As events unfolded in Tunisia, a country where Al Jazeera’s bureau had been closed, the channel again innovated among Arab broadcasters by using mobile phone footage and social media.
It no longer has a news monopoly in the Arabic satellite TV space. And some viewers say it treads a fine line between reporting and taking sides. But they stay glued regardless.
“Al-Jazeera is like a media brigade,” said Jordanian Maisara Malass, an opposition activist. “By its coverage of events it has helped far more than any other outlet such as Facebook to spread the revolution from one city to the other.”
From its very early days, Al Jazeera stunned the Arab world with heated debates and tough questioning of Arab officials, until then virtually unheard of. It won broad international attention, and U.S. grumbles, with its 2003 Iraq war coverage.
Tunisia may prove another defining moment. Al Jazeera was swifter than most to grasp the enormity of the protests that delivered what many Arabs thought impossible — an Arab autocrat hurled out of office by ordinary people.
“This marks the maturity of Jazeera television as a political force that can play a role in changing political orders,” Beirut-based analyst Rami Khouri wrote, saying that the channel’s avid viewers “may want to launch their own protests.”
When Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire because police seized his vegetable cart, an act that spurred the protests, Al Jazeera was one of the first outlets to broadcast pictures of his self-immolation.
“Al Jazeera’s strength has been that it ‘owned’ the Tunisia story,” said Firas Al-Atraqchi, a former senior editor for an Al Jazeera website and now at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “Others had to catch up and try and ride its coat-tails.”
The channel relied on mobile footage for 60 percent of its material to circumvent an official media blackout, a channel executive said. To some, that made it seem part of the revolt or that it was siding with protesting Tunisians.
“Al Jazeera was like one of those protesting in the streets of Tunis and made people live with the events,” said Zeid Abu Oudeh, founder of Jordan Days, a Jordanian website and blog styled after YouTube.