Washington, DC — Fast-moving events across northern Africa have shaken long-lasting regimes - and the news organizations struggling to provide timely coverage. But new media - plus the youngest news network, Al Jazeera - are providing compelling 24-hour coverage.
Al Jazeera Sets Pace Despite Shutdown
All weekend, Al Jazeera's English-language channel has produced riveting television on Egypt's popular uprising, despite the cancellation of the network's broadcast license by the Egyptian government. Scenes of high drama were punctuated by nuanced snapshots of small moments. In one birds-eye shot from a Cairo building, a man on the street holding up an anti-Israel sign, printed on a piece of fabric, was approached by another man, who engaged him in animated conversation, gesturing repeatedly at the sign. After first shaking his head and holding the banner higher, the first man, with apparent reluctance, folded the cloth and walked away.
Sunday was filled with live footage of Tahrir Square, a center of protest in downtown Cairo. Coverage was up close and real time: massive crowds in the square; the roar of F-16 jet fighters buzzing the demonstrators; their responsive roars as each passover got lower and tanks moved towards the square.
U.K.-based Sky News, CNN and the U.S. CBS network were among the television news outlets airing video of the square, and the BBC contributed its usual professional coverage of the issues, but none matched the immediacy or constancy of Al Jazeera.
The channel tracked fluctuating moods, as camaraderie between military and demonstrators was replaced by uncertainty about the army's intentions. Still, said one reporter - unnamed for security reasons - people seem "to have lost all semblance of the fear that has gripped" them for the 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's rule", and they will not relent until the president steps down. Al Jazeera's correspondent in seaside Alexandria reported similar determination among the growing crowds there.
The network periodically used a split screen, contrasting its own live pictures of demonstrators with live scenes on Egyptian state television of calm streets and traffic moving smoothly in parts of Cairo. A correspondent worried aloud that, without Al Jazeera's depiction of events as they occur, the government can move against crowds in the street with greater impunity.
Two hours into the third night of curfew in Tahrir Square, on the sixth day of protests, live Al Jazeera pictures available outside Egypt showed people still streaming into the square, despite falling darkness and dropping temperatures. Anticipation was almost palpable through the screen, as reports circulated that Nobel Peace Prize winner and former international arms control agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei was approaching the square with his son. When ElBaradei arrived, he was so closely surrounded that it seemed he would be unintentionally crushed.
Without access to the Internet or mobile services, audiences in the United States, like those in Egypt, would be unable to watch this continuing unfolding of events. Although U.S. cable and satellite television distributors have not agreed to carry the network, Americans can watch the Al JAzeera live Internet stream - as well as its "Live Station" app on cell phones. The U.S. news network MSNBC has occasionally showed a bit of Al Jazeera's feed, in a split screen with its correspondents.
CNN's media analysis program, "Reliable Sources", today interviewed Al Jazeera's Arabic channel bureau chief in Washington, Abderrahim Foukara - a former editor at allAfrica.com, which recruited him from the BBC in London. Abderrahim said that while the network, based in Doha, Qatar, has frequently has been viewed as biased by governments - it was shut down in Iraq in 2004, for example - it has, over a decade, invested in gaining the trust of viewers, partly by giving all points of view a platform.
Online Media Elude Blockages
While Al Jazeera has managed to continue live coverage for an international audience, the Egyptian government was more effective in curbing communications of citizens. In addition to closing the station, Egypt blocked Internet access and most mobile phone networks, effectively shutting off most messages via Twitter and Facebook.
Nevertheless, using some mobile devices that on Saturday could still send email, observers and participants sent messages to be tweeted internationally, alongside the tweets from outside Egypt. A much-retweeted post in English was this one Saturday by Pakastini blogger and feminist Sana Saleem: "While Muslim Protesters prayed today, Christian Egyptians formed human chains to protect them. Solidatiry, strength and co-existence."
After some cellular phone service was restored Sunday, the pace of tweets and videos posted to YouTube and other social networking platforms mounted. Another important platform for public opinion has been Global Voices Online, an international blogging site.
Across Northern Africa - Tunisia and Sudan
With Egypt's governmental vacuum preoccupying world leaders, intensive reporting by Al Jazeera's English channel from Tunisia, whose long-time ruler fled the country on 14 January, has been overshadowed by its Egypt coverage. Ongoing developments in Mediterranean north Africa and the spreading protests in northern Sudan can be followed through Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, along with the website of the Sudan Tribune, an AllAfrica content provider.
Sunday's protests in Sudan included demonstrations on both sides of the Nile river, in the twin cities of Khartoum and Omdurman, and further afield. On a date chosen to coincide with the release of preliminary results from the referendum on the future of southern Sudan, protesters rallied participants through a Facebook campaign and a constant stream of Twitter messages, and university students posted cell-phone videos to YouTube as the peaceful marches progressed.
Although expressing economic concerns, demonstrators insisted on an end to the two-decade rule of Omar al-Bashir. The Sudanese president is the only sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, which accused him of crimes against humanity for the role of Sudan's security forces in Darfur.
Followers of Sudanese web developer Usamah could track the shifting demonstrations, as he shuttled from one protest location to another and wondered whether he would get a knock on the door in the middle of the night. At one point he tweeted: "Riot police attacked us. Numbers started to build up. Protesters are spreading into smaller groups in internal streets."
Usamah also noted the preliminary results from the southern Sudan referendum. "Congratulations to our fellow Southerns for their historic vote for independence," he tweeted. "I'll personally miss you greatly."
The northern Sudan marches and the response of police have also been tracked by a collaborative crowdmapping effort using the Ushahidi platform. Protest locations included Kordofan University in El Obeid, the faculty of medicine at Khartoum University and the Islamic University in Omdurman. Activists are hoping that a Jan30 Facebook group with more than 16,000 members will help to better coordinate upcoming protests, so that groups will be larger and less vulnerable to attack.
AllAfrica is scrambling to keep the allAfrica.com website up to date - partly by posting information from multiple sources and partly by combining live Twitter feeds and YouTube videos on home and topical pages and by linking to the crowdmapping site.
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