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Al Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar Heralds 'Birth Of New Era' In Arab World

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WADAH KHANFAR TED 2011
James Duncan Davidson / TED

As some worry about the future of the Middle East following the ousting of Egypt and Tunisia's top leaders, Al Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar said the Arab world is embarking on a new phase in its history defined by tolerance, democracy, and freedom.

"You are witnessing a birth of new era," Khanfar said during his presentation at the TED conference in Long Beach. The protests in the region and the departure of presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak mark the "beginning of magnificent era," he said, adding, "the future we were dreaming for has...arrived."

Not all are so optimistic. There have been concerns that Egypt's future may come to resemble Iran's in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, which saw the rise of religious fundamentalist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Fareed Zakaria warned in an opinion editorial for the Washington Post that Egypt could risk becoming a military dictatorship, noting, "The danger is that Egypt will become not Turkey but Pakistan, a sham democracy with real power held in back rooms by generals."

Tunisia's path forward is also uncertain. "[O]ne man may fall, but entrenched regimes are hard to shift," The Economist wrote recently. "Tunisia, which revolted first, throwing out its president of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has also been the first to discover how grimly the old guard cling on."

Al Jazeera's coverage of the protest movements--live, intimate, focused, and unflagging, even in the face of government crackdowns--earned the news organization new prominence, new respect, and new audiences, with traffic to its English-language website soaring 2,000 percent in January.

Khanfar not only praised Al Jazeera's reporters for their success broadcasting the events unfolding in the Arab world for all the world to see, but said protesters in Egypt had told Al Jazeera their coverage prevented further bloodshed.

People in Tahrir Square asked Al Jazeera not to stop filming the protests, Khanfar said. He explained that protesters warned the news organization, "If you switch off the cameras, tonight [there] will be genocide." Khanfar added people demonstrating in Egypt told Al Jazeera, "You are protecting us by showing what happening in Tahrir Square."

Al Jazeera leveraged social media and crowdsourced content to continue coverage in areas in which its journalists had been banned or its bureaus shut down.

Even as he stressed the utility of social networks like Twitter and Facebook in covering areas where reporters have limited access, Khanfar acknowledged the limits of the source as well.

"Definitely one of the most important challenges is to authenticate and to filter the news and images that come to us through social networking," he told The Huffington Post in an interview.

Khanfar also emphasized the complementary, symbiotic relationship between new and traditional media, noting they have mistakenly been considered rivals in the past.

"Al Jazeera was important for amplifying those people on YouTube and Twitter," he explained.

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