WASHINGTON -- As Al Jazeera continues to be one of the few, if not lone, sources of live coverage and comprehensive reporting on the protests in Egypt, the state government there is resorting to new methods of diminishing the reach of the network's broadcasts.
According to a source at the network who is working in Cairo, the state-run television station has, for the past few nights, been conducting deliberately slanted man-on-the-street interviews regarding media coverage of the massive protests.
"Al Jazeera is continually singled out for blame and criticized for telling 'lies,'" the network source said.
That would, of course, be editorial cherry-picking. What didn't make it onto state TV, the source added, was another protester addressing a throng of 700 or so onlookers on Monday night in Tahrir Square, using a bullhorn to lead the chant, "Long live Al Jazeera."
As the streets of Cairo continue a week's worth of demonstrations against Egypt President Hosni Mubarak, an intense discussion has begun over the press' handling of the events. No unit has been more scrutinized, or applauded, than Al Jazeera. The Qatar-based network, which was routinely vilified in the United States during the Bush years, has quickly come to be considered indispensable source of Mideast news. This has in turn spurred critical questioning of domestic cable providers who have declined to offer the network to much of the United States.
Little is known, however, about how the Al Jazeera staff has managed to stay operational with all the pressure coming from Egyptian authorities. The source at the station, who spoke anonymously out of fear for his own safety, described the personal concern he felt when he returned to the network's Cairo office on Monday only to see that his colleagues had been detained. He emailed the following account of the events:
This afternoon, after I was coming back to file after spending the morning and midday day chasing the story of police deploying to Cairo's streets, I called to check in and was told that they had found where we were and that we were continuing to broadcast, and that the detainment/arrests were happening at that very moment
I returned to the location (again, not going to say where) got out of my taxi, and coordinated with the other web producer on the ground here, who had just returned from reporting as well. I was told our team was outside on the street being guarded by some soldiers, and we determined that we would try to enter the building from another direction and avoid that situation.
As I walked along the street, I could see the team detained about 50 feet away. They were not handcuffed, no one was being mistreated or even touched for that matter, as far as I saw in those few seconds. I kept walking. The other web producer made it inside. I walked through a series of cramped side alleys (guys smoking shisha, cars inching through, goats, cows), made a big circle and got into the building as well. My colleague and I remained together in our room, coordinating with the other team members and with Doha headquarters to make sure we knew what was going on. Eventually, we determined we were safe, and not that much later, we got word that everyone had been released.
The detention of reporters represents a new height of press suppression in a country not exactly known for its free-speech protections (though more tolerant than many fellow Mideast governments). It was, the source added, "obviously an escalation" of a campaign against independent media, and a harrowing one at that.
It has also forced reporters to adapt in a constant effort to stay one step ahead of the state authorities. The source declined to reveal the technical details of Al Jazeera's operation for fear of putting them in "jeopardy." But he did relay that he and others were increasingly dependent on new media -- Twitter, Audioboo and flipcam videos, among other tools -- to assist their reporting and broadcast their coverage. Some of their more conventional technology, like cell phones and laptops, had been confiscated during Monday's detention.
"We're keenly aware of how many people are paying attention especially now that it seems the government will shut down mobile phone and internet service for [Tuesday]'s protest, and we're doing everything we can to keep the information flowing," said the source.