When the news of Moammar Gaddafi’s death broke on Thursday, it was no surprise which network was first witih a video of the bloodied dictator's body dragged through the streets of Sirte: Al-Jazeera.
As revolutions and popular movements have spread across the Arab world for the greater part of a year, claiming governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya along the way, Al-Jazeera has invested heavily in covering those stories.
TheWrap talked with al-Jazeera spokesman Osama Saeed about their video scoop and what Gaddafi’s death means for the network.
President Obama just addressed the nation about Gaddafi, did you watch him or are you too busy with more important business?
[Laughs] I’ve not been on the TV for the last half hour or so given all of the media inquiries I’ve received. People are taken with the story today, what [Al-Jazeera English reporter] Tony Birtley (pictured above) managed to achieve in Sirte. We’ve been committed to the story in Libya from the outset.
And how did Tony manage to get this video?
It’s a pretty straightforward story. We have maintained a strong presence in Libya even after Tripoli fell. Though there has been a general drop off, we’ve maintained our presence there. Tony knew what was happening in Sirte, and he was the first journalist in there. As such, when people had footage of what happened, he was on hand to receive it.
Why did Al-Jazeera make the decision to maintain a presence and have you been surprised that other outlets have not?
That’s our general approach. We don’t necessarily go for the Hollywood stories.
So you’re taking a shot at us already…
[Laughs]. There’s not necessarily been a major headline news coming out of there every day, but there have been important stories to tell. We maintained our presence moving forward, and it’s been the same in Egypt after Mubarak fell, and the same in Tunisia. That’s our philosophy towards journalism — that there are compelling narratives coming that necessitate we maintain our presence.
How did you determine it was in fact Gaddafi?
We had heard from a number of sources that Gaddafi had been killed. We were the first broadcaster to say so, where the rest were saying “reports of it.” When we got the footage, we obviously saw it and pretty quickly put it out and broadcast it.
So you had no doubt?
We reported it the way we’ve seen it. I am not aware of anyone casting doubt.
And did you decide to disseminate it as widely as possible?
There wasn’t enough time to put a strategy on it. [Laughs] The footage was compelling, people requested it, people took it. We’re happy so long as they credit the Al-Jazeera exclusive.
Have you been surprised by the jubilant tone of reporting on it. It is someone’s death, after all.
I can’t really comment on that. All we can do is broadcast it with the tone of people’s reaction within parts of Libya on the street. If that’s the tenor of what’s coming across then that’s the tenor. There are other people giving the other side and I’m sure they’ll get on the air. It may well be they are few and far between.
From what you’ve seen what has been the tone of the reaction in the region?
I think it’s too early to say. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been dealing with media inquiries and I haven’t soaked in a lot.
Does getting this video and your coverage of everything this year further cement the dominant position Al-Jazeera has in covering the region?
Of course not, we just go out to cover the story as best we can. We will continue to do that and not just within that region. It has been a year of massive stories, whether the Japan earthquake or the banking crisis and so on, the Wall Street movement, which we gave coverage to from the beginning.
Right, but this has been a year where that region has produced an incredible amount of news and that is a region that you have developed a reputation for covering. You also tend to approach it from a different vantage point so has this not put your network itself back in the news?
With Al-Jazeera network worldwide, we’ve got a particular history in this region. For Al-Jazeera Arabic, we were the first free channel within the region, and so what ran us into trouble with regimes such as Gaddafi’s and Mubarak’s was the fact that we were not state-controlled, not pliant with cozy relationships that a lot of these dictatorships had with each other, arrangements of not covering each other’s affairs. We really shone a light and gave a voice to the people. People within the region have been grateful for fact that they have been told, but this year has been at the forefront of the world’s imagination for obvious reasons.
Which has led to your biggest year in terms of expansion, no?
Our biggest year for recognition, definitely. That been borne out in the States in particular with increased distribution, our deals in New York and Chicago. We’ve not changed anything we’ve been doing this year. We’ve been doing the same job. We’re coming up on our fifth anniversary next month and we’ve been doing the same thing since day one. I think people are just tuning in in ever greater numbers because of the utility, depth and breadth of coverage were producing.
Also Read: Al-Jazeera English Launches in New York
In terms of recognition, how much has it helped that other media outlets have scaled back their international coverage?
There has been talk of that, but…I really don’t want to get into what other broadcasters may or may not be doing. It has been obviously talked about both within American and Europe, that there are cutbacks and financial restraints. Foreign and international reporting is one of the first areas people look to make those cutbacks, which is a shame because our point of view is when you’re living in a globalized world, as we are in today, where you’ve got this global village, people are hungry for news of that global village.
That’s our approach even for the United States, where conventional wisdom seems to be Americans aren’t really tuned into the world. We reject that. Our feedback in America is constant. People are actually hungry for world news.
Do you anticipate these revolutions affecting your ability to cover these countries now that dictators and autocrats are out of power?
We hope that it will be an area where free journalism flourishes. It’s not quite as simple as that as we’ve seen after Hosni Mubarak fell. There are forces within the temporary administration that are trying to maintain that grip on what’s broadcast. I don’t think that will last for very long. People want to see a free media and free expression. It just may not be as free as networks like Al-Jazeera would like.
Does the death of Gaddafi change anything for Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Libya?
Stay tuned, that’s all I can say. Our journalists will still be in the country reporting whatever happens, for good or bad.