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DOHA (Reuters) - A journalist throws open the wide front door of Al Jazeera's Doha headquarters, cell phone pressed against his ear. "They were arrested last night," he bellows into his phone. "We can't get through to the producers. All the material was confiscated, and some of the equipment was destroyed."
Inside the newsroom, the atmosphere is alive with energy. Journalists sit transfixed to their monitors, which show live feeds from central Cairo -- where hundreds of thousands of protesters are on the brink of pushing another strongman from power and where Al Jazeera crews have faced repeated police harassment and detentions. Tapes are piled high in a corner, labeled in scrawling Arabic.
"This is our story," says one Al Jazeera English journalist, who asks not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media. "This is the story that proves to the naysayers of the world what we can do. We took the lead and everyone followed: CNN, Christiane Amanpour -- in spite of harassment, having our tapes stolen, people being beaten up. If you want to know about Egypt in the U.S., you're watching Al Jazeera."
Over the past few weeks, much has been made of the power of Al Jazeera, the Qatari news channel launched 15 years ago by the Gulf Arab state's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani with the goal of providing the sort of independent news that the region's state-run broadcasters had long ignored.
It was Al Jazeera that first grasped the enormity of the Tunisia uprising and its implications for the region, and Al Jazeera which latched onto -- critics would say fueled -- subsequent rumblings in Egypt. And audiences around the world responded: the network's global audience has rocketed. During the first two days of the Egyptian protests, livestream viewers watching the channel over the internet increased by 2,500 percent to 4 million, 1.6 million of them in the United States, according to Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera's English-language channel.
"This is a real turning point for us, in terms of recognition of the integrity of the product we're producing, and showing that there is a true demand for our content and information," Anstey told Reuters.
But even in its moment of triumph, questions about Al Jazeera remain. Despite its stated independence and brave journalism, the network unavoidably plays a political role. Is it, as many in the region charge, sympathetic to Islamist parties such as Hamas and Hezbollah? Does it target some Middle East regimes while treating others more softly? And what role, if any, does its wealthy Qatari backer play in all this?
Perhaps ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said it best during a visit to Al Jazeera's Qatar headquarters seven years ago: "All that trouble from this little matchbox?"
Al Jazeera, Arabic for "the island", has earned the resentment of leaders in the Arab world -- as well as the admiration of many ordinary Arabs -- almost from the day it launched in 1996.
The first Arab network to put Israeli officials on the air, the channel has also hosted guests as varied as Saudi dissidents, feminist activists and Islamist clerics. "When Israelis first appeared on our screens, people thought we were funded by the Mossad," one employee said.
In his final weeks in office, Mubarak made little secret of his anger with Al Jazeera's broadcasts of the protests against his government. The network broadcast live from Cairo's Tahrir Square throughout the 18 days of protest, despite its office being closed, journalists beaten and detained, and tapes and equipment confiscated and destroyed.
In phone calls with western leaders during the uprising, Mubarak complained about Al Jazeera's -- and Qatar's -- role in fomenting unrest, according to senior political sources in Europe. Mubarak told them he believed the emir was focusing attention on the unrest in Egypt at the behest of Iran. It's a complaint that has been made before over the years. Executives of the station dismiss the charge and say they are solely interested in good journalism.
Critics point to instances where Al Jazeera has pulled its punches as evidence of the political role it can play. Initially, the channel's coverage of Saudi Arabia -- the Arab world's leading political and economic power -- was extensive, but in 2002 the kingdom withdrew its ambassador to Doha partly in protest over Al Jazeera shows on Saudi politics. Relations between the two states were restored six years later, and observers say Al Jazeera toned down its Saudi coverage. A clash last March between the United Arab Emirates navy and a Saudi patrol vessel after a dispute over water boundaries, for example, wasn't covered by the network.
"They'd have brought on a world of trouble," said one UK-based source, declining to be named because he feared it would hurt his employment prospects.
A July 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Qatar published by WikiLeaks puts it this way: "Al Jazeera, the most watched satellite television station in the Middle East, is heavily subsidized by the Qatari government and has proved itself a useful tool for the station's political masters. The station's coverage of events in the Middle East is relatively free and open, though it refrains from criticizing Qatar and its government. Al Jazeera's ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish. Moreover, the network can also be used as a chip to improve relations."
Al Jazeera insists the government has zero input. "There's been no interaction from Qatar whatsoever," Anstey says. "(In Egypt) we were on the ground very quickly, with force, in the first minutes and hours, with total editorial independence."
Editorially, the Qatari government is "completely hands-off," he says. "Egyptian authorities have put a great deal of pressure on us to stop coverage from Egypt. But we're on the ground, talking to people in the square, to politicians. We're resolute in the face of a considerable degree of pressure."
Some experts suggest that Al Jazeera, like media organizations in many parts of the world, has probably already learned to exercise a degree of restraint rooted in self-preservation. "I think Al Jazeera itself conducts self-censorship to ensure no red lines are crossed," said David Roberts, researcher at Durham University in Britain. "But in general, the Qatari government is not cherry-picking stories or censoring. They let them run with any story they want, up to a certain point."
Washington initially welcomed the channel as an example of burgeoning media freedom in the Arab world. But after the attacks on the United States in 2001, the U.S. attitude began to change. The Bush administration accused it of propaganda and even links with al-Qaeda. The U.S. military bombed Al Jazeera bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad, where one journalist was killed. The United States has said both incidents were accidental, but some Al Jazeera insiders believe they may have been targeted.
The tone from Washington has softened markedly since the change in the White House. President Obama has acknowledged watching Al Jazeera English, and the Twitter feed of a State Department spokesperson in recent weeks called for the release of detained journalists in Cairo. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the network's Doha headquarters last year, a tour that was described by Al Jazeera officials as "cordial."
A State Department source told Reuters that Arabic speakers there have "quietly preferred" Al Jazeera "to any other news source based in the Arab world, but I don't think we made it a very public preference, given its nasty reputation in the U.S."
While Arab viewers dismiss the far-fetched notion that the channel is in bed with al Qaeda, many say Al Jazeera can appear sympathetic to extremist groups such as Hamas, which defeated the more secular Fatah in Palestinian elections in 2006. That belief appeared to be underlined in January with Al Jazeera's publication of leaked documents revealing that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority had offered multiple concessions to Israel in peace talks. The revelations, which Al Jazeera shared with Britain's Guardian newspaper, made the Palestinian Authority and Fatah look weak and led to the resignation of Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who has accused Al Jazeera trying to bring down the Palestinian Authority.
Tensions within the Arabic-language channel were highlighted last year when several female anchors resigned over its conservative dress code.
"It's electric," says a Doha-based journalist of the atmosphere in the network's headquarters as events unfold in Egypt. "Being in the newsroom is all hands on deck. We know that we're one of the only ones on the ground doing this. People are chasing journalists in Tahrir Square shouting 'Al Jazeera!'"
For a region whose authoritarian governments are usually able to squash stories they don't want published, Al Jazeera represents a sharp cultural shift, and, many believe, a positive one. Launched with a startup budget of $137 million and a target of generating revenue within five years, the network was able to draw talent from the just-folded BBC Arabic.
"They started with the right kind of culture," says Mohamed Zayani, professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and author of a book on Al Jazeera. "In terms of the way things were run, the structure was looser, less bureaucratic and red-tape laden. That was good, because it meant they could get things done. It's something very important in the business of news, where time is of the essence."
Zayani points out that Al Jazeera has integrated social media into what they do. "That has been a tremendous asset for them. Social media is becoming center-stage, and has been blended into and intertwined with regional media. That's new, and is profoundly changing the model we have seen in the past, and transforming audiences beyond just passive consumers," he said.
Crucially in the Arab world, the use of social media has enabled Al Jazeera to skirt some censors. "It's been a necessity, a survival mechanism," says Zayani. "And it's exciting, it's experimental."
The bureau's headquarters lie just outside Doha's central business district, tucked away in a compound on a dusty side street off a main road. The offices of the older Arabic channel are somewhat frayed around the edges, while those of the younger English service are more polished. Viewers of both services say Al Jazeera's reporting on its Arabic channel tends to be more emotive and sensationalist, whereas the English service plays it straighter.
The journalists and others who work there are quick to point out that Al Jazeera's images of foment in Egypt and Tunisia have come from the streets. "Our strength is in the field, with headquarters playing a supporting role." said Satnam Matharu, Al Jazeera's director of communications and international relations based in Doha.
Al Jazeera does not disclose how much funding the emir gives it, but Anstey says: "We're funded to be able to eyewitness report around the globe."
Its main backer has said in the past that he would like the channel to become self-funding. So far, though, advertising revenues have been decidedly hard to come by. The UK-based analyst said that though Al Jazeera is the most popular brand in the Middle East, its business model has been hampered by a perception that anyone who advertised with it would risk damaging their business in Saudi Arabia.
The boost in viewer numbers on the Egypt story has encouraged Al Jazeera to launch a renewed push to get its English service on more U.S. televisions. At the start of the Cairo protests Al Jazeera English was available in only a few cities in the United States, in part, many of those who work for the network believe, because of lingering doubts about the channel's bona fides.
But the last few weeks have helped change perceptions -- triggering public calls on Facebook and elsewhere for much wider access. A spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable, the U.S.'s second-largest cable company with 12.5 million subscribers including in New York and Los Angeles, said that while it doesn't have a carriage agreement with Al Jazeera English, it remained "willing to talk with them". Cablevision, which has 3 million subscribers in the New York area, declined to comment on Al Jazeera specifically, but said it is continually evaluating the channels it carries.
"We'll renew efforts to talk to the operators, put the facts on their desks and show them that there are many, many people asking for high-quality content and balanced journalism," Anstey says, pointing to plans to add one or two more bureaus in the Americas this year.
Some warn that the U.S. market may not prove as enriching as it sounds. "I don't think even they know yet how much they can bank on the success in Egypt," said Joe Khalil, assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University in Qatar. "The difficulty is really in the U.S., with the scarcity of space on cable channels, which is already an impediment."
Beyond America, the network will launch a bureau in South Korea in coming weeks, and plans soon to launch Al Jazeera Turk, a Turkish-language station as well as a Balkan station based in Serbia. "What underpins the future of the network is the quality of the content," Anstey says. "As we move into new markets, we take the standards and spirit of what we do across 60-plus bureaux around the world, with eyewitness reporting of events as they happen. That's an extraordinary reach."
Whether or not Egypt proves a money-spinner for Al Jazeera, it has certainly earned the network a bigger share of Arab leaders' attention. "Perhaps, after garnering such plaudits for their role in Tunisia and Egypt -- and particularly after they found so many ways around attempts to censor them -- they will be accorded more fearful respect by other states," Durham University's Roberts said. "Now states might realize that they cannot simply turn off Al Jazeera."
Additional reporting by Sara Ledwith in London, Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Yinka Adegoke in New York; Editing by Simon Robinson