Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Al-Jazeera goes to Harare

Chippla's Weblog comments on the launching of al-Jazeera's English service.

Unlike many Americans, I've always respected al-Jazeera's mission. The channel essentially invented the concept of independent broadcasting in the Arab world. Certainly they were the first to do it on a wide scale. This is a region where state-controlled broadcast media remains the norm and all independent press outlets are tightly restricted by authoritarian regimes.

When criticizing al-Jazeera, many westerners focus only on stuff related to them: specifically verbal attacks on America and Israel and on al-Qaeda messages that pass on the station's airwaves. These westerners want free speech so long as it excludes the right to criticize them! Just as many of them want democracy in the Middle East unless that democracy produces a result that they don't like (Palestinian Authority).

But what al-Jazeera brought to the Arab political culture is the concept that bad leaders can be criticized in the media. This is a revolutionary concept that's critically important for anyone who wants a true democratic culture to implant itself in the Middle East.

Anyways, Chippla noted that al-Jazeera opened bureaus in five major African cities: Cairo (Egypt), Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Harare (Zimbabwe).

Like Chippla, I am surprised that they didn't open one in Lagos or Abuja, the economic and political capitals respectively of Africa's most populous country Nigeria. Especially since CNN opened one there five years ago. Then again, from everything I've heard, I'm not sure who would voluntarily choose to live in either city.

This is a smart decision by the broadcaster. Al-Jazeera English is obviously focusing its efforts on the developing world, which is largely ignored by their two main competitors: BBC World and CNN International, who are more centered around North America and western Europe. Al-Jazeera is smart to cater to an audience that feels underrepresented.

When I read the list, though, I couldn't help but wondering what sort of difficulties their reporters will have. Egypt has been in a "state of emergency" for the last 25 years, quite possibly the longest "state of emergency" ever maintained in any country not at war. Egypt is also a country where state insecurity agents attack journalists.

Zimbabwe has infamously banned foreign reporters from being in the country without permission from the regime of Robert Mugabe. And even the local journalists who do dare report the truth are often thrown in prison or otherwise harassed.

The choice of Harare is even more peculiar. The other cities on the list represent a fairly wide geographic coverage of the continent. But Harare isn't really that far from Johannesburg; South Africa and Zimbabwe are neighbors. Certainly a place like Lusaka (Zambia) or Kinshasa (DR Congo) would've made more sense. Libreville (Gabon) hosts the pan-African radio station Africa No. 1.

It makes me wonder if a network which wants to appeal to viewers in the developing world was offered some sort of deal with a Dictator that wants to be seen as some sort of hero to non-aligned types. I'm not sure if I really believe this and it's certainly against al-Jazeera's careully cultivated image of independence but the choice of Harare really doesn't seem to make any sense to me.

Chippla replied:

I do not think Al Jazeera would shy away from reporting fairly about the situation in Zimbabwe. Its first report from Harare looked at the influx of poorly skilled Zimbabweans into South Africa—not the sort of story Robert Mugabe, or other Zimbabwean ruling class members, would have wanted to hear.

Al Jazeera's Zimbabwe correspondent, Farai Sevenzo, is a Zimbabwean who has written extensively and produced documentaries on the situation in Zimbabwe in the past. I doubt he, or the Al Jazeera news team, would be silent about the reality of things on the ground in Zimbabwe.

Certainly the free press climate in many Arab countries al-Jazeera reports from isn't that much friendlier. But even with the best intentions, there's reason to be wonder if al-Jazeera really will be able to report freely from a country where journalists can face 20 years in prison for publishing news that the Leader doesn't like.

And there's surely plenty of that to go around in a country with a death rate higher than Darfur's or Iraq's.


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