As the crisis in Egypt unravels, one network more than others has opened a window for the world. When the first demonstrators gathered in Cairo and Alexandria to call for the end of President Hosni Mubarak's regime, Al-Jazeera English's journalists provided crucial video for U.S. news outlets.
Egyptian authorities have banned Al-Jazeera's journalists from the country, revoked their credentials, and arrested or detained many of them. Journalists from numerous news outlets have been subject to violence.
To counter the shutdown of the network in Egypt, a live feed of Al-Jazeera English's service still flows to a variety of outlets: Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku box owners and on Dailymotion.com, its own website, youtube.com/Aljazeera and Livestation.com.
Despite the public accolades for its coverage, though, the five-year-old network has no fans among big cable operators. Hardly any carry the channel. In the U.S., Al-Jazeera English is carried by a few small players, such as Buckeye CableSystem and Burlington Cable.
Al-Jazeera, whose name means "the island" in Arabic, is funded by the Emir of Qatar, and while fans rally around its journalism, some critics say the network airs anti-American content.
As the street battles raged, Al Anstey, the managing director of Al-Jazeera English, spoke with Multichannel News editor-in chief Mark Robichaux from Doha, Qatar. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: What's it like on the ground right now?
Al Anstey: It's pretty hairy out there today; just the sheer numbers of people that have been detained and unfortunately beaten up today. It's a really unpleasant situation. I too hope it quiets down and settles down in the coming days for all of us as journalists but also for all the people out on the streets.
It's been so fast-moving and dynamic since it erupted on Friday a week ago. And I think what we've seen is an extraordinary turn of events. It's a very, very complicated story with lots of different sides and lots of different voices and lots of different parties involved. And it's throughout Egypt.
And our job is to cover all the angles of that story, to eyewitness report the events on the ground as they're unfolding and then apply the context, so our audiences really understand why is it happening and what does it mean.
MCN: Can you give us an update on your journalists and what you are doing to protect them?
AA: You've obviously got the volatility of the situation and the fact that you've got a lot of uncertainty and a very fast-moving dynamic on the streets and that, by default, makes it unsafe.
But then, you've got the add-on of the fact that all journalists, ourselves included, are covering stories - on the ground - which certain sides of this story do not want to be seen. So there are elements of the government that would prefer that the protests weren't seen, prefer that the violence that we've witnessed in the last few days is not seen in Egypt and in the wider world. And we're working in a country and a context where it was unheard of to see these sorts of pictures in past times.
But safety underpins what we do. So we are taking all the measures, all the steps required to insure the safety of our people.
MCN: Why aren't you carried by any of the major U.S. cable systems today?
AA: There's two fundamental reasons for it. No. 1 is, we are a relatively young channel launching into a mature marketplace. We need to get known. And that takes time.
Add to that I think there were myths and misconceptions about what Al-Jazeera stands for and those misconceptions are being addressed now with every viewer that's switching us on and sees the content. And I always lay down the gauntlet and say if you watch the content of Al-Jazeera English, those misconceptions, if they apply, are immediately dispelled.
And that's what we're seeing now and that's why the increase of Web traffic of two and a half thousand percent in the first two days of this story. We're going out 12 hours a day to 33 million homes at the moment in the United States.
MCN: Do you think the attention you're getting for the coverage in Egypt is going to make a difference in the minds of cable operators?
AA: Yes. (There) is ever-increasing demand in the United States, which is evidenced by online, but it's also evidenced by the praise that we're receiving. I think that should have a real difference for us in our conversations with the key cable operators in America.
MCN: Unfairly or not, since 9/11, critics hve said Al-Jazeera has allowed anti-American, anti-Semitic content to air, and it doesn't carry opposing views. True?
AA: I refute them whole heartedly. We don't just cover opposing views, we cover all the relevant views. And covering the Egyptian story this week, we have covered all the relevant views in that story. And there is absolutely no partiality.
I can only talk for the English channel. We've begun this channel with the highest standards of journalism and we continue now with the highest standards of journalism. It's not like we've evolved into this, it's from Day One. We are populated by journalists from networks across the globe, including in the United States who have a reputation, and rightfully so, for the best journalism on this earth. And that is critical to what we do; without the credibility we are nothing.
MCN: Some say this is Al-Jazeera's CNN moment, referring to that network's coverage of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Is this your CNN moment and, if so, how do you capitalize on that?
AA: There are similarities. I read with interest that we're watched in the White House for the president and his advisers to know what's going on, on the ground. We are the channel of reference on this story and for a number of stories that have happened during our history. So this is, in a way, the turning point for us in the United States is we've become the channel of reference and we've got this evidence of demand and that demand is exponential as we're increasingly recognized for what we do.
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