At Issue: The Democratic Republic of Al Jazeera?

Shawn Powers

Oft-demonized network drove the coverage of the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring has renewed the American public’s interest in the Middle East in large part due to the heroic images and stories coming out of Tunisia and Egypt. Rather than news of al-Qaeda and anti-Americanism, U.S. networks broadcast powerful images live from Cairo reminding us that Egyptians and Americans have a shared appreciation for fair, representative and transparent governance.

Much has been made of the role that social media – Facebook in particular – had in helping organize, inform and publicize the protests that eventually pushed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power. The spring of 2011 will no doubt be seen as a watershed moment for the rise and legitimation of these platforms. But to focus on the role of social media obscures the critical role that Al Jazeera played in pushing the protests into the global spotlight, dragging the international media along the way.

Al Jazeera, originally only an Arabic language news broadcaster, is now a network of English and Arabic news, sports, documentary and children’s broadcasts and webcasts. It is also the most robust and uncensored news network in the region. This is not to say that the network’s news is not without flaws – in its coverage of Iraq and Israel, the Arabic language reporting clearly takes the sides of Hamas and Iraqi insurgents. That said, this spring, Al Jazeera fulfilled its mission of “providing a voice to the voiceless” by keeping the cameras rolling despite intense efforts to silence and even murder its reporters. Whereas former President George W. Bush described the network as “hateful propaganda” in his 2004 State of the Union address, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March told the U.S. Congress that Al Jazeera was “real news,” juxtaposing it to American networks that simply air “a million commercials” while providing coverage that was “not particularly informative.”

What is the big difference between 2004 and 2011? This time, Al Jazeera and the U.S. State Department were on the same side, rooting for the people of the Arab world rather than their dictators. When the history of the Arab Spring is written, it will be noted that it was Al Jazeera that first broadcast the protests and violence in Tunisia that its reporters saw on Facebook, and it was Al Jazeera that drew the world’s attention to Tahrir Square while Western networks were hesitant to parachute their reporters into Egypt. Al Jazeera was a metaphorical spotlight, high-lighting the heroisms and tragedies of Arab protests, oftentimes based on leads found via social media, that eventually demanded the world’s attention. While Western news networks inevitably jumped on the bandwagon, it was always Al Jazeera that drove coverage of the region, with Fox, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC and others re-broadcasting the network’s footage when they couldn’t be there themselves.

Without Al Jazeera’s resilience, the current wave of protests could have easily stopped short. Rather than focus on Facebook, we should turn our attention-both critical and congratulatory-to the democratic force known as Al Jazeera.


Shawn Powers is an assistant professor of communication