Saturday, February 5, 2011

Amid crackdown, al-Jazeera endures

Though few foreign news organizations have escaped the onslaught of attacks against journalists in Cairo by supporters of Egypt's regime, none has faced quite so many challenges as the pan-Arab al-Jazeera satellite network.

Since the country's pro-democracy protests first erupted Jan. 25, the network's phone lines have been cut, nine of its staffers have been detained at various times, its satellite signal has been repeatedly blocked and on Friday, al-Jazeera said in a statement, a "gang of thugs" stormed its bureau, smashing equipment and setting it ablaze.

Yet throughout, al-Jazeera has remained on air, broadcasting live pictures of the masses gathered in Tahrir Square with pre-positioned cameras and airing phone interviews with analysts and correspondents across the country.

And in what represents perhaps an ultimate act of defiance to the effort to shut the network down, demonstrators in the square have rigged up a giant screen so that even those protesting can follow al-Jazeera's supposedly banned coverage of the event.

"The people are gathered here today with one message only: 'Leave, Mubarak,' " declared news anchor Jamal Rayan on Friday night, in a typically emotive telling of the day's events.

"This is a pilgrimage by the Egyptian people in homage to democracy," added Rayan, who famously wept on-air two years ago during Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip.

It is such unapologetically passionate coverage that has earned the network a devoted following across the region as well as the ire of many of the region's leaders.

Its bureaus have been shuttered in Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco and most recently Tunisia, until the government there was toppled. The network has not had an Iraq bureau since the government expelled it in 2004, citing its shamelessly sympathetic coverage of the insurgency.

The network's sister channel, al-Jazeera English, is run as a separate entity, and there has been no attempt by the Egyptian authorities to shut down its signal.

But it is the Arabic version that remains the most popular television news service in a majority of Arab countries, said Fares Braizat, of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, who has surveyed viewer preferences across the region.

"Al-Jazeera has given people a voice that they didn't have before," he said.

The network is partly funded by the Qatari government, itself as autocratic as any in the region, in just one of the curious idiosyncrasies that have endowed the tiny emirate with clout beyond its size. On numerous occasions, regional leaders are known to have placed frantic calls to Qatar's emir, begging him to curtail al-Jazeera's coverage - most recently Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh this week.

Bad luck and Yasi's tail behind the drenching

VICTORIA has been lashed by the tail of cyclone Yasi, producing severe storms and torrential rain.

The moist air from Yasi, downgraded from a cyclone to a tropical low after its winds eased below gale force, was dragged south in an arc from Queensland's north-west, through Alice Springs and as far south as Melbourne.

A large cold front heading north cooled the warm monsoonal air and caused huge cloudbursts that dumped up to 200 millimetres of rain in just two hours over Melbourne and regional Victoria.
Advertisement: Story continues below

Moisture remaining from cyclone Anthony was also hanging over the state and contributed to the deluge.

Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Stephen King said the weather was unusual for Melbourne.

''We have had extremely high moisture levels in the air from both ex-cyclone Anthony and Yasi … Then we had a [cold] trough yesterday that triggered the thunderstorm activity,'' Mr King said.

''This sort of rain coming from the tropics, you get it in Sydney and Brisbane, it's not that unusual, but to get it this far south is probably quite rare.''

Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs were among the worst-affected areas. Lyndhurst recorded 180 millimetres of rain in the 24 hours to 9am yesterday.

Mildura, in the state's north-west, recorded 142 millimetres - the town's highest daily rainfall total on record.

Ex-cyclone Yasi was yesterday hovering over the Northern Territory, about 430 kilometres south-west of Mount Isa, causing heavy rain in far west Queensland. It is expected to continue to spread moisture into south-eastern Australia today, but its influence will diminish by tomorrow.

While the wild weather across Australia in the past two weeks may feel like an end-of-days movie, experts say it is the product of bad luck and normal long-term weather patterns.

Environmental scientist Stewart Franks at the University of Newcastle said cyclonic activity and recent major flooding in Australia's eastern states were the result of La Nina activity, which has been intensified by Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or low-frequency cooling in the mid-latitudes. Associate Professor Franks rejected the idea that category-5 cyclone Yasi was unprecedented. He said cyclone Mahina in north Queensland in 1899 was stronger.

Climate change groups have argued that record-high sea temperatures in the Coral Sea, while not responsible for the cyclone, have likely contributed to its intensity.

''We have had a warming in the atmosphere, and a demonstrable warming in the oceans, and that extra energy drives intensification of those [cyclone] systems,'' said Climate Institute chief executive John Connor.

''On the eve of the second anniversary of the bushfires, where we had unprecedented fire weather conditions, the point that I've been trying to make is that if you want a picture of a hostile and costly environment, we've been having this in spades over the past few years.''

But Professor Franks said the half-a-degree increase in water temperature in Australia's tropics was far too small to intensify cyclones.

He said the current La Nina cycle, which began during the New South Wales storms in 2007, could continue for the next 10 to 30 years.

He said the eastern states could expect a continuation of wetter conditions in the next few months, and that in the tropics there was a chance of more cyclones.

But Victoria will at least have a chance to dry out, with rain expected to clear today before a fine week.