“I wouldn’t go so far as calling us the ‘voice of the people,’” Ayman Mohyeldin said. He would know: As correspondent for Al Jazeera English, Mohyeldin flew to Cairo from Tunisia on Jan. 26th, and guided international audiences through a month of demonstrations, upheaval and, eventually, revolution. For those watching, he became the voice of the revolution during countless hours of live coverage. At a packed event in Washington, D.C., he talked about his experience and Al Jazeera’s role.
“Al Jazeera was not the voice of the protesters, but the microphone to the voices of the protestors” he said. “Al Jazeera simply amplified the voices of the people that were yelling to be heard in the region.”
“News organizations have to provide context”
The network’s English coverage soared in popularity, with traffic to Al Jazeera’s English website increasing 25-fold. (The network isn’t carried by most satellite providers in the U.S., which is another story).
Meanwhile the role of news organizations is changing. “Information is so ubiqutous,” Mohyeldin said.
“It’s no longer the information that news organizations have to provide, it’s the context.”
Context helps form a narrative from singular events, connecting them with history and analysis. That doesn’t require flashy graphics: Many of the most iconic images, he said, were simply of a camera positioned on a balcony overlooking Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “The people felt protected by the cameras,” he said. Maybe one reason Egypt’s regime tried so hard to hinder Al Jazeera’s coverage.
In addition to their own cameramen and correspondents, a lot of footage Al Jazeera aired came from ordinary citizens using their cellphones to capture what they were seeing. Does this make Egypt’s regime overthrow a “Twitter revolution” or a “Facebook revolution”? (A question mainly asked in Western media outlets amazed that people in other parts of the world use technology, too). Mohyeldin settled this almost in passing:
“These were the first revoltions in the information age,” he said. They were “powered by information.”
“The fear factor had been broken,” he added.
Do we know the Libyan rebels?
Mohyeldin’s experience and Al Jazeera’s success also demonstrate the importance of regional knowledge. He slammed Western media and pundits for repeating the claim that rebels in Libya were unkown to the West, who is now supporting them with airstrikes to prevent civilian casulaties. In the debate about the intervention, it has often been claimed that “we don’t know who the rebels are.”
“We know exactly who they are,” Mohyeldin said. “They are Libyan people who don’t want to be ruled by Moammar Gadhafi. … If you speak to them, you know who they are.”
The road ahead
While Libyans are still fighting Gadhafi, Egyptians and Tunisians are faced with the question: What’s next?
“Right now we don’t know which way the region is going to go,” Mohyeldin said, “but there is a great sense of optimism.” The most difficult part, however, may be yet to come as Tunisians and Egyptians are working to shape the state of the future, after having abolished the one of the past.
“This is the part that’s gonna be harder for Egyptians, Tunisians and others,” he said. After the images of huge crowds, both fighting and jubilant, this transition period will be much slower and more difficult to tell on television. But “it requires information and discourse,” Mohyeldin said, pointing to the debate about the recent referendum in Egypt as an example. People were struggling to set the pace of change: “Egypt takes two steps forward and one step back.”
One man can change a region
Mohyeldin described that while each country has its own distinct features, the uprisings sweeping the region are connected. He travelled to the Tunisian village of Sidi Bouzid, where a local man lit himself on fire, setting in motion the events that have so far toppled two regimes. “People in Sidi Bouzid hold their heads so high,” he said.
“Let it be told that the power of one man to change an entire region is what we are witnessing right now.”