28
Jan

Seizing a Moment, Al Jazeera Taps Arab Anger

By Robert F. Worth & David D. Kirkpatrick

The protests rocking the Arab world this week have one thread uniting them: Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel whose aggressive coverage has helped propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next.

Lebanese protesters set fire to a van belonging to Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera has been widely hailed for helping enable the revolt in Tunisia with its galvanizing early reports, even as Western-aligned political factions in Lebanon and the West Bank attacked and burned the channel’s offices and vans this week, accusing it of incitement against them.

In many ways, it is Al Jazeera’s moment — not only because of the role it has played, but also because the channel has helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments (and against Israel) ever since its founding 15 years ago. That narrative has long been implicit in the channel’s heavy emphasis on Arab suffering and political crisis, its screaming-match talk shows, even its sensational news banners and swelling orchestral accompaniments.

“The notion that there is a common struggle across the Arab world is something Al Jazeera helped create,” said Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University who has written extensively on the Arab news media. “They did not cause these events, but it’s almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera.”

Yet Al Jazeera’s opaque loyalties and motives are as closely scrutinized as its reporting. It is accused of tailoring its coverage to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza against their Lebanese and Palestinian rivals. Its reporter in Tunisia became a leading partisan in the uprising there. And critics speculate that the network bowed to the diplomatic interests of the Qatari emir, its patron, by initially playing down the protests in Egypt.

Not since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when American officials accused it of sympathy for Saddam Hussein and the insurgency that arose after his downfall, has Al Jazeera been such a lightning rod. This time, its antagonists as well as its supporters are spread all over the Arab world. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on January 27, 2011.

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