaming on internet and Twitter accounts of its embedded journalists reporting live from the ground.

Alongside, I kept a close watch on the coverage by other western mainstream channels I had access to, namely BBC, Sky News, CNN and for sheer entertainment, Fox News.

The potency of media only becomes evident when it covers a movement that is as fluid, volatile, and populist, with multiple angles and perspectives as the Egyptian revolution. What a specific news network chooses to reinforce, what they choose to downplay, the language they frame it in and the approach they adopt has huge implications on the opinions the millions of viewers detached from the ground reality will formulate.

Coverage capturing the vibe

Given that Al Jazeera’s headquarters are embedded in the Middle East, and it has far more resources and networks available, it is only fair that the time they devoted to the revolution and efficiency in covering breaking news superseded that of others. However, apart from these understandable differences, Al Jazeera made a conscious effort for their coverage to mirror the momentum of the revolution on the ground.  The same coverage on CNN or other channels would be oft interrupted by lengthy pieces on the automobile industry, snow storms in America, the Super Bowl and even preparations for the royal weddings; cunningly deflating the energy that reverberates in the viewers when watching the protests.

Diverse angles, diverse content

While Al Jazeera’s offices and journalists were attacked and the channel taken off air in Egypt by Mubarak’s government, no such action was taken against other mainstream western news networks.

If anything this gives validation to the channel’s struggle to expose the truth. Conversely, the other mainstream western news channels found it too much to stomach that this revolution was in fact orchestrated and sustained by the secular, youth bulge of Egypt. They displayed an overwhelming need to give the Egyptian revolution an Islamist bent with anchors on CNN and BBC consistently calling analysts and diplomats to comment on the likelihood of a Khomeni like takeover and obsessively discussing the Islamist credentials of the Muslim Brotherhood and their popularity amongst the Egyptian people.

For the most part, their coverage consisted of a small inset of the Tahrir Square and a stodgy analyst or suited diplomat in the foreground waxing lyrical about Mubarak’s role in forging ‘peace’ in the Middle East and indispensability to the west.

During the most crucial moment of the revolution, before Mubarak’s address to the Egyptian people, Al Jazeera remained anchored in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria capturing the people’s sentiment. Simultaneously, channels like CNN were intent on humanising the dictator by running profiles of Hosni Mubarak, as an analyst droned on about a post Mubarak Egypt, subtly pushing the false autocratic rule or Islamist takeover binary.

Lastly, true to form, Fox News’ coverage of the Egyptian revolution through its bevy of blondes and right-wing evangelists, amped the sleaze factor of their channel to heights hardcore pornographers are still aspiring to reach.

Al Jazeera’s people-centric approach

The sanitised coverage of western mainstream channels and usage of generic language has the impact of detaching the viewers from those engaged in the revolution.

The reality and rawness of the Egyptian revolution was captured by Al Jazeera because it took a truly people centric approach; anchoring their journalists amongst those on the streets and letting the people tell their story not have it told by an endless stream of analysts and diplomats disconnected from the eye of the storm.

Similarly, the nuanced differences in language between channels became increasingly apparent; while CNN, BBC preferred to use words like ‘crisis’ or ‘protests’, Al Jazeera befittingly called it a revolution.

When Hosni made the anti-climatic speech in which he declared he was not stepping down, western news channels described the protesters as ‘deflated’, whereas Al Jazeera remained anchored in Tahrir and let the viewers at home feel the reverberation of the chants that grew louder and angrier; with the voiceover describing the mood as having shifted from, ‘angry to volcanic’.

Though it gave due coverage to all aspects of the revolution, Al Jazeera’s primal focus was interviewing the protesters themselves; after all this was the people’s revolution, why distract from their passion, their grievances and their motives.

The explosive 2003 documentary, “This Revolution will not be televised” captured the real story not told by the Venezuelan or international media, but a group of Irish filmmakers who followed the events that led up to the coup against Hugo Chavez’s regime.

In this new age of electronic and social media; news networks, bloggers and independent film makers are becoming as influential in shaping history as global power players. By televising Egypt’s revolution, Al Jazeera has not only played an undeniable role in cementing Egypt’s democratic future, but also transmitted the ripples of people’s power and the hope it inspires to all those sitting thousands of miles away from Tahrir Square.
Farheen Hussain A development activist based in Lahore. She is also training to become a documentary filmmaker.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.