Al Jazeera reveals new power of social journalism

In the wake of recent events in Egypt, I wrote this opinion piece for The Mercury:

I returned to the Al Jazeera Network headquarters in Doha, after 10 days’ leave, to find the newsroom brimming with far more coffee, food and energy than when I had left it. The overnight shift usually consists of one online journalist and a senior editor traversing cyber space with just Maurice, the in-house cat, for company. However, the incredible events in Egypt since January 25 have transformed the Qatar newsroom that is geographically so close to the action.  The channel’s television and online teams have been working around the clock, attempting to explore the full extent of the story and events, especially with their ability to reach into the most remote regions of the action.

Egypt forms the nucleus of the Arab world, and shifts in its power can potentially alter the very nature of the Middle East’s quixotic politics. But the network’s wall-to-wall coverage has also brought hidden dangers. All cars entering the Al Jazeera car park are now searched by police.A metal detector has been set up at the entrance to the complex. With Al Jazeera’s relentless coverage of Tunisia, the release of the damning Palestinian papers and now its full focus on Egypt, the network is aware that it too may fall into the line of fire.

At 2pm yesterday, in Cairo, plain-clothed Egyptian officials visited Al Jazeera’s local bureau, recalled the network’s license to broadcast, cancelled the accreditation of the channel’s journalists and asked its production staff to pack up their equipment. The network’s journalists on the streets immediately went undercover, to protect their identities, so they could continue reporting. Yesterday, news filtered through Egyptian state television, and Twitter, that Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels had been pulled off the air in Egypt.

Al Jazeera is already banned in Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain and Kuwait. Before Tunisians disposed of Ben Ali, the station was also banned in Tunisia. But despite the difficulty of access to information, and facing the wrath of Egyptian authorities, Al Jazeera’s journalists have continued to file their reports. As thousands of Egyptians defied the curfew across the country and descended on Tahrir Square in central Cairo yesterday, the network’s social media operation – involving bloggers, tweets, SMSes and Web-based platforms – lauded for its ability to cover the Tunisian story, stepped up a gear, urging increased citizen participation in the news-gathering process.

The network already had established contacts on the ground, feeding information through Skype and Twitter. Al Jazeera has now issued video cameras to independent, anonymous bloggers who relay their footage to the network desk. Facebook and YouTube have become the new platforms of information, in an emerging age of social journalism. Gone are the days when news channels owned this kind of information. Al Jazeera’s coverage of Tunisia and Egypt proves that all a citizen needs is a voice… the platforms and technology to carry and disseminate the information are already there.

Azad Essa is a news and features writer at Al Jazeera. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs). This piece originally appeared in The Mercury, Jan 30 2011

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One Comment

  1. Matt Kay
    February 1, 2011

    Keep strong brothers and sisters of FREEDOM! May the Holy One keep you safe on this day!
    Matt K. USA

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