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Al Jazeera, social media and Egypt's uprising

by Hebba Fahmy and Anita Krajnc

Al Jazeera, social media and Egypt's uprising


The New York Times reckons "it is Al Jazeera's moment." gushed: "The western media's countless criticism of the Qatar-based satellite channel has bitten dust in the face of the network's relentless coverage of the event.... During the initial days of the coverage, American media used Al Jazeera video and referred to its content with admiration, usually reserved for the BBC.... Al Jazeera surely has won new fans across the United States for its up-close, around-the-clock coverage of the protests in Egypt."

Canada's CTV thanked AJE for its translation of the Egyptian vice-president's speech. humorously contrasted the inconsequential and trivial news reporting on Fox News with the "mandatory viewing [of Al Jazeera] for anyone interested in the world-changing events currently happening in Egypt."

AJE named its special live news coverage of the democratic uprising "The Battle for Egypt," reminiscent of its "The War on Gaza" caption. AJE has been brazenly direct and relevant in its coverage of people's democratic struggles in the Middle East and across the globe. The essence of this is airing, first and foremost, the voices of ordinary people on the street and taking the vantage point of the pro-democracy demonstrators. Its Code of Ethics requires that journalists provide a "clear, factual and accurate picture while giving full consideration to the feelings of victims of crime, war, persecution and disaster..."

On January 27, two days after the revolt began, the Egyptian government shut down AJE's bureau in Cairo -- the same day it disconnected its five Internet service providers in the country (the internet came back six days later, on February 2). During the crackdown on journalists, AJE continued to report from Tahrir Square, but stopped naming their reporters for safety and security reasons.

As of last week, several AJE staff had been beaten, jailed, and their equipment confiscated and on Sunday, February 6, AJE's Cairo correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin was taken by the army to an undisclosed location; he was released nine hours later. Pro-government groups of thugs also attacked international journalists, including CNN's Anderson Cooper, who was punched repeatedly in the face. Al Jazeera's live broadcasts have ceased, but they continue to live blog here

People turned to Al Jazeera for unfiltered live coverage of the uprising, while North American news networks relied on taped news and focused on commentators in studios outside the country for analysis and opinion. AJE reporters interviewed protesters in Tahrir Square [or Liberation Square in English] live and AJE anchors spoke mainly to Egyptian bloggers, activists, professors, and opposition politicians. One protester said, we "are not terrorists, but suffer from state sponsored terrorism."

Social media and the Egyptian People's Revolution

Alongside AJE's liberating influences on the media in the Arab world, the contributions of Twitter and Facebook in the Egyptian People's Revolution have also undermined Mubarak's control. While newspapers can be shut down, there are scores of internet posters and they can shift locales and rename their sites.

The Internet is also a more democratic and participatory media, with bloggers taking perspectives from various walks of life and social classes, and thus having greater resonance with the day-to-day problems. And the linguistic landscape of blogging in Egypt is changing from a more English-focused one, to a more Arabic one, which is accessible to the wider population.

Just before he disappeared last Thursday, on his way to deliver supplies to Tahrir Square, blogger Mahmoud Salem summarized current events in Egypt, as well as encouraging fellow Egyptians to stay strong and to persist until all their demands were met.

He mocked the Mubarak government's predictable attempt at using state television and related channels to discredit the pro-democracy protestors, stating that: "A veiled girl with a blurred face went on Mehwer TV claiming to have received funding by Americans to go to the U.S. and took courses on how to bring down the Egyptian government through protests which were taught by Jews. She claimed that Al Jazeera is lying, and that the only people in Tahrir Square now were the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. State TV started issuing statements on how the people arrested Israelis all over Cairo engaged in creating mayhem and causing chaos. For those of you who are counting this is an American-Israeli-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood-Iranian-Hamas conspiracy. Imagine that. And MANY PEOPLE BOUGHT IT. I recall telling a friend of mine that the only good thing about what happened today was that it made clear to us who were the idiots amongst our friends. Now we know." Salem has since been released, amid reports of having been beaten by Egyptian authorities during his detention.

Bloggers Alaa and Manal still voice their dissent, even after Alaa was detained for 45 days in 2006. On January 27, Alaa posted "A Call to The People and Governments of the Free World" to persuade ordinary people around the world to ask their government to stop any aid that supports the Mubarak regime in its suppression of the Egyptian people.

Speak2Tweet and the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page

A constant stream of technical innovations has acted together to keep the internet an open line of communications. A case in point is when the Mubarak government shut down the internet and mobile phone service, Google, Twitter, and SayNow quickly implemented Tweeting-by-phone service. Speak2Tweet, a service that allows people to use landlines to send tweets, has become a useful tool for Egyptians when they were cut off from Internet and mobile phone use. Tweeting-by-phone enables them to use landlines to send tweets, in order to continue to tell the world their news.

People in Egypt can listen to tweets by using the same phone numbers they used to compose the tweets, and anyone can listen by clicking here. Many are in Arabic, although those in Egypt have also been tweeting in English. Twitter is also hosting an AliveInEgypt site, where voice tweets from Speak2Tweet are translated and transcribed. Volunteers are still needed to help render the voice tweets into French, English, Spanish, and Arabic, and other languages. To find out more click here. Interested parties can email .

On January 25, 2011, SayNow co-founders Ujjwal Singh and Nikhyl Singhal announced that their company was acquired by Google. Speak2Tweet was created by a team from Google, SayNow, and Twitter over the weekend of January 28 as an effort to assist people in Egypt, blogged Ujjwal Singh and AbdelKarim Mardini on Google's official blog on January 31, 2011. 

Egyptians have been using Speak2Tweet to report police violence; to voice frustration, sadness, and indignation; to plea for help; to mobilize; and to encourage one another. Messages have been coming in from outside of Egypt as well -- though hopefully through the website, since the dedicated phone lines are meant for people in Egypt. When the internet was re-enabled, it was, for some people at least, intermittent and so slow it seemed deliberate.

Egypt is the eighth largest Facebook-using nation in the world. Last summer, a group of Egyptians (and English counterparts in Britain) set up the "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook page, with more than 484,000 members on the Arabic Facebook page and more than 40,000 on its English counterpart to date. Khaled, an Internet user, was brutally tortured and beaten to death last summer. He was not very political but simply was annoyed at the way authorities harassed users at internet cafes. Just looking at the before and after photos of Khaled [Warning: The photos are graphic and may be distressing to some] on the We are all Khaled Said website is enough to bring tears to one's eyes.

The wave of democratic revolutions in the Middle East

The protests in Egypt were inspired by Tunisia, where a destitute young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, who financially supported his siblings by selling produce from a wooden cart to ensure that his sister had a higher education, set himself on fire out of sheer desperation in the face of daily humiliations at the hands of the police.

This is not the first time self-immolation has occurred in Tunisia. But in January 2011, the time was ripe for protests to spread through the new technology.

In Egypt, the Mubarak government tried to control social media, first by clamping down and then by improperly utilizing it for his own purposes. Vodafone sent thousands of pro-Mubarak messages to Egyptian cell phone users. AJE reported on demonstrations held at Vodafone office in London. When a Lebanese-British woman was asked in an interview about her ethnicity, she said "I'm an Arab first [before being Lebanese]. I don't like what is being done."

The feeling of Pan Arabism has become more visible and the universal struggle for basic human rights has become more determined and mainstream among the populations of Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria. In a half-measure, Algeria lifted the state of emergency, but did not lift the ban on demonstrations in the capital.

Bloggers and independent media are not taking credit for the revolt. It is a mass revolution, but social media and the reporting of AJE is an important part of it.

Al Jazeera English is now available in Canada and is carried by four cable providers: Videotron in Quebec, Rogers, Bell TV, and Shaw cable. You can also watch Al Jazeera live for free on the Internet on Livestation here.

A blog entry, "A Guide How Not To Say Stupid Stuff About Egypt", written by blogger Sarathanapalos on the morning of January 31, 2011 illustrates the beauty of social media like Facebook, which allows readers to peruse articles of which they might otherwise have not heard. Sarathanapalos's worthy tips regarding statements to avoid, included this widely heard claim: "Al Jazeera has come to its own." This puts one's foot in one's mouth, says the blogger, as "Al Jazeera has been on it's [sic] own, you just only noticed."


[This article originally appeared on]

Hebba Fahmy is an Egyptian-Canadian writer and Anita Krajnc curates best-of-the-net for rabbletv and worked on an campaign for the approval of AJE's license in Canada.

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