Saturday, January 29, 2011

Note to Governments: Al-Jazeera Matters

Throughout the protests in Egypt, Al-Jazeera has almost totally defined the narrative of the international community. With internet mostly shut down in Egypt, Al-Jazeera has been the main source of news. Twittering remains ubiquitous, but many of the tweets are summaries of news reported on Al-Jazeera.

This phenomenon is not new. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the "Al-Jazeera effect" became well known as the cause of much woe from American war planners. And in Israel's Operation Cast Lead, Al-Jazeera reporter Ayman Mohyeldin (who you've almost definitely seen reporting from Cairo if you've been watching al-Jazeera for the past 48 hours) was one of the few foreign journalists reporting from the Gaza Strip. Al-Jazeera was able to garner significant pressure against Israel in that conflict from the Arab world and the international community.

In short, governments can no longer ignore a simple truth: Al-Jazeera matters.

As events continue to unfold in Egypt, Al-Jazeera will be spinning them in a powerful new way which no government to date has successfully been able to counter. Israel should closely study the failure of Egypt's government to respond to Al-Jazeera. As one of Al-Jazeera's main targets, Israel is not likely to be ignored by the channel any time soon. In assessing Egypt's PR failure, it should note the following three mistakes:

1) Refusing accountability: While President Mubarak's speech echoed the Western rhetoric of reform, he and his government took no responsibility for failing to secure economic prosperity for Egypt and severely limiting freedom in the country. Al-Jazeera prides itself on holding governments accountable and loves an interview in which it can embarrass a government official. Governments need to be able to say "I'm sorry" to Al-Jazeera.

2) Buck passing to vague actors: President Mubarak blamed violence at yesterday's protest on "infiltrators." No one seriously believes this is the case, and the identity of these mysterious infiltrators is unknown. On top of the lack of accountability, passing the blame to vague actors ("Iran and Syria" in Israel's case) looks defensive even if it's true. Al-Jazeera can sense it, and so can its viewers.

3) Speaking to, instead of with, the reporter: Al-Jazeera is not fair and balanced, period. It doesn't claim to be. So the senior NDP official speaking to an Al-Jazeera anchorwoman this afternoon should have been under no illusions that she was going to totally school him (which she did). Unlike certain Western outlets, Al-Jazeera is not going to mindlessly repeat what governments say, especially if it disagrees. The model of engaging with al-Jazeera should be one which considers the interviewee and the reporter on equal footing, rather than the traditional top-down model. Speakers need to stay engaged with the reporter, build rapport, and respect him or her as a sentient human being rather than a talking head.

Managing the role of al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab satellite channels is a skill which governments will need to learn. Because if the past 48 hours have shown anything, it's that Al-Jazeera is a powerful actor, and it is not going away anytime soon.

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