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Al Jazeera creates consciousness in Arab world

On Friday evening in Egypt, as Cairo burned, the state-owned television station Channel One took to the airwaves with the news: President Hosni Mubarak and his wife would attend the opening of the annual book fair on Saturday morning.

Sanitized news reports like this used to be all Egyptians saw when they turned on the TV. But the political environment is not the only thing changing now; the media landscape has also fundamentally shifted. And one channel has plenty to do with that: Al Jazeera.

Since its launch in 1996, the channel has pushed back against state-controlled media in the region and the governments they promote - the very governments that have lately become a focus of protesters taking to the streets.

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"It created a consciousness in the Arab world ... anything that isn't critical, isn't credible," said Adel Iskandar, an instructor at Georgetown University and author of the book Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. "It capitalized on a public that was so disenchanted with the blandness of the regional broadcasting … that kind of myopic presentation that completely insults the intelligence of the viewer. Arabs have become literate, educated consumers of news. That's a key turning point."

Al Jazeera, which is headquartered in Doha, Qatar, is now a media conglomerate, with a sports channel, a children's channel, and an English channel for international audiences supplementing its original flagship news station, Al Jazeera Arabic.

That channel reaches Arabic-speaking audiences with a very specific model: aggressively opinionated talk shows, a manic style of up-to-the-minute reporting from the streets, and a mandate to give a voice to ordinary citizens, including those who clash with government interests.

This has made the media business complicated for Al Jazeera. On Friday, Egypt's government-owned satellite service NileSat pulled Al Jazeera's signal. It is available in the Middle East via other European- and Saudi-owned satellites, but because the signal is strongest within Egypt through NileSat, the disruption meant that its signal was intermittent throughout the most intense day of protests so far.

Also on Friday, Egyptian authorities infiltrated the station's Cairo bureau and cut off some of the telephone land-lines, according to Al Jazeera's director-general, Wadah Khanfar.

"No doubt the intent was to deny our ability to inform the world of events taking place in Egypt, preferring instead to leave the media monopoly to the state-owned media and Ministry of Information," Mr. Khanfar wrote in an internal memo to staff on Friday.

But despite its difficulties with bureaus, Al Jazeera is somewhat shielded from government meddling in its operations because its headquarters is elsewhere, Prof. Iskandar said. The independent press within Egypt walks a very thin line.

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For example, Ibrahim Eissa - a prominent figure in the protests this week - was thrown in jail when he was editor of the independent newspaper Al Dostour because of his criticism of Mr. Mubarak. Last year, political officials with the country's Wafd party bought the paper, and Mr. Eissa was fired.

Al Jazeera operates as a counterpoint to state media, addressing Arabic speakers across the region.

"It's a transnational Arab voice," said Jon Anderson, a professor at the Catholic University of America and an expert on media in the Middle East.

He said that, ironically, the notion of a transnational Arab identity reaches back to government media of half a century ago: during the 1950s, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser set up a radio station called Arab Al-Sawt, which pushed back against the British forces he saw as having unnaturally divided the Arab world. Al Jazeera advocates a similar united vision, but it is not a voice of government.

"It's not a matter of putting together what the foreign imperialists have cast asunder any more, it's about the people's rights, against authoritarian governments," Prof. Anderson said.

"The channel is intensely critical not only of the West but also of established authoritarian governments in the Arab world. … Their effect is that they're able to quickly universalize issues."

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The rise of social media has a role to play as well, Georgetown's Prof. Iskandar said. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook have helped not only to organize protests, but to amplify Al Jazeera's reach by disseminating information that comes from there even further.

"It's difficult for any single variable to take credit. The will of the populace can bring down a government. There's no media instrument can do that," he said. "But these audiences feel so incredibly disenchanted anyway. If they have a voice that speaks to them .... they will feel more compelled to resist. It's giving them a blueprint for how to dissent."

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