Al Jazeera provides an inside look at Gaza conflict
NEW YORK: 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."
Today 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 designed 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 on the ground 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, only carried by cable providers in Burlington, Vermont; 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.)
That contrasts with the situation in the rest of the world. Al Jazeera's English-language service can be viewed in every major European market, and is available to 130 million homes 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 its reports.
For example, Nanabhay said that Al Jazeera planned to announce this week that all its video material of the war in Gaza would become available under a lenient Creative Commons license, which effectively means it can be used by anyone - rival broadcaster, documentary maker, individual blogger - as long as Al Jazeera is credited.
It currently streams its broadcasts in a variety of formats and has a dedicated YouTube channel with more than 6,800 videos. The report on the couple shopping for furniture in Gaza City, for example, was viewed nearly 6,000 times on YouTube, generating more than 100 comments in the six months it had been available.
By contrast, a recent segment in which Mohyeldin played exclusive videotape of what appeared to be a Hamas sniper's killing of an Israeli tank commander, which included repeated cautions that what was being shown could not be independently confirmed, has been viewed nearly 150,000 times in less than three days, with more than 700 comments.
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 number of videos viewed on the YouTube channel has increased by more than 150 percent.
Al Jazeera has also created a Twitter feed on the "war on Gaza," which provides short cellphone messages that refer the public to new material that can be viewed online. Over the weekend, there were more than 4,600 followers, not including the many more who view those "tweets" online. The Twitter feeds are also streamed onto the Al Jazeera 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," said Mohamed Nanabhay, a 29-year-old Al Jazeera executive who established the company's new-media group in 2006. "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 U.S. 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.