Al Jazeera Banned in Egypt

U.S. media can't beat al Jazeera's coverage of the riots, but the Egyptian government says it's only inspiring more violence. Howard Kurtz on the network's sudden shutdown.

01.30.11 3:01 PM ET

U.S. media can't beat al Jazeera's coverage of the riots, but the Egyptian government says it's only inspiring more violence. Howard Kurtz on the network's sudden shutdown. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt uprising.

Laura Rozen, Politico’s foreign-policy blogger, mentioned to me today that she has been transfixed by al Jazeera’s coverage of the uprising in Egypt.

I’ve been watching it, too, on the website of al Jazeera English, and the footage might surprise those who view the Qatar-based satellite channel as a knee-jerk defender of Arab governments.

This is unquestionably al Jazeera’s moment, much as the launch of the first Persian Gulf War became a crystallizing event for CNN. The New York Times says this is because “the channel has helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments (and against Israel) ever since its founding 15 years ago.”

But it is a moment that may be cut short. We got word this morning that Egyptian authorities are banning al Jazeera’s journalists from the country, closing their offices, and revoking their credentials as the Mubarak regime struggles for survival.

I had a chance to ask the network’s Washington bureau chief about the ban on CNN’s Reliable Sources.

“Obviously, governments do not trust al Jazeera much,” Abderrahim Foukara told me. “But the people, the viewership, and now, especially, the protesters, they certainly do see in it a way of getting the message across not to their fellow citizens—not just to their fellow citizens, but to Arabs elsewhere in the region.”

The question of bias is an interesting one for a network owned by the government of Qatar. When there is a unified Arab position—say, the Palestinians against the Israelis—it’s hardly surprising that the Arab side gets more sympathetic coverage than, say, in the United States.

But when an Arab country is deeply divided—when tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets against Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime, which has held power for nearly three decades—al Jazeera is well positioned to capture the action on all sides.

“The coverage of al Jazeera is being criticized by some governments, it's being criticized by people outside of the United States,” Foukara said. “But to the people who are actually demonstrating, whether in Tunis or in Cairo or in Yemen or in Jordan, is a source of reliable information not only of what goes on in their own countries, but what goes on in the neighborhood.”

Photos: Egypt Protests

Many Americans formed a negative view of al Jazeera a decade ago, when it seemed to act as a transmission belt for Osama bin Laden’s videotaped rants. During the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused the channel of promoting terrorism and propagating “vicious lies,” and banned its reporters from Iraq. Bush’s State Department complained about “false” and “inflammatory” reporting.

One result is that its English-language spinoff has been unable to gain more than a small foothold on American cable and satellite systems.

Al Jazeera English tried to buff its image by hiring British journalist David Frost as a weekly program host in 2005. “For all the people who think it's anti-American, there are various countries in the Middle East who think it's too pro-Western,” Frost told me at the time. “I would say the jury's out on al Jazeera. Obviously, we all suffer from the handicap of not being able to sit there and watch in Arabic.”

Dave Marash, a former ABC anchor who quit al Jazeera English after two years in 2008, told Columbia Journalism Review there were instances of “shoddy reporting.” Marash called it “a very competent, very professional news organization that does a particularly great job south of the Equator, but tends to report almost everything from the point of view of either the Arabic-speaking world or at the very least what you might call the post-colonial world.”

The American media have had to play catch up in Egypt. The unfolding events play to the strengths of CNN and the BBC as outfits with a global network of bureaus. ABC’s Christiane Amanpour anchored This Week from Cairo today, and The New York Times has offered a comprehensive range of stories.

But we live in an era when news organizations have shuttered bureaus around the world and television executives have concluded that the U.S. audience doesn’t much care about foreign stories, unless there are riots in the streets or American troops or hostages are involved. In Egypt and Tunisia, therefore, al Jazeera has helped fill the vacuum. And the fact that the Mubarak government, after shutting down the Internet, is now attempting to banish al Jazeera simply underscores its impact.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.