If it weren’t for Al Jazeera, much of the unfolding Egyptian revolution would never have been televised. Its Arabic- and English-language channels have provided the most comprehensive coverage of any network in any language hands-down. Despite the Mubarak regime’s attempts to shut it down, Al Jazeera’s brave reporters and camera crews have persevered. Six Al Jazeera journalists were detained briefly on Monday, their equipment seized. The United States responded swiftly to their detention, with the State Department calling for their release. “We are concerned by the shutdown of Al Jazeera in Egypt and arrest of its correspondents,” State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley tweeted. “Egypt must be open and the reporters released.”
The Obama White House has been intently monitoring al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian revolt. The network, already famous worldwide, is now a household name in the United States. Thousands of Americans—many of whom likely had never watched the network before—are livestreaming Al Jazeera on the Internet and over their phones. With a handful of exceptions, most US cities and states have no channel that broadcasts Al Jazeera. That’s because cowardly US cable providers refuse to grant the channel a distribution platform, largely for fear of being perceived as supporting or enabling a network that for years has been portrayed negatively by US officials.
For people who have followed Al Jazeera’s history with the United States, the fact that it is now perceived by the White House and the American public as a force for democracy and freedom is an ironic, some would say hypocritical, development. The contrast between Washington’s posture toward Al Jazeera from the Bush era to the Obama presidency could not be more stark.
During the Bush administration, nothing contradicted the absurd claim that the United States invaded Iraq to spread democracy throughout the Middle East more decisively than Washington’s ceaseless attacks on Al Jazeera, the institution that did more than any other to break the stranglehold over information previously held by authoritarian forces, whether monarchs, military strongmen, occupiers or ayatollahs. Yet, far from calling for its journalists to be respected and freed from imprisonment and unlawful detention, the Bush administration waged war against Al Jazeera and its journalists.
The United States bombed its offices in Afghanistan in 2001. In March 2003, two of its financial correspondents were kicked off the trading floor of NASDAQ and the NY Stock Exchange. “In light of Al-Jazeera’s recent conduct during the war, in which they have broadcast footage of US POWs in alleged violation of the Geneva Convention, they are not welcome to broadcast from our facility at this time,” said NASDAQ’s spokesperson. Later NASDAQ backed off from that claim and said the network’s accreditation had been revoked for “security reasons.”
In April 2003, US forces shelled the Basra hotel where Al Jazeera journalists were the only guests and killed Jazeera’s Iraq correspondent Tareq Ayoub a few days later in Baghdad. The United States also imprisoned several Al Jazeera reporters (including at Guantánamo), some of whom say they were tortured. Among these was Sami al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who spent seven years at Guantánamo and was repeatedly interrogated by US operatives attempting to falsely link Al Jazeera to Al Qaeda. In addition to the military attacks, the US-backed Iraqi government periodically banned Al Jazeera from reporting in Iraq. Indeed, Al Jazeera was shut down in Iraq under both Saddam Hussein and the US-backed government.