Egyptian authorities order closure of Al-Jazeera offices

Network releases statement calling move "an act designed to stifle and repress the freedom of reporting by the network and its journalists."

al jazeera quits ramallah 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
al jazeera quits ramallah 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Egyptian authorities ordered Al-Jazeera’s offices in Cairo shut down on Sunday morning following the network’s nonstop coverage of the massive protests against the government.
The move triggered a sharp response from the Al-Jazeera, which released a statement accusing the Egyptian authorities of censorship.
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“Al-Jazeera sees this as an act designed to stifle and repress the freedom of reporting by the network and its journalists,” read the statement, adding that the closure was aimed at “silencing the voices of the Egyptian people.”
According the official Mena news agency, Egypt canceled the network’s broadcast license and was acting to withdraw accreditation from all its staff as of Sunday.
Al-Jazeera vowed that it would keep covering events in the country, assuring “its audiences in Egypt and across the world that it will continue its in-depth and comprehensive reporting on the events unfolding in Egypt. In this time of deep turmoil and unrest in Egyptian society it is imperative that voices from all sides be heard.”
The effectiveness and the reach of Al-Jazeera’s exhaustive coverage over the weekend is what likely prompted the outgoing Egyptian information minister Annas al- Fikki to issue the ban.
A week after unleashing the “Palestine Papers,” and several weeks after it led the coverage of the Tunisian upheaval, the Qatari news outlet was again front and center in the global media coverage of a major Mideast event, this time in Egypt, as demonstrations have swept the country since January 25 and brought President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime to the brink.
So far the protests have led to the dissolution of the cabinet, though Mubarak himself remains in power, contrary to what the demonstrators have demanded. The unrest has also led to Mubarak appointing intelligence chief Omer Suleiman as vice president, the first time anyone has held the post since Mubarak took power 30 years ago.
Despite a communications blackout ordered by authorities just after events began to intensify following noon Friday prayers, Al-Jazeera was one of the only news networks to maintain consistent, and often exclusive coverage, online and on its satellite channel of the events as they unfolded.
The blackout was “unprecedented in Internet history,” according to Web monitoring firm Renesys, and lead to a nosedive in Egyptian Internet activity, with 93 percent of network providers in the country unreachable on Friday and part of Saturday.
The move further enraged protesters and their supporters, many of them young and Web-savvy, and showed that despite the lack of media access, demonstrators were able to organize and keep the momentum of their message going. Some even managed to upload videos and photos from the events as partial Internet connections became active again on Saturday.
Throughout the weekend, Al-Jazeera English broadcast 24-hour live scenes from Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, showing thousands of people marching in the streets, tearing down Mubarak posters, clashing with riot police and fraternizing with the military, which was called in Friday evening to replace the police in restoring law and order.
Al-Jazeera English also maintained an active Twitter feed, where it encouraged its 87,000 followers to watch a live stream of its coverage.
Al-Jazeera’s Egypt section on its website provided timeline and background information, a live blog on the protests and exclusive photo galleries of scenes on the ground. Its Facebook page directed its over 290,000 followers to relevant reports and kept them up-to-date on incoming information.
But the live stream proved to be its most important feature and in a statement on its online coverage, Al-Jazeera revealed on Saturday that it has even been “twice as popular as the website itself, putting more pressure on US cable platforms in particular to air the channel. [The live stream] has been viewed for 26 million minutes in the last 12 hours.”
Al-Jazeera anchors on its English satellite channel directed viewers to follow the live Twitter feeds of its correspondents across the country who were updating on a consistent basis via satellite connection. It also noted other prominent Twitterers and significant tweets, such as @Jan25Voices, which was taking calls from protesters and eyewitnesses and tweeting their messages in real time, circumventing the blackout in a creative way.
The network itself also found ways to bypass restrictions over the weekend, issuing a statement detailing its efforts: “While ordinary Egyptians have not had access to social networks like Twitter, Al-Jazeera have been using Skype to record messages by members of the public. It has made the recordings available on Audioboo, promoting them through Facebook.”
As the reported death toll rose drastically, from five on Friday evening to more than 95 by midday Saturday, Al- Jazeera broadcast graphic footage from inside hospitals and morgues, of bloodied bodies and of distraught family members.
On Saturday, it showed scenes of laughter and amiable exchanges between protesters and soldiers. Military personnel were filmed kissing young children and handing them back to their parents.
Also on Saturday night, Al- Jazeera’s live coverage provided viewers with real-time footage and reporting from Cairo as events descended into chaos when looting and vandalism became rampant, and thousands started escaping from prison.
Because of its often exclusive access within Egypt, Al- Jazeera announced on Friday that it was releasing some photos and videos under a Creative Commons license, which would allow other news networks, as well as bloggers, to use these licensed products free of charge as long as there is proper attribution to Al- Jazeera and as long as they are not altered. On Saturday night, Israel’s Channel 2 and Channel 10 were showing Al-Jazeera footage.
Al-Jazeera’s combination of mainstream coverage of the events on its satellite channel and website, including correspondents’ reports, expert commentary and interviews, and its staff’s savvy use of social media tools has maximized its influence and has again shown that Al-Jazeera is a force to be reckoned with.
The network’s prominence in this Egyptian picture did not go unnoticed and has earned it wide admiration, not least from The New York Times, which wrote up a full report on its efforts: “Al-Jazeera kept up its coverage despite serious obstacles.
The broadcaster’s separate live channel was removed from its satellite platform by the Egyptian government on Friday morning, its Cairo bureau had its telephones cut and its main news channel also faced signal interference, according to a statement released by the station. The director of the live channel issued an appeal to the Egyptian government to allow it to broadcast freely. Still, there was little doubt that they provided more exhaustive coverage than anyone else.”
Despite the praise, Al- Jazeera is not without critics.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in EgyptClick here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
It has been accused of biased coverage in many Arab countries and of harboring sympathies for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also criticized for not reporting on events in Qatar, where it is based.
Following the release of the Palestine Papers earlier this month, a senior Palestinian Authority official announced that Al-Jazeera had “declared war on the Palestinian Authority.”
The network was banned in the West Bank in 2009, a decision that was rescinded shortly after.
Al-Jazeera is banned in Morocco and Kuwait. It has faced restrictions in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Israel and has faced off with several other countries in the region.