Ian Burrell: Al Jazeera denies talk of agendas as its cameras zoom in on Egypt

Media on Monday
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The Independent Online

If you judge the worth of a media outlet on the threat it is perceived to pose to the powers- that-be then it has been a good week for Al Jazeera, if a traumatic one for the Egyptian people who have appeared in its rolling news reports.

For the English-language version of the Qatar Government-funded network, the recent events in the Arab world collectively represent the most important period in its four-year history.

On Friday, Al Jazeera reported that its Cairo bureau had been stormed and set on fire by "gangs of thugs". The office had already been forcibly closed by representatives of Hosni Mubarak's Egyptian regime, nine of the network's journalists had been detained and all staff had their press credentials revoked. For two hours on Friday, the Al Jazeera website was hacked with a slogan "Together for the collapse of Egypt", linked to a page criticising the network for its coverage of events in Cairo. The hacking followed the earlier blocking of the Al Jazeera signal in Egypt and interference with transmission across the Arab world.

"We are broadcasting pictures and stories which may not be what the Egyptian authorities want the world to see, or Egypt to see, but that's our job," says Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English on the line from Doha, Qatar. "In terms of our coverage, I think it is clearly a turning point."

It will be a pivotal moment for the global network only if television operators in the United States – where Al Jazeera is regarded by many as being anti-American and by some conspiracy theorists as having a relationship with al-Qa'ida – agree to put the service on air. The network is available to Americans only via its website but during the Egypt crisis it has experienced a surge of traffic. By Friday, the site's video stream of events in Cairo had recorded 6.8m views, 2.5m of them from the US.

"I think it is evidence there are a number of people in America who are genuinely interested in stories happening the other side of the globe," says Anstey.

"It's showing the cable operators and networks that have been reluctant to put us on air that we are high quality and balanced. It is an important turning point for us in the United States."

Not everyone buys the idea Al Jazeera is without an agenda. Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, argues that within the Arab world the network – especially the original Al Jazeera Arabic service – is seen as being in tune with the views of its Qatari paymasters. "If the division in the Middle East is between those who are pro-American, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and those who are on the rejectionist front, then Qatar is on the rejectionist side, along with Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. This is driven more by Qatari-Saudi rivalry than by anti-Americanism," he says. "There's a lot of baggage between Qatar and the Mubarak regime and Al Jazeera is seen as an instrument of the Qatari Government."

Mr Shehadi concedes that Al Jazeera English is less partisan than Al Jazeera Arabic, which broke the Saudi monopoly on Arab media when it was founded in 1996 by former members of the BBC Arabic TV service.

He also said that Al Jazeera's coverage brought a depth of analysis to the region which "shows how shallow CNN is and raises the standard of those who need to compete with it".

Meanwhile Al Jazeera English journalists, such as the former BBC correspondent Jacky Rowland, continue to report from Cairo in highly dangerous conditions, which are made even more perilous by the hostility to the network of the Egyptian authorities. Several other reporters are having to stay off camera and remain unnamed for fear of reprisals from the Egyptians.

Anstey argues the network is in a stronger position than global rivals in covering the ripple of public protest that has spread across North Africa from Tunisia to Libya, Algeria, Egypt and across to Yemen because Al Jazeera Arabic inevitably draws most of its audience from the region and has an extensive network of bureaux and expertise. "That clearly gives us an enormous advantage when covering stories in the Middle East."

Anstey, a veteran British broadcast journalist, who was formerly head of foreign news at ITN, rejects the suggestion the output of Al Jazeera English is anything less than fully independent. "There is a misconception we would be steered in one direction or the other." Al Jazeera is winning new viewers because in every sense it is "challenging the status quo", he says. "Without credibility we wouldn't get the reputation we are building – we simply wouldn't survive."