Al Jazeera in the global arena and new media

In the past decade the Middle East has seen as explosion in Pan-Arabian mainstream media, including Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.  The former now devotes a good share of its resources to the Western market – it’s lack of effort to do so previously was a cause for criticism – and is increasingly using new media to enhance its coverage. This offers Westerners a rival and alternative perspective to Middle East (and worldwide) events than that perpetrated by their media.

This is much more important than simply showing more gory pictures of the Gaza conflict, which I certainly noticed, as did the Jersualam Post. Ibrahim Saleh, in ‘The Arab Search for a Global Identity’ (in ‘New Media and the New Middle East’, ed. Philip Seib), explains the problem with Western media covering the Arab word:

‘The ignorance of journalists covering the region is one principal reason for misunderstanding the Arab identity and culture, thus developing media bias as well as promoting the notion of Islamophobia. Even when foreign news agencies attempt to place the events in a hisotircal context, they often get facts wrong and create an inaccurate or misleading impression…The media routinely adopt the news frames that fit their agendas. Once an image or impression is ingrained in someone’s mind, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to erase it.’

Al Jazeera English

Sahar Khamis explains what the effect of Al Jazeera English could be for the global media:

‘Today, the majority of news flows from the developed to the developing world, that is, from the West to the East. If Al Jazeera succeeds, the new channel will represent a counter flow of information from the Arab world to the rest of the world, especially to developed western countries. In other words, it will represent in this case the first viable and competitiveve attempt to challenge the existing Anglo-American news hegemony and to offer a credible alternativeve to global Anglo-American news channels.’

Even if is taking a similar form of 24 news as BBC World and CNN, and adopting a language which is not inherent to the station’s region of origin (though is widely spoken), the success of Al Jazeera English could herald the start of a reversal in the dissemination of global news through the mainstream media. The consequences of this for development journalism could on the one hand be small – as the intended audience is in the developed world. On the other hand, the breakdown of stereotypes and an increased cross-cultural understanding across languages and politics could lead afford the Western public a better understanding the Middle East, and perhaps a better understanding of attitudes towards aid, democracy, religion and Western values.

New media

In a recent interview with Journalism.co.uk, Tarek Esber of Al Jazeera answered questions about the networks new media output and its wider appeal to a Western audience:

“There was also a huge amount of interest in the Twitter feed we set up just for news about the Gaza conflict. 5,000+ followers from all around the world and for a lot of them it was their first exposure to News from Al Jazeera. The feedback we got was fantastic.

Our Livestation stream, which allows anyone who has an Internet connection to watch our English and Arabic channels live for free, also proved very popular. During the War on Gaza viewer figures shot up six-fold and the largest pool of viewers were in North America, a traditional dark zone for Al Jazeera. We’re working on that. Since the War on Gaza we’ve started to make a push to get Al Jazeera English broadcast in Canada and the USA: the IWantAJE.com site gives more information.

Our YouTube channels, in Arabic and English, were just as important. They have always been extremely popular but during the time of conflict we were one of the most viewed channels on there.”

The ‘War on Gaza‘ experimental site from Al Jazeera labs allowed users to ‘submit and incident’, pictured them on a map and by type (rocket strike, protests, civlians) and then detailed whether or not the report was verified. You can see more on Al Jazeera’s use of new media during the Gaza conflict on the video below, where Shuli Ghosh talks about the network’s platforms for online users and how they can contribute content:

However, use of the Internet is also allowing those in the Middle East to access more information, more freely. As Saleh points out: ‘…in the past, the Arabs were exposed only to “official” news through media that were mouthpieces of their governments. Now, thanks to the Internet and international satellite channels, there is less constraint on news dissemination. Any person can gain access to the news from all possible perspectives.’ Sahar Khamis, writing about ‘The Role of New Arab Satellite Channels’ reinforces this perception:

‘…the significant changes in the media environment in the Arab world since the early 1990s, especially the legalization of private sector ownership of satellite channels, brought about a new era of diversity and relative freedom, away from direct state ownership and control.’

For both Middle East and Western viewers, the use of new media by Al Jazeera, while hardly revolutionary, can only be a positive step for it’s coverage and wider understanding of the region. What Al Jazeera has failed to develop to the same extent as CNN or BBC is a worldwide base of citizen journalists and commentators. This may be thanks to its lack of reach as yet, but unfortunately Al Jazeera can still be castigated as a ‘Middle Eastern’ operator, covering primarily that one region – whereas the BBC, though obviously British based, has such reach that it can be perceived as truly worldwide.

Al Jazeera has some way to go yet in truly rivaling CNN and the BBC for worldwide coverage. However, it’s use of new media as well as traditional broadcasting during the recent conflict in Gaza was much more comprehensive than either of its global competitors. The LA Times ‘Babylon to Beyond’ praises the channel:

“One of the hidden realities of the Western media’s coverage of Gaza is that most correspondents live in Jerusalem and only occasionally visit Gaza, once a month or so, for specific stories. What that means in the current conflict is that many of us were caught out of position when the Israeli air campaign began on Saturday.

Since then, Israel has shut down the border crossing into Gaza, citing security concerns — effectively shutting out most of the Western press corps and forcing us to rely on local journalists in Gaza to serve as our eyes and ears.

But Jazeera already had a permanent position in Gaza, and its correspondents continue to risk their lives to crisscross the territory, bringing the most comprehensive coverage of the conflict available.

There’s another crucial distinction between Jazeera and the Western press. The channel doesn’t shield its viewers from the horrors of war.

An old friend of mine from Boston arrived in Jerusalem for a visit on Friday. The first time she saw Jazeera English’s footage of casualties in a Gaza City hospital, she was shocked. She simply never had seen such graphic images.”

Literature

Ibrahim Saleh ‘The Arab Search for a Global Identity: Breaking out of the Mainstream Media Cocoon’. pp.19-38 and Sahar Khamis ‘The Role of New Arab Satellite Channels in Fostering Intercultural Dialogue: Can Al Jazeera English Bridge the Gap? pp.39-52 in ‘New Media and the New Middle East‘ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

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