Last June, Al Jazeera English produced a report from Gaza about a young couple who were preparing to marry during the relative calm of the cease-fire between Hamas and the Israeli government, a time when they could finally shop for furniture and, as the reporter put it, let themselves “dream that a happy life together is within reach.”
Now that reporter, Ayman Mohyeldin, a former CNN producer, can be seen with a helmet and flak jacket answering questions from an anchor back in the studio in Doha, Qatar, describing the Israeli bombing and ground campaign in Gaza intended to stop Hamas missiles from being fired into Israel.
In a conflict where the Western news media have been largely prevented from reporting from Gaza because of restrictions imposed by the Israeli military, Al Jazeera has had a distinct advantage. It was already there.
There are six reporters in Gaza, two working for Al Jazeera English and four working for the much larger and more popular Arabic version of the network, which was created in 1996 with a $150 million grant from the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Al Jazeera describes itself on the air as “the only international broadcaster with a presence there.”
While getting to the story has not been an insurmountable problem for Al Jazeera English’s journalists — they are, in effect, surrounded by it — getting their reports to the English-speaking public has been a bit trickier. The network is largely unavailable in the United States, carried only by cable providers in Burlington, Vt.; Toledo, Ohio; and Washington, D.C. (In Burlington, the local government last summer rejected public calls for the city-owned cable provider, Burlington Telecom, to drop the channel.)
By contrast, Al Jazeera’s English-language service can be seen in over 100 countries via cable and satellite, according to Molly Conroy, a spokeswoman for the network in Washington.
Recognizing that its material from Gaza will have influence in the United States only if it is highly accessible online, Al Jazeera has aggressively experimented with using the Internet to distribute the information it has gathered.
For example, Mohamed Nanabhay, the 29-year-old executive who established Al Jazeera’s new-media group, beginning in late 2006, said that Al Jazeera planned to announce this week that all its video material of the war in Gaza would become available under the most lenient Creative Commons license, which basically means it can be used by anyone — rival broadcaster, documentary maker or individual blogger, for example — as long as Al Jazeera is credited.
Also, it currently streams its broadcasts in a variety of formats and has a dedicated channel on YouTube with more than 6,800 videos.
Al Jazeera said that since the war started the number of people watching its broadcasts via the Livestation service has increased by over 500 percent, and the views of videos on its YouTube channel have increased by more than 150 percent.
Also, Al Jazeera has created a Twitter feed on the “war on Gaza,” which provides frequent short messages that refer the public to new material that can be viewed online. During the weekend, there were more than 4,600 followers, not including the many more who view those short messages, called “tweets,” online. The Twitter feeds are also streamed onto Al Jazeera’s English Web site.
And unlike purely commercial broadcasters, Al Jazeera does not have to accompany its new-media strategies with revised new-media business models.
“Part of our mission, our mandate, is to get our news out,” Mr. Nanabhay said. “We don’t have the direct commercial pressures that others have. If we can make some money that is great.”
The near-total blackout in the United States is no doubt related to the sharp criticism Al Jazeera received from the United States government during the initial stages of the war in Iraq for its coverage of the American invasion. Officials like Vice President Dick Cheney and the defense secretary at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, said the network’s reporting was inflammatory, irresponsible and frequently misleading.
And in Israel, where news media commonly quote from material on Al Jazeera, the network is frequently criticized for inflaming the Arab public by running unfiltered and out-of-context videotape showing blood and gore in battle zones.
Al Jazeera officials respond that they are being blamed for accurately reporting what is going on in the world from an Arab perspective.
Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Israeli military campaign from Gaza includes reports on civilians killed and made homeless by the attacks as well as on clashes between Hamas fighters and Israeli troops. In a recent segment, Mr. Mohyeldin played exclusive videotape of what appeared to be a Hamas sniper’s killing of an Israeli tank commander; the reporter repeatedly cautioned that what was being shown could not be independently confirmed.
Nonetheless, the dearth of distribution in the United States means that the dispatches from Mr. Mohyeldin and others reach America almost exclusively via the Internet.
The report on the couple shopping for furniture in Gaza City, for example, had been viewed nearly 6,000 times on YouTube, generating more than 100 comments in the six months it had been available; the report on the videotape of Hamas militants in action has been viewed nearly 150,000 times in less than three days, with more than 700 comments.
The network has begun its first ad campaign in the United States to publicize its Web site, since reaching Americans would seem to be at the heart of Al Jazeera’s mission.
“It is something on our minds, we think about the U.S. market,” said Mr. Nanabhay, who is now the co-chairman of a “digital leap committee” for Al Jazeera English. But he said, “even if the U.S. market were completely open, we would still be innovating.”
According to Mr. Nanabhay, and another new-media evangelist within Al Jazeera, Riyaad Minty, a 24-year-old South African who is a senior analyst at the network, the Gaza crisis is helping to convince their superiors of the power of the Internet to tell a sprawling story that unfolds over weeks or perhaps months.
Thus far, however, Al Jazeera has largely stayed away from the blogging that is common on news sites, though that is being reconsidered, Mr. Nanabhay said.
“Especially during these crises, they present a lot of opportunity to use these tools, and the value becomes apparent very quickly,” Mr. Nanabhay said.
Mr. Minty has been focusing on the introduction of a platform at aljazeera.net to allow the public to contribute opinion or “citizen journalism,” ideas that he said were still new to the Arab world.
He said the site gets many contributions, particularly video comments and other content, from people in the West.