CAIRO (Reuters) - When street protests ousted the Tunisian president, 26-year-old Egyptian Sabah first heard about it in a call from a friend who told her: “Switch on Al Jazeera.”
The riots that overthrew Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and shocked the Arab world, were swiftly caught by the Qatar-based channel. Before many others, it flooded bulletins with footage, streamed online and updated its Twitter, Facebook and blog sites.
“I‘m not usually interested in politics but it’s hard not to follow events like these when they are glaring at me in my living room,” said Sabah, who quickly followed her friend’s advice and turned to Al Jazeera when the news broke.
Al Jazeera’s correspondents are barred from several Arab states and it often draws scorn from Western governments, but since its 1996 launch it has mesmerized Arab viewers who once had little choice but state TV that spoon-fed the official line.
As events unfolded in Tunisia, a country where Al Jazeera’s bureau had been closed, the channel again innovated among Arab broadcasters by using mobile phone footage and social media.
It no longer has a news monopoly in the Arabic satellite TV space. And some viewers say it treads a fine line between reporting and taking sides. But they stay glued regardless.
“Al-Jazeera is like a media brigade,” said Jordanian Maisara Malass, an opposition activist. “By its coverage of events it has helped far more than any other outlet such as Facebook to spread the revolution from one city to the other.”
From its very early days, Al Jazeera stunned the Arab world with heated debates and tough questioning of Arab officials, until then virtually unheard of. It won broad international attention, and U.S. grumbles, with its 2003 Iraq war coverage.
Tunisia may prove another defining moment. Al Jazeera was swifter than most to grasp the enormity of the protests that delivered what many Arabs thought impossible -- an Arab autocrat hurled out of office by ordinary people.
“This marks the maturity of Jazeera television as a political force that can play a role in changing political orders,” Beirut-based analyst Rami Khouri wrote, saying that the channel’s avid viewers “may want to launch their own protests.”
When Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire because police seized his vegetable cart, an act that spurred the protests, Al Jazeera was one of the first outlets to broadcast pictures of his self-immolation.
“Al Jazeera’s strength has been that it ‘owned’ the Tunisia story,” said Firas Al-Atraqchi, a former senior editor for an Al Jazeera website and now at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “Others had to catch up and try and ride its coat-tails.”
The channel relied on mobile footage for 60 percent of its material to circumvent an official media blackout, a channel executive said. To some, that made it seem part of the revolt or that it was siding with protesting Tunisians.
“Al Jazeera was like one of those protesting in the streets of Tunis and made people live with the events,” said Zeid Abu Oudeh, founder of Jordan Days, a Jordanian website and blog styled after YouTube.
Early on, the channel ran reports comparing Tunisia’s economic woes to the rest of the region. It would not have been lost on other Arabs, many of whom like Tunisians complain about high prices, a lack of jobs and authoritarian rule.
“Al Jazeera has revolutionized the Arab mind,” said former Kuwait information minister Saad bin Tifla al-Ajmi.
“I don’t think Al Jazeera is a symbol of objectivity, but it is the symbol of pushing the lines that have always restrained Arab minds and withheld information and camouflaged reality,” said Ajmi, a publisher of an online Kuwaiti paper.
Some Arabs don’t mind if Al Jazeera is opinionated.
“Free media should take the side of the people, instead of supporting the views of the rulers,” said Ibrahim Gharab Mohammed, 28, a Syrian living in the United Arab Emirates.
The channel’s coverage has angered many Arab states, where most domestic media are on a tight leash. Al Jazeera had to wait till Ben Ali was toppled to get its TV crews into Tunisia.
But prior to the overthrow, Tunisian ministers went on Al Jazeera to give their views, a tacit admission of its influence.
“We had problems with the governments of almost every Arab country,” Hassan Shweiki, head of output in Al Jazeera, said.
“If you want to be a good journalist, its normal for you to face these collisions, we follow events and news and some governments don’t find that to their liking,” he said, adding the channel was barred from Kuwait, Iraq, Algeria and Morocco.
Al Jazeera is sponsored by Qatar, although the government disavows direct control of the channel.
While some analysts say the range of opinions expressed on Al Jazeera has helped Qatar build a reputation as a broker in regional diplomacy, others argue it also helped promote radical Islamist views which have infuriated Washington in particular.
It was through Al Jazeera that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahri delivered their video-taped messages after the September 11, 2001 attacks against U.S. cities.
One thing viewers and commentators all agree about however is that Al Jazeera’s brand of journalism, since first being launched, has changed how Arab media covers events.
“Before the 1990s, anything could have happened and at times nobody would have found out about it,” said Rasha Abdulla, AUC’s chair of the Journalism and Mass Communications Department.
“They would have to huddle around a radio, trying to get the BBC signal or so and that would be it,” she said, describing Al Jazeera as one of the most influential developments in Arab media in the past quarter century.
But Al Jazeera now has more competition than at its launch, from rival stations and now social media. But instead of competing using traditional means, the channel has joined in with its own social media and other interactive websites.
Al Jazeera and the Arab media revolution it has helped spark mean autocratic governments can no longer expect to control what their populations watch or read, analysts say.
“There is plenty of socio-political dissent, disillusionment and disenfranchisement in the Arab World to fuel the fires of revolution,” the AUC’s Atraqchi said. “Al Jazeera is shedding light on these not stoking the flames.”
Additional reporting Alexander Dziadosz in Cairo, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Jordan, Amena Bakr and Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai, Mohamed Argoubi in Tunis, and Kuwait newsroom, Editing by Edmund Blair and Samia Nakhoul