(Doha, Qatar) - In the latest twist to the wave of protests spreading across the Middle East, demonstrators have overthrown the Al Jazeera television network.
"Really, we want to overthrow the Emir, but everyone knows you can't stage a decent takeover without taking control of state-owned media," said one protester. "So we're doing this first."
Setting fire to the Al Jazeera broadcast center in Doha, demonstrators chanted "We want democracy," and "Down with the monarchy." But compared with scenes on the streets of Cairo, Tehran and neighboring Bahrain, the protest seemed lackluster.
Many demonstrators said they were now at a loss as to which television network to watch. "Al Arabiya? That's Saudi-owned propaganda!" fumed one demonstrator. "CNN? BBC? Nothing's been as reliable and informative as Al Jaz!"
"That's what makes democracy so hard," he added.
Al Jazeera was established by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the latest ruler in an absolute monarchy that dates back to 1850.
The network was seen, at first, as the best source of independent information as demonstrators took to the streets to bring down the governments of Tunisia, then Egypt.
Asked about the motive for their demonstration, one protester - carrying a jerry-can of gasoline - simply shrugged.
"By using an free and independent media to empower the ordinary people of the Middle East and urging them to fight for self-determination, Al Jazeera brought this on itself," he said.
"We don't want to do it," said another demonstrator. "But democracy protests have been sweeping the region and we don't want to be left out."
Al Jazeera cameramen and reporters were seen covering the demonstration, only to find they had nowhere to file their reports, as looters made off with broadcast and editing equipment. Its website also went un-updated, as newsroom staff were seen boarding an evacuation flight organized by the British embassy.
"This wasn't expected," said a source within the broadcaster, who did not want to provide his name because of fears for his safety.
Protesters say they are wary of the emergence of a possible counter-demonstration, organized by conservative Islamic groups in Qatar, who point out that Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts are the preferred outlet for senior members of al Qaeda to release video and audio statements.
"Using a series of couriers to carry tapes from, for example, Tora Bora or Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province to a local Al Jazeera bureau is the only way we'll know what Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are urging to Muslims to do," said one conservative cleric.
"At least until they learn how to podcast," the cleric added.
Since the ouster of Egypt's President Mubarak, anti-government protests have spread to Libya, Bahrain, Iran and Yemen - shaking the foundations of autocratic regimes that had enjoyed stability for decades.
"I wish I knew what was happening in Libya," said one demonstrator, staring at, and occasionally shaking his web-enabled cell phone in frustration. "But there's nowhere to watch."
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