Friday, February 04, 2011

CRIKEY: Al Jazeera English’s Cairo performance: it’s the new CNN

Last night, ABC24’s coverage turned from cyclone Yasi to Egypt at about 7.45. ABC correspondent Ben Knight was interviewed as he stood in his hotel room. He said words to this effect: “It’s too dangerous to venture outside my hotel room. In fact, it’s too dangerous for any journalist to be out there.” The real and serious journos were forced to seek safety in their hotel rooms.

At that very moment, I switched over to Al Jazeera English (AJE). On the screen were live scenes of night-time crowds chanting and throwing petrol bombs in Tahrir Square. And there was the familiar voice of the AJE correspondent among the crowd speaking in flawless English in an American accent and translating people’s slogans from Arabic. In the background was the sound of rocks and small explosions and shouting.

I’d been watching the coverage in Egypt of AJE for the previous few days. AJE had at least three correspondents among the crowd in Tahrir Square in Cairo where more than 1 million people had gathered to protest against Hosni Mubarak. They also interviewed people in the crowd and in other parts of Cairo. All this despite the fact that their Cairo bureau had been closed by the authorities and at least one of their camera crews detained by security forces.

No one should criticise Ben Knight or any other foreign journalist for staying in their hotel rooms. Heck, it seems anyone not from Egyptian state media is being attacked by pro-Mubarak thugs. But the bravery of AJE reporters risking their lives by continuously embedding themselves amongst volatile crowds must surely be earning them a cult following.

During the Gaza conflict in 2009, the best English language reporting came from AJE reporters Shirene Tadros and Ayman Mohyeldin. These two were the undisputed media stars of that war, embedding themselves among the embattled Palestinians of Gaza. Their language skills and understanding of political and cultural sensitivities made them ideal correspondents.

Now they’re embedded in the Cairo crowds. At  8.27pm Sydney time, Mohyeldin sent this tweet from his blackberry: “received threats yesterday but that will not stop AJE from showing the world what’s happening here. i’m now tweeting personally”.

If the first Iraq War in 1991 made CNN’s reputation, surely its ongoing coverage of the Egypt uprising should cement AJE’s reputation as a world-class broadcaster. Just accept it.

First published in Crikey on Friday 4 February 2011.

Words © 2011 Irfan Yusuf

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