DOHA, Qatar Feb. 4, 2011 -- Al Jazeera's office in Cairo was stormed and burned today, the most dramatic evidence yet that Egyptian authorities are desperate to shut down the network widely praised for revealing the size and reach of the demonstrations.
Over the last week nine of the network's reporters have been detained and satellite providers across the region have shut its signal off.
The assault on Al Jazeera is part of an offensive against the foreign press by those in Cairo upset by the portrayal of the rock and fire bomb battles. More than 100 reporters, including those from ABC News, have menaced, threatened with death and beaten in the streets.
Much of the anger by the supporters of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has been aimed at Al Jazeera.
That authorities have targeted reporters for Al Jazeera English – as well as those for Al Jazeera Arabic -- shows how the younger, more analytical of the two channels has come echo the Arabic channel's ability to get under the skin of autocratic, unpopular regimes.
For almost five years, Al Jazeera English has followed a single motto: "Giving voice to the voiceless." Despite the attempts to silence it, the network's coverage of the revolts seem to be ensuring that its own voice is only getting louder.
Al Jazeera English has its detractors, but its coverage of Egypt has been lauded by most independent critics as aggressive, informative and more extensive than its competitors. Its increasing influence has earned the ire less of the United States -- often called its most obvious target, but which this week defended its right to report freely -- than of the governments of the region. Today at least four governments in the Arab world have banned the channel from operating, none more obviously than the Egyptians in the last two weeks.
The 15-year-old Al Jazeera Arabic -- more than Al Jazeera English, which operates out of a different building and is run by different management -- is accused of bias against the United States and Israel. But executives at both channels insist that their bias is not against the West or against the Jewish state.
If they have any bias, they say, it's to amplify the voices of the dispossessed and the occupied. That means they tend to air more material from Africa and the developing world than their competitors. It also means, whether the network admits it or not, they are willing to give more airtime to Islamist parties, in part because across the Arab world today, the most vocal opposition voices are often those of the Islamists.
"We have never ever had any editorial policy that goes against the Americans or the Israelis or against this regime or that regime. We reflect what is happening in reality," said Wadah Khanfar, the director general of the Al Jazeera Network.
"Yes, the masses in the Arab world were very angry with the Americans during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that was projected on our screen," Khanfar continued. "But later on, when Obama was elected and he came to Cairo and delivered the message, the people in the Arab world were optimistic, and we did deliver that message."
Despite its increasing popularity and increasing influence – its website received a 2,500 percent increase since the Cairo protests began -- Al Jazeera English is still barely available in the United States.
In the last two weeks, LinkTV, a San Francisco based satellite channel, turned over half of its programming to Al Jazeera English, expanding the channel's reach on satellite providers DirecTV and DishTV to at least 12 hours per day. But the only way to get the channel on terrestrial television is via small cable providers in Burlington, Vt., Toledo, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.
Al Jazeera English has a campaign on its website and on its Twitter feed tagged #DemandAlJazeera, but it is low key and a linked MeetUp site seems to have only about 100 followers.
Al Jazeera executives believe the decision by the major cable providers not to carry the channel is less about political pressure than about business: cable providers are worried if they offer Al Jazeera English, conservatives might boycott them and take their business elsewhere.
"Clearly there is a marketing challenge. We've got to be known for what we do now, not what people said about us some years ago," said Al Anstey, the managing editor of Al Jazeera English, citing criticisms by Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq war.
"I think there are myths and misconceptions about what Al Jazeera stands for. And I think that is perhaps underpinned for Al Jazeera English, the challenge we had at the outset, getting -- penetrating -- the American marketplace, getting into cable operators so viewers can see us," Anstey said.
Up until now, Al Jazeera has dedicated far fewer to cover the U.S. than it does to countries in its own region. Some Western employees hired to work for the English channel have quit over editorial disputes, objecting to how management wanted to cover the West.
The core mission to find minority, oppressed, or opposition viewpoints, executives say, remains the same in the West, the Arab world, and everywhere else. Some at Al Jazeera suggest that by promoting their coverage of voices "not normally seen on the mainstream media," the channel is upholding better journalistic standards than their competitors. In part, they are able to do so because of resources: thanks to the Qatari emir's money, the network has 65 bureaus and is growing, while most of the international media is closing bureaus.
But it's the desire to talk to the opposition – even if they are Islamists – that infuriates American conservatives.
"If you stand there in their studio, and you say, 'You know what, Mullah so-and-so, Al Sadr, you're a hater,' you'll get a bullet right in the head," erupted Bill O'Reilly this week on The O'Reilly Factor, the most popular cable show in the United States. "This is an anti-Semitic, anti-American network… There is no counter on it," he continued, yelling. "There's no counter on it!"
Cliff Kincaid, who runs the conservative blog Accuracy in Media, suggested that Al Jazeera was out to topple the Egyptian government.
"It seems clear that there a bias in favor of Muslim brotherhood and terrorist organizations," he said.
A visiting reporter asked Shulie Ghosh, an anchor for Al Jazeera English who has appeared extensively during the Cairo protests, whether Al Jazeera ever takes an opinion in the stories it covers.
"Well, if there's one thing American networks do is have an opinion, no?" replied Ghosh, who worked for British broadcasters ITV and the BBC before anchoring the launch of Al Jazeera English. "I personally, I always strive to be a journalist who is neutral, who is straight down the line, and always, always gives either side their chance to contribute," she continued.
"Sometimes, though, you come across situations where you have to shout on behalf of people who very badly treated, or for whom there is no justice. So sometimes, I think it's right for people like you and I -- who have that power and have that voice – to say, 'Look what's happening here. Why aren't you doing something about it?"
The desire to object to those in power is reflected on the air. On Wednesday, when pro-Hosni Murabak protestors clashed with anti-government demonstrators in Cairo, some of the demonstrators found identifications that listed the pro-government protestors' occupation as police officers. Reporters in Cairo -- for all outlets -- quickly believed the police had either infiltrated or were in fact leading the clashes against the anti-government demonstrators.
But while BBC anchors seemed to go out of their way to say they had no way to confirm whether the identifications were valid or where they had come from, Al Jazeera anchors reported with more confidence that the protestors were full of police. (Al Jazeera did later air the Interior Ministry's denial it had anything to do with the pro-Mubarak demonstrators.)
"Never before has civil unrest on this scale been chronicled in real time with such intimate and multi-platform ambition," wrote the Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara. "This particular protest may be most remembered for Al Jazeera's ability to capture the actual footfalls of revolution."
Al Jazeera has tried to improve its relationship with the United States, but it is still tense. One Arabic correspondent is being held – the network says without reason -- in Guantanamo Bay. And nobody here forgets that the U.S. military bombed Al Jazeera Arabic's offices in both Kabul and Baghdad. The military would later say both bombs hit the wrong targets.
So Al Jazeera employees were surprised and encouraged when the U.S. became one of the first governments to condemn the detention of their reporters in Cairo.
"We are concerned by the shutdown of #Al-Jazeera in #Egypt and arrest of its correspondents. Egypt must be open and the reporters released," the State Department's spokesman, P.J. Crowley, tweeted in the hours after the reporters were detained.
Some analysts believe the Qatari emir benefits from funding a channel that has many critics in the Arab world -- as a way to contrast their societies from his relatively liberal one.
For Al Jazeera English, though, the financial freedom and the inherited mission to question authority has allowed it to showcase the Arab world in a way that would have been unthinkable just 15 years ago, when the media was dominated by state television.
"Everyone pretty much agrees that Al Jazeera has owned this story," David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun TV critic, said this week about the Cairo protests. "It's not so much the analysis as it is the video of what's going on in the streets. When you see Al Jazeera's pictures, you feel as if you are on the ground, in the crowd. You can feel the energy of revolution and change, literally around you... When you stand with Al Jazeera TV, you feel as if you're standing with the revolution, with the people in the streets themselves."