I happened to grow up at a time when there was significant change in the world in and around me. In the early nineties, Kenya’s first private TV station signed up to rebroadcast CNN, which filled up a significant chunk of their 24hr programming. In fact such a concept was by itself extraordinary given that the incumbent state operator used to broadcast for 8 hrs on the typical day.

Back then, I did not get point of elongated questioning of talk shows such as Larry King, I found the monotony of the matters in question rather boring. Nonetheless I must say I did have an appetite for news. It was brief, fast and took me around the world in a couple of minutes, the perfect fodder for my young inquisitive mind.

The first Gulf War etched a remarkable experience. I did not really understand the politics behind it but I do remember following the updates keenly and coming to understand the two main players as portrayed in the news, George Bush Snr as the protagonist and Saddam Hussein as the antagonist. I picked up quite a bit of war vocabulary then, from the scud missiles to the cruise missiles, tanks and batteries to gas masks and the legendary US F-16’s versus the outdated Russian built Iraqi Air Force Mig’s, I suppose they were Mig 22s, I could be wrong but clearly CNN didn’t focus much on the Iraqis’. Juggling between the news and my parents’ commentaries, I found myself getting involved in debates with other students at school as to who will win the war. I dare say, we didn’t comprehend the politics or nature of the war; we just regurgitated what we saw and heard. That is the power of mainstream media, it has the power to influence and ignite opinion!

Operation Desert Storm marked new boundaries in media, live coverage of the war and scenes of Baghdad being bombed and the Iraqi’s nonchalantly returning fire with their limited resources brought about a new dawn in media. It marked the beginnings of the new age, an age of information; wars were no longer to be won on physical gain, but on the information front too. The second Iraqi invasion in the early ‘noughties’ marked a new dimension for the media industry. For the first time, news updates and coverage including live coverage of the whole invasion and process was sanctioned by the US military. The topple and humiliation of Saddam Hussein was covered on a real-time basis and televised.

Around the same time Al Jazeera English was born, bolstered by the success of its Arabic channel, which was based on the 24hr news CNN model. At that time Al Jazeera was a minnow, a small fish swimming in a big pond dominated by big fishes in the likes of BBC and CNN. Al Jazeera was different, the founders apparently set it up to offer a different opinion and to be the voice of the voiceless as they say, their mantra is to be objective and offer both sides of the story. Naturally it struck some lose nerves and up to today Al Jazeera faces bans by most US cable operators. Al Jazeera found themselves in a tight spot, most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East did not have a taste for press freedom, their efforts to get a balanced story line did not go too well with some quarters and they did face their own set of unique problems including the bombing of their Baghdad Bureau under not so clear circumstances during a live report of the 2nd Gulf War.

Apart from being a new kid on the block with a Middle Eastern touch, Al Jazeera was no more than a hybrid of CNN and BBC, or rather a clone of the same. It did not necessarily offer much threat or anything significantly different only that it offered stories with a different taste. Their mantra since inception has been to over a balanced view of the world.

In my humble opinion, a totally unbiased press does not exist. The limiting factor to objectivity lies with the editorial input. Humans are not infallible, thus the difference of objectivity is what counts. All media houses are setup with an agenda and their reporting tends to personify such agendas. A clear example is the difference between Al Jazeera’s and CNN’s  coverage of the post 9/11 world.

Anyway fast track to 2011 and as the world settles into the new year turmoil erupts in Tunisia and then Egypt. Citizens of these countries took to the streets demanding a change in government and calling for the resignation of their respective presidents. The Tunisian regime fell down in just over a week or less, a few weeks later the pot for change was brewing in Egypt. Millions marched and brought the country to its knees with a stalemate ongoing up to the current moment.

Al Jazeera provided on the ground coverage in Tunisia and stepped up their game with Egypt, the cradle of civilisation and a region of great importance to the whole world from political, economic and cultural perspectives. Again, Al Jazeera proved to be the voice of the voiceless, it gave ample airtime to the demonstrators and brought out their story to the rest of the world while the Mubarak spin machine insisted that they were merely a speck of dust. A few days into the protests brought out the intensity of the problem and again the Mubarak spin machine closed down Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau, arrested its journalists and disconnected them from a popular Egyptian satellite service that apparently is backed by the Egyptian government.

Despite all the red tape and restrictions Al Jazeera managed to utilise social media to source real-time and semi real-time reports from citizens on the ground. Mobile phones were used to capture content, funnelled to various media platform and aggregated and broadcasted. Al Jazeera opted to open source their Egypt related content under a creative commons license and other TV stations relayed the same thereby rendering Mubarak’s curfew useless.  Content was aggregated and relayed across the internet spiking Al Jazeera’s traffic by about 2500%, sources from Al Jazeera say that most of this traffic originated from the US, the same market they have faced difficulties in operating due red tape and reluctance by US based cable operators to relay the Al Jazeera signal. Quite ironic from the land of the free! This is what social innovation is about, breaking ground in new ways or organising and distributing information and new ways of interacting with other entities.

On Friday 4th February 2011, an Al Jazeera related hash tag trended on Twitter globally, Al Jazeera took advantage of an opportune moment to rally public support against US red tape and bureaucracy through self organised meetups. Al Jazeera today is more than just a BBC or CNN clone, it’s a social organisation, a media house that has adopted social media to the core of its operations, for Al Jazeera it seems that social media is a key operational and value addition variable and not an ancillary function to the oraganisation and that is why Al Jazeera might just be the media house of the decade, because they’ve embraced the change in the way the world operates and consumes information.


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[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Soud Hyder and Soud Hyder, Wamathai . Wamathai said: RT @majiwater: [BLOGGED] Why #AlJazeera Might Be The News House of The Decade! http://ow.ly/3Rq9D [...]

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