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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Al Jazeera in Tunisia and Egypt: the Next Radio Free Europe?

Al Jazeera English’s ratings from the past weekend have the American media abuzz about the Qatar-based network’s increasing popularity. The LA Times called it the media sensation’s “CNN moment’ (whose popularity catapulted after their Gulf War coverage), and reported it may even result in the channel becoming part of a premium cable package here in the US. Huffington Post author Tom Watson wrote today “let’s hope it spreads to our sets like democracy activism through the Middle East.” Out of the network’s four million viewers last weekend, 1.6 million of them were American.

Yet despite the importance Al Jazeera plays in offering Americans a chance to re-connect with events happening on the other side of the world, it plays an even more prominent and historically important role in the Middle East as it capitalizes on the lack of unfettered journalism in the region. Especially during the Tunisian uprising a few weeks ago and the current Egyptian unrest, dissidents there must have access to information outside of the state-dominated news agencies, which have a strong bias towards the regimes that fund them.

The importance of the freedom of information that alternative news sources can provide has many precedents in history, but perhaps the most recent and most tangible to Western observers is the role that Radio Free Europe played in the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, “where the free flow of information [was also] banned by government authorities or not fully developed (link).” Much like the Egyptian unrest, it was critical that Czechs could be fully informed in order to fully partake in the protests that led to the transition to democracy. Czech Ambassador Zderek Lycka recounts, “how did a demonstration start? Always with information from radio stations The Voice of America or Radio Free Europe about time and place (link).”

Mr. Krichen, the anchor on Al Jazeera English, told the New York Times “I think we should be careful – I mean we shouldn’t think that our role is to release the Arab people from oppression… But I think we should also be careful not to avoid any popular movement. We should have our eyes open to capture any event that could be the start of the end of any dictator in the Arab world.”

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