Covering Protests, Al-Jazeera Boosts Fans, Enemies The 24-hour independent Arab news network has seen a recent drastic increase in viewership — and data show 60 percent of newcomers are from the U.S. But Arab governments also are paying closer attention, with some doing all they can to prevent the news from getting out.
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Covering Protests, Al-Jazeera Boosts Fans, Enemies

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Covering Protests, Al-Jazeera Boosts Fans, Enemies

Covering Protests, Al-Jazeera Boosts Fans, Enemies

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I got a note the other day from a journalist friend saying I never thought it would be cool to be working for Al-Jazeera English. Suddenly, it is.


The English-language version of the satellite news channel has only been around for five years. Only a few cable operators carry it in the U.S., so most Americans have to find it online.

INSKEEP: Yet the network's constant coverage of the uprisings in the Arab world caused its popularity to soar. We're going to listen now as NPR's Deborah Amos spins a news cycle at Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

Unidentified Woman: One, zero...

Unidentified Man #1: Go six, sting please, four...

Unidentified Woman: Five, four, three, two, one...

(Soundbite of music)

DEBORAH AMOS: In the darkened control room, more than a dozen screens show reporters ready to go...

Unidentified Man #1: OK, roll.

AMOS: set to roll from hot spots across the Middle East. Director Charlie O'Kane chats with a correspondent in Bahrain.

Mr. CHARLIE O'KANE (Director, Al-Jazeera English): The pictures here look a bit orange, so I'm going to mention the sunset to you.

AMOS: He makes sure a phone interview from Libya is ready.

Mr. O'KANE: Hey, look, we're going to a phoner in Libya next, but it could drop out...

AMOS: It's the top of the hour for this fast-paced news network, and Sami Zeidan, a veteran news presenter, gets ready for live coverage of the most challenging story of his career.

Mr. SAMI ZEIDAN (News Presenter): The sense of empowerment has swept individuals in a way in the Middle East that is really unprecedented.

AMOS: The range of breaking stories has gained Al-Jazeera an unprecedented number of new fans in the U.S. and more powerful enemies in the Middle East.

Mr. O'KANE: Phoner on Libya's good. Camera three, Sami...

AMOS: Al-Jazeera's satellite signal is routinely shut down by Arab governments.

Mr. SATNAM MATHARU (Director of Communications, Al-Jazeera English): We're disrupted again, on Nilesat, on Badr4, just right now.

AMOS: Why?

Mr. MATHARU: The states in the region are not happy with seeing their people on the streets.

AMOS: Satnam Matharu, the director of communications, is reading an email alert: Al-Jazeera's signal is down again. Later, the network announces the culprit is the Libyan Intelligence Agency. It's all part of the playbook of Arab autocrats, says Matharu.

Mr. MATHARU: So, the reason that we get cut off on a regular basis, our signal gets hijacked, disrupted, blocked, you know, turned off, shifted on the same satellite so people can't find us, governments are not happy to see what's actually happening on the streets.

AMOS: Al-Jazeera Arabic has been controversial since broadcasts began 15 years ago. The network was launched and funded by the Emir of Qatar to provide independent news, an alternative to Arab state-controlled media. Al-Jazeera English launched in 2006, employing an international staff, including veterans of British and American networks. It was shut out of the American market by reluctant cable operators after the Bush administration labeled the network anti-American.

Unidentified Woman: We're going to extend this London guest by five -again, please.

AMOS: In the newsroom, journalists and editors constantly check for updates and the latest images. When the first protestors went out on the street in Tunisia in December, Al-Jazeera was on the ground. The network moved an army of correspondents to Egypt and broadcast live through 18 days of protests, despite every effort by the government to stop them.

Al-Jazeera's office was closed and burned, journalists beaten and detained, tapes confiscated or destroyed. Heather Allan, the head of the newsgathering, says that when government thugs were unleashed against her reporters in Cairo, they found new ways to report the news.

Ms. HEATHER ALLAN (Director of Newsgathering, Al-Jazeera English): I mean, the crowds were actually coming after us. We actually had - you know, they were coming for Jazeera. And we went from safe house to safe house. And we did it the same way, cell phones, flip cams, small cameras, Blackberries, just small, little devices, and getting it out anyway we could.

AMOS: New media - using cell phones and computers also plays a large role in news coverage here.

Mr. RIYAAD MINTY (Director of Social Media, Al-Jazeera English): Let's see if this works.

AMOS: At the social media office, a half dozen young reporters scan Twitter feeds, Facebook postings and YouTube videos.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Mr. MINTY: This is from Yemen, and you can kind of see someone in the street has been injured.

AMOS: Department head Riyaad Minty developed a site called Witness, where people can upload videos, mostly from cell phones, and the team calls the number and checks out the source.

Mr. MINTY: I think the last count to date was about 1,600. This was over the last two weeks. These are directly from people to Al-Jazeera, from people in Algeria, Yemen, Libya, as well.

AMOS: These are the most recent pictures from Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MINTY: Some of these are just general shots, showing what it's like currently on the streets. You can see the graffiti on the walls.

AMOS: It's anti-government graffiti, a rolling cell phone video from the window of a car. In the Libyan capital, Moammar Gadhafi has banned most foreign journalists, singled out Al-Jazeera specifically, calling its correspondents misleading dogs.

Mr. ZEIDAN: There is so much attention on Al-Jazeera, and a lot of governments are fearful of Al-Jazeera's ability to cover the Middle East, which is really unrivaled.

AMOS: News presenter Sami Zeidan has an answer to Arab leaders who say that Al-Jazeera is inciting the protests sweeping the region.

Mr. ZEIDAN: They don't understand their own streets, I think is one conclusion perhaps you can draw. They've cut Internet. They've cut telephone services. They've tried to disrupt television signals, but people are still protesting. And I think they have real concerns, which have built up over decades. And the sooner that governments start to pay attention to that, the better it would be for people, I think.

Unidentified Man #3: Ahmed(ph) from (unintelligible), we thank so much.

AMOS: Zeidan says he's aware of the wrath of Arab leaders and the swell of new viewers, many from the U.S. Al-Jazeera's coverage has won praise from major American news commentators, and the growing attention can be measured, says Satnam Matharu, by the number of clicks on Al-Jazeera's live stream, available on the Web and on YouTube.

Mr. MATHARU: We had figures that indicated that we had 2,500 percent increase in traffic. Sixty percent of that traffic was from the United States of America.

AMOS: Were you surprised by that?

Mr. MATHARU: We expected to have a spike in our coverage, but to be frank with you, 2,500 percent was a nice spike.

Unidentified Woman: Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one...

AMOS: Many reviewers say this is Al-Jazeera's moment. The network most watched in the Middle East has proved there's an American demand, as well. The English channel wants to turn that success into access to the American cable market.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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