Al Jazeera Chief Lauds New Media

Al Jazeera Chief Lauds New Media

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GENEVA - Though he did not answer Der Spiegel's question, "Can Al Jazeera Topple Governments?" the director of Al Jazeera's Arabic news channel clearly spelled out the importance of new media and youth reporters to his network.

His news organization does not start revolutions, Mustafa Souag said, it just presents the truth, or as close as it can get to it -- "no more, no less."

Speaking to a panel at the United Nations Human Rights Council on the role of media in recent Arab revolutions, Mustafa Souag said that when faced with video evidence controverting their statements, Arab elites and governments failed to fool the masses. They could not hide the evidence of camel and horse attacks on protestors, he said. "Even when they tried, they didn't know how to lie."

Al Jazeera reporter Wahad Khanfan, too, in his recent TED talk, said Arab elites "lost the power of deception." Ordinary people became his news channel's reporters, Khanfan said, through the new media "connectivity." Yet they did not lost their ties to their land -- the revolution was not "alien," according to the veteran journalist.

Some in U.S. media, namely Malcolm Gladwell, questioned the importance of new media to the recent events. Souag backed Khanfan's comments on the power of young people in recent new media reporting. The channel even trained a team of young reporters in how to do new media work. He hadn't been sure they would be able to maintain 24-hour coverage in Tunisia, where his organization was banned, Souag said. However, "the people who really provided constant contact were new media, young people." With their contributions, Al Jazeera was able to maintain 24-hour news, something that "surprised" Souag.

But Souag maintained that despite the onslaught of information, video, and on-the-ground reporting, a critical role for journalists remained.

"We had so much video," he said of their Egypt reporting, "we couldn't put it all on." Al Jazeera sifted through it, trying to keep up, while also staying wary of misinformation. He understood some sources could not be confirmed, especially in Tripoli, for example, but says "the overwhelming amount of reporting was accurate."

And it was crucial. He got text messages, Souag said, from unknown people in Tahrir Square, begging him to "keep the camera on." "'We know the police are coming,'" Souag recalled one text message saying. He believes the coverage was somewhat effective in stemming police abuses. The network carrying Al Jazeera dropped its signal, but other channels picked up the feed, he said.

Of the Al Jazeera reporter who recently died in Libya, 56-year-old cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber, Souag said he was "ambushed." The senior cameramen had volunteered to cover Libya. The only two reporters for the channel stationed there had fled for their lives once the recent unrest began. Al-Jaber was followed for days before his death, Souag said. The day he was killed, he had gone 40 kilometers from Benghazi, when a car came from behind and started shooting. The cameraman was targeted, Souag said.

Now, the reporting is somewhat thinly distributed, according to the director. There are "so many events." Al Jazeera is now "divided into pieces," albeit willingly.


Peter Micek (prmicek@usfca.edu) is a Frank C. Newman Intern at Human Rights Advocates and a student at the University of San Francisco School of Law.