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2011-02-01

Media Blackout in Egypt and the U.S.: Al Jazeera Forced Off the Air by Mubarak, Telecommunications Companies Block Its Expansion in the United States

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Reporters from Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network, have been arrested and forced off the air by President Hosni Mubarak. "This regime, which couldn’t find the time to protect Egypt’s priceless relics in the National Museum in Cairo, found the time to drag journalists through the streets ... and found time to shut down Al Jazeera," says Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English is broadcast to more than 200 million homes around the world, but it’s hardly available in the United States. Critics have called it a media blackout by U.S. cable and satellite providers. We speak to Tony Burman of Al Jazeera English. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera English, by the way, is now reporting up to two million people in and around Tahrir Square. And, of course, there are protests all over Egypt.

Speaking of Al Jazeera English, we turn now to our next guest. Al Jazeera English, the satellite network that’s been providing on-the-ground coverage of the rebellion in Egypt, it’s broadcast to more than 200 million homes around the world and throughout Canada, but just a handful of those homes are in the United States. Critics have been calling it a media blackout by U.S. cable and satellite providers. If you live in the U.S., you may have been one of the people driving up Al Jazeera’s online traffic in the last week. Visits to their website with a live video stream jumped by more than two-and-a-half thousand percent. More than 60 percent of that traffic was from the United States.

Joining us to discuss Al Jazeera English and its struggle to expand in the United States is Tony Burman, Al Jazeera’s chief strategic adviser for the Americas and the network’s former managing director.

I wanted to start by saying there’s been a lot made of a lot of information about Al Jazeera Arabic being shut down in Egypt, and yet very few people understand that Al Jazeera English, there is almost a media blackout on it here in the United States. Tony Burman, can you explain why?

TONY BURMAN: Well, I mean, it’s an interesting comparison. I mean, as you mentioned, Al Jazeera English is available in more than — I think it’s now 220 million households worldwide. It’s now available, as of a year ago, across Canada, but in very few centers here in the United States. You know, I think there are commercial, there are political reasons for that. There was, I think, a resistance on the part of the cable and satellite companies at the launch of Al Jazeera English in 2006. This was pre-Obama, as one recalls. During the Bush administration, I think there was a fear on their part that Americans don’t want more international news, that perhaps they’d lose more subscribers than they would gain. I think the events of the past week or so, and earlier, really put a lie to that. I mean, I think that there’s a — I’ve always felt there’s a real untapped appetite for international global coverage in America, and our hope is that people will call their cable and satellite companies and indicate that, because, you know, that is what needs to happen right now, is that Americans need, in my view, need to be given at least the opportunity to choose to watch it or not watch it.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Burman, right now, it’s where? In Burlington, Vermont, on a cable station. It’s in Toledo, Ohio, and —

TONY BURMAN: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: — in Washington, D.C.?

TONY BURMAN: Yeah, it’s in Washington, D.C., which is our largest market, which is, I think, in more than two million households, the whole kind of Washington area, which is — which I think was really about a year and a half ago. It’s a very — that’s a significant city, you know, as [inaudible] to stress, in the sense that, you know, it’s a political and kind of media capital, I guess, with New York. And I think what has been intriguing — and it’s available in virtually every home in the Washington area. And what’s intriguing to us is that the response — I mean, let’s face it — and I’m speaking now from Washington — this is a city of news addicts, a city that probably per capita has more people globally engaged and interested than perhaps a lot of other places in America, and the response has really been really quite positive. We know senators, we know important people in the administration, you know, who regard Al Jazeera English — this is prior to Egypt and Tunisia — regard Al Jazeera English as their kind of default news channel, because it provides such global coverage. So, our goal, obviously, is, you know, to convince Americans to tell their cable and satellite companies that, you know, what is available in Washington, what’s available in Burlington and Toledo should really be available nationwide in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s also being broadcast on Link TV on DISH Network channel 9410 —

TONY BURMAN: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: — and on DirecTV, channel 375.

TONY BURMAN: That’s right, and Pacifica Radio, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And Pacifica Radio stations around the country.

TONY BURMAN: Right, it’s on Pacifica Radio. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to join this discussion with what’s happening with Al Jazeera in Arabic language —

TONY BURMAN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — the government’s attack on that. Last week, Egyptian authorities ordered Al Jazeera to stop operations after the street protests broke out. When the network refused to comply, the Egyptian government revoked its license, raided its Cairo office, temporarily arrested six journalists. Al Jazeera has denounced the censorship and continues to report from Egypt.

We are also joined in New York by Mohamed Abdel Dayem. He is the program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa division of the Committee to Protect Journalists. We are with Tony Burman in Washington, D.C. Can you talk about what’s happened with Al Jazeera and the shutdown and what it’s meant for journalists?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Well, basically, what you said is a very good and succinct summary of what happened. What’s amazing is what the Egyptian people did in response to that. I was talking to people in Tahrir Square last night, and they said that dozens of people had left the square and were getting as many extension cords as they can find. And they went and brought extension cords and receivers and dishes and plugged Al Jazeera into street lights. They managed — found a way to plug Al Jazeera into street lights. And as we speak right now, with a million-plus people in Tahrir Square, people are watching Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera Mobasher, the two channels that Mubarak’s regime, in a futile attempt to maintain power, tried to censor and tried to block from the Egyptian people. They said Al Jazeera was inciting. Clearly, the people in Tahrir Square feel differently about this. They are watching Al Jazeera now, as we speak.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is Al Jazeera targeted, in particular? What do people otherwise, except for plugging into streetlamps, get to see in Egypt?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Al Jazeera is targeted primarily because it is the most frequently watched station. And the Egyptian government would like to censor everybody, if they could. They can’t, and so they went for the biggest target, and the easiest target, because it’s an Arab station, it’s a station that broadcasts in Arabic, which is very different from CNN or the BBC or some of these other stations that are broadcasting in English or in other foreign languages that aren’t being watched by as many people on the street. But Al Jazeera is the primary source of information for people in Egypt, and frankly, elsewhere in the Middle East. And the Egyptian government wanted to silence that.

This is not just happening in Egypt; this is happening in Yemen and in Sudan and elsewhere. All these leaders are saying, with a straight face, somehow with a straight face, saying that all this unrest in the streets has nothing to do with their failed policies, 50 years, 60 years, 70 years of failed policies. But somehow, a news station that is merely reporting the news and transmitting images of what is actually happening on the ground is inciting a million-plus Egyptians in Cairo and millions more elsewhere in the country to revolt against a brutal dictator. Frankly, it doesn’t pass the laugh test. And the people in the square last night and this morning have illustrated that with their deeds rather than their words.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Burman, I wanted to ask you about the difference between Al Jazeera in the Arabic language and in English language. But first, I wanted to turn to Wadah Khanfar, the director general of Al Jazeera. He talked about Al Jazeera’s’ mission as a news network when he came here to Democracy Now!

WADAH KHANFAR: Al Jazeera is a representation of, you know, diversity in the Arab world. In our newsroom, we have every single nationality, we have every single, you know, ideology, we have every single background. However, when it comes to the screen, we have one code of ethics and one code of conduct. All of us are proud of our commitment to our audience, and we will never betray them. We can never be, you know, an out — you know, we cannot be representing single view or ideology or party, or whatever like that. We cannot afford to do so. We are in a region that’s undergoing transformation. How could we be pro-Muslim Brotherhood or pro-Arab nationalists or pro-whoever, since the Arabs have not yet discovered what kind of path they’re going to go?

AMY GOODMAN: What is the relationship between Al Jazeera, overall, in Arabic, the much larger network, and Al Jazeera English here, Tony Burman?

TONY BURMAN: Well, it’s a collaborative one. I mean, I spent more than two years, as you mentioned, as managing director of Al Jazeera English based in Doha. And we cooperate as best we can on a variety of stories. Television, as you know, is expensive, so, certainly, on the technical resource level. And I think there’s certainly a sharing in terms of editorial ideas and resources. But, I mean, it is effectively — we’re two separate channels, you know, because, let’s face it, we serve two different audiences. I mean, the Al Jazeera English is an international channel.

AMY GOODMAN: Has Al Jazeera English been able to continue in Egypt?

TONY BURMAN: No, no, no, no, no. It’s blocked. And in many ways, there’s been a combined operation in Cairo. For example, the six people detained by the Egyptians yesterday, and eventually released, were actually with Al Jazeera English. But no, all of Al Jazeera has been blocked in Cairo.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have an Al Jazeera English reporter at the White House questioning President Obama and the White House spokesperson?

TONY BURMAN: Yes, we do. I mean, we have several. I mean, we have several reporters in Washington that cover the Pentagon, cover the State Department, cover the White House. I think that we’re in the process right now — as we increase our presence in the United States, I think we’re in the process of increasing our reporting staff here. But we have a large broadcast center here in Washington. I think the worldwide interest, obviously, in the United States is certainly — since Obama came in, has been quite profound. And I think we do feel that we — again, consistent with what Wadah Khanfar said, I think we do feel that we bring a perspective on journalism that is distinctive from the BBC, for example, and certainly from — you know, from American commercial networks.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed, I don’t think many people know about the crackdown on journalists. Can you talk about what you’ve been documenting at the Committee to Protect Journalists?

MOHAMED ABDEL DAYEM: Well, Egypt has a long history of censorship and a long history of harassment of journalists, going back really decades, even before the beginning of Mubarak’s reign. But really, in the last week, we’ve seen something unprecedented in Egypt. And I’ve been following Egypt for well over a decade. And this last week, the Egyptian government, in its frantic attempts to latch onto power, have really done some outrageous things. They’ve dragged both Egyptian journalists and foreign journalists through the streets of Cairo and other cities throughout Egypt. They’ve confiscated equipment. On a single day, they detained 26 journalists, dragged them off of the steps of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate. All that is documented in pictures and in video, frequently by Al Jazeera. And it’s precisely that coverage by Al Jazeera and others that the Egyptian government was trying to silence.

And let me just remind your viewers and your listeners real quick that this regime, which couldn’t find the time to protect Egypt’s priceless relics in the National Museum in Cairo, found the time to drag journalists through the streets, found time to shoot its own people on the streets and massacre them, and found time to shut down Al Jazeera. So it really tells you a whole lot about this government’s priorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Burman, it’s interesting that Al Jazeera English is not broadcast on almost any network. I think some of the excuses used are simply that they’re very crowded, although we see new cable networks going on all the time. And yet, U.S. officials are always interviewed on Al Jazeera English.

TONY BURMAN: No, indeed. Indeed. And I really am hopeful. I mean, at the risk of sounding naive, I’m hopeful, you know, that this event has been a turning point. I mean, there are reviewers that are saying that, you know, perhaps this will be to Al Jazeera English in the United States what the First Gulf War was to CNN in the early '90s, in that it will — it, I think, has brought to the attention to a lot of Americans our existence, and I think it will encourage them to pressure cable companies. I mean, I think it's — I mean, it’s absurd that in a democracy of over 300 million people that, you know, the United States is one of the few countries in the world where Al Jazeera English is not available. And I think — you know, I think that our hope is that over the next weeks and months, that that will change. I think the cable and satellite companies are hearing from Americans. We sense that. We have an ongoing kind of relationship with them. We intend, obviously, to accelerate that in the days and months ahead, and we’re hopeful that there will be — and our experience, for example, whether it’s in Burlington or whether it’s in Ohio or whether it’s certainly in Washington, our experience has been incredibly positive. The response in Canada, for example, where there were also some hesitations voiced by some groups about "Would the sun still shine if Al Jazeera English was available in Canadian homes?" well, that has completely turned around. You know, so I think — you know, it’s been late, it’s been belated, but I think the tide is turning, I think, in our favor here in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Burman, I want to thank you for being with us, chief strategic adviser for the Americas, Al Jazeera network. And also, Mohamed Abdel Dayem, thank you for being with us, from the Committee to Protect Journalists. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Digital darkness, that’s our next subject. We’re going to talk about what was cut off in Egypt. We’re going to talk also about the beginning of Twitter. And why did Vodafone comply with the Egyptian government’s demand that they turn off the internet? Stay with us.

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