18 days

18 days: Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution

by Scott Bridges

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This is the story of a plucky newsroom in the middle of an anonymous Middle Eastern desert city that through its coverage of one huge story changed the rules of 24-hour TV news.

On February 11, 2011, President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule of Egypt came to an end after 18 days of massive and unprecedented street protests. In the course of those few days, a 24-hour news channel unlike any other, Al Jazeera English, emerged in a crowded global news market as the source for reporting on the Egyptian Revolution. While established networks such as CNN and BBC World battled to provide comprehensive first-hand accounts of developments in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, news consumers across the world found superior coverage on Al Jazeera English. The New York Times said AJE “provided more exhaustive coverage than anyone else”; The Atlantic argued, “It is no exaggeration to say that Al Jazeera has been the eyes and ears of [the Arab Spring].”

18 Days examines the Doha-based channel’s coming of age and discovers how a network known to many in the West as “Terror TV” was transformed almost overnight into a trusted and indispensable source of news. Drawing on content analysis and interviews with key players inside the organisation, the book goes behind the cameras to tell stories of newsgathering ingenuity, hair-raising moments of danger, and internal tension. It examines the network’s relationship with its Qatari benefactors and charges of editorial bias, along with the legacy of Egypt for Al Jazeera English as the brand expands its footprint into the United States.

Author Scott Bridges provides updates on Al Jazeera English via 18daysaje.comfacebook.com/18daysaje and @18daysaje.

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  • Scott Bridges

    Scott Bridges has taught at the University of Canberra since 2011 and currently lectures in communications and journalism. His PhD looks at how Al Jazeera’s reach and influence is expanding in the non-Arabic-speaking world. Previous to the University of Canberra, he taught communications at the University of Wollongong. Scott worked two contracts as a director […]

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  • Excerpt

    On the morning of 25 January, protesters gathered in front of Cairo’s High Court before breaking a security cordon and marching through the city. Up to 15,000 people converged in Tahrir Square, met by tens of thousands of police who attempted to disperse the stone-throwing crowd with tear gas and water cannon. By the end of the day, the Cairo demonstrations had been matched by similar efforts in cities across the country including Alexandria, Mahalla, Ismailia, Aswan, and Suez where two protesters were killed.

    Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and the author of a number of books on Middle Eastern history, politics and media. He is also a prominent and respected blogger on Middle East affairs at the Foreign Policy website. Late in the afternoon on the 25th, Cairo time, Lynch wrote a post at his high-profile blog entitled “Watching Egypt (but not on Al Jazeera):”

    The images and stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world. Their efforts are not new, despite the intense Western desire to put them into a narrative driven by Twitter, WikiLeaks, or demonstration effects. Egyptians have been protesting and demonstrating for the last decade: massive demonstrations in support of Palestinians and against the Iraq war from 2000 to 2003; Kefaya’s creative protests for political reform and against succession which peaked in 2004 to 2006; lawyers and judges and professional associations; the Facebook protests and April 6 movements; the plethora of wildcat labor strikes across the country.

    One key factor was missing, though, at least early on. Al Jazeera has played a vital, instrumental role in framing this popular narrative by its intense, innovative coverage of Tunisia and its explicit broadening of that experience to the region. Its coverage today has been frankly baffling, though. During the key period when the protests were picking up steam, Al Jazeera aired a documentary cultural program on a very nice seeming Egyptian novelist and musical groups, and then to sports.”

    AJE was not completely missing, but its coverage of the protests certainly was limited. In Cairo, [Rawya] Rageh, the only AJE correspondent on the ground, had attended the protests and knew straight away that something was different. “It was immediately clear to me that this, at least what I was seeing at the time, was bigger than anything I had ever seen in Egypt,” she remembers. “I was doing a phono [on-air interview via phone] as the people were marching from Tahrir, and it was the very first time we [had seen] people succeed — this was not going to be a stationary protest, they were going to march through the city. Police were cordoning them but not preventing them from advancing … onto the headquarters of the ruling party at the time, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party”

    One of AJE’s anchors over the course of that day, Teymoor Nabili, was baffled by Rageh’s quick turnaround from doubt to belief in the scale and importance of the protests. She had appeared on air regularly throughout the day, but the tone of her reporting had changed as the nature of the protests shifted.

    “I was doing a phono with Teymoor and he was saying, ‘What’s happening?’ I was explaining that they were marching onto this ruling party headquarters, this symbol of their anger and frustration, and he was like, ‘Well, just less than an hour ago I was having this conversation with you and we were discussing is this just a Twitter and Facebook revolution or is this a real revolution, what is your assessment?’ and I was like, ‘All I can tell you from what we are seeing at this stage is that this is bigger than any protest we’ve ever seen. And this is certainly an unprecedented type of protest.’”

    After spending some time reporting live from the protests in Cairo, Rageh compiled a news package that went on to be named as one of “50 Great Stories Reported, Investigated, Written, Produced, Filmed, Edited, Photographed, Anchored, and/or Tweeted by Columbia Journalists” from that prestigious school’s hundred years of existence. It opens with shots of a large crowd marching along the street, chanting and holding hand-painted signs, and Rageh’s voiceover:

    “If these scenes are any indication, anger is at boiling point in Egypt. A populace known for its apathy, making history on Tuesday. Thousands marching against poverty and a government they hold responsible.”

    Then, in vision, walking alongside the crowd and speaking to camera, Rageh says, “Just listen to the chants roaring in downtown Cairo. The hundreds of people, walking to the streets — it’s unprecedented for people to march to the streets this way as an act of protest without security trying to prevent them.”

    Later in the piece a young female activist being interviewed by Rageh is interrupted mid-sentence by a much older lady who steps into shot, screaming and gesticulating at her with passion. “We’re tired, ma’am, we’re tired!” she shouts at Rageh. “Stop the price hikes, we’re suffering! We’re Egyptians! We love Egypt but stop this! We want to eat! We want to live! We want our children!”

    Rageh ends with package with a voiceover, set to pictures of tense security cordons and clouds of tear gas:

    “For once it seems internet cliques in Egypt have translated into action on the ground, and for a short while there security allowed it to happen before once again it became the Egypt activists know all too well. Many here fully aware that though come tomorrow change may not be there quite yet, they have at least broken the fear barrier.”

    Back in Doha, as the day progressed, the newsroom started to grasp the enormity of what was happening in Egypt.

    “I can remember small protests around in Alexandria, in Cairo, in a couple of other places, it wasn’t just Cairo,” recalls Head of Output, Sarah Worthington. “The thing that stuck in my mind was a tweet that said, ‘Where is Al Jazeera?’ [And] that’s when my ears pricked up … I think from that moment on I had a sense that something was going to kick off, somewhere, but you never really expected it in Egypt because it had been that way for 31 years …”

    At the time of the Egyptian revolution, the manager of AJE’s 60-strong online division was Mohamed Nanabhay. Initially as blasé as the rest of the newsroom about the importance of the protests, Nanabhy’s attention started to turn to Egypt via reaction on the internet.

    “As you got into the evening on the 25th we’d covered the protests, we’d covered what was going on in Egypt, we’d done some packages out of there, we’d done some [live crosses], but it was [just] a news story,” he remembers. “And the main thing we were still going with was Palestine Papers. And what we started seeing on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks was everyone was talking about what was going on in Egypt, so clearly attention had moved and shifted. And early evening, the narrative online started talking about how Al Jazeera was not covering Egypt even though we were. I was sitting in the office and I noticed that … on our website, even though the main story was Palestine Papers on the top of the page with a big banner, the audience was sitting on the Egypt story and started growing over time … our traffic started picking up and picking up. It started reaching levels [we’d not seen before] … So, even though we hadn’t had a huge focus on Egypt yet because clearly it hadn’t become a big thing yet, we were already becoming the reference point for what was going on in Egypt even though everyone was criticising us.”

    Nanabhy then made a bold decision, considering the prominence of the Palestine Papers story in AJE’s television news broadcasts, and flipped the AJE website homepage so that Egypt appeared at the top. It didn’t take long for the television newsroom to follow Nanabhy’s lead, and Palestine Papers coverage was wound back ahead of schedule in favour of a primary focus on developments in Egypt.

    Obviously, with so many months of work having gone into the production of the Palestine Papers story, there was some internal politics about its relegation. Nanabhay says there was a “huge fight” with the Palestine Papers producers, but “it was the right decision and we had good data to back it up”. Sarah Worthington says, “I think probably ‘discussion’ is the better word.”

    The shift in focus was too late for those viewers who had already formed an impression about AJE’s slow reaction to such a major story on its own turf. Later in the evening, Cairo time, Marc Lynch updated his blog post:

    “Al-Jazeera’s lack of coverage of the protests has become a major story. It doesn’t seem to have gotten any better since this morning — since getting back on line I’ve seen an episode of a talk show, more Palestine Papers, and only short snippets of breaking news on Egypt … Egyptian activists are complaining bitterly, and most seem to think that Mubarak cut a deal with the Qatari and Saudi governments.”

    Robert F. Worth and David D. Kirkpatrick expanded on this in the New York Times a few days later:

    “… critics speculate that the network bowed to the diplomatic interests of the Qatari emir, its patron, by initially playing down the protests in Egypt … On Tuesday afternoon, as the street protests in Egypt were heating up, Al Jazeera was uncharacteristically slow to report them, airing a culture documentary, a sports show and more of its ‘Palestine Papers’ coverage of the leaked documents.

    “Many Egyptians felt betrayed, and Facebook and Twitter were full of rumors about a deal between Qatar — the Persian Gulf emirate whose emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, founded Al Jazeera in 1996 — and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who visited the emir in Doha last month.”

    Far from political conspiracy, AJE’s slow start had a lot more to do with the newsroom’s failure to predict the magnitude of the protests and allocate resources adequately, combined with organisational inflexibility when it came to the scheduling of special programs. But the channel was determined to make up for missing the starter’s pistol.