The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt over the past few weeks have led to major shifts not only in the political landscape of those countries, but also in the media landscape.
Arab TV news network Al Jazeera has seen staggering audience figures during the period that led to the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Since the beginning of the Egyptian uprising on Jan. 25, Al Jazeera's live broadcast stream has logged more than 12 million views online, many of those eyes in North America.
'People within the Arab world — and more so now internationally — see it as a network that gives voice to the voiceless, that doesn't protect and apologize for the powerful' —Tony Burman
The network based in Doha, Qatar has had an English-language broadcast arm for more than four years, but it has been slow to catch on either in Canada — where cable networks carry it — or the U.S., where it lacks a regular carrier and has faced intense political opposition.
Tony Burman, a former CBC news chief who is now Al Jazeera's head of strategy for the Americas, believes the Egyptian uprising could mark a turning point for the network.
"I think the combination of the immense historic events in Egypt, plus the fact that there was a real intense interest in Americans to find out what's going on, kind of merged together to be the breakthrough moment," Burman said in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi of CBC's Q cultural affairs show.
On the ground coverage
At a time when U.S. networks are pulling back on foreign coverage, Al Jazeera was on the ground with footage of the demonstrations, early in the crisis. North American networks, including the CBC, picked up its feed until they could get their own cameras on location.
Al Jazeera "went into overdrive" with its coverage when it realized the protests in Tunisia had spread, Burman said. The presence of a network showing Arabs to themselves may have intensified the desire for political change among Egyptians, he said.
"We were covering Tunisia intensively. When the signs started emerging that [the hunger for political change] was replicating in Egypt, the game changed. The ground changed," Burman said.
That's why Egypt shut down the Al Jazeera bureau in Cairo, but the move didn't stop its reporters from getting the news out.
Burman said the network has had an uneasy relationship with the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world since it began broadcasting in 1996 — far more uneasy than its relationship with Israel, on which North Americans have fixated.
"There is real tension between authoritarian governments and Al Jazeera," he said, adding that the network is seen as a threat by such administrations.
Wide international reach
The Al Jazeera's Arabic coverage reaches 50 million households, or about 60 per cent of the whole Arab world, Burman said.
"It's popular because people within the Arab world —and more so now internationally — see it as a network that gives voice to the voiceless, that doesn't protect and apologize for the powerful," he added.
North Americans have a perception of the network as promoting an Islamist agenda and hostility toward Israel. Burman argues the network has proved its credibility by offending powerful regimes of all stripes.
The U.S. approach to Al Jazeera appears to be changing under the Obama administration, with more Americans now asking their cable companies for access to the network, according to Burman.