Where is Wadah Khanfar?
This is the question that everyone kept asking as Asia Media Summit 2007 started off with what turned out to be a feeble and lop-sided panel on participatory media.
Khanfar, listed on the programme as Director General of the Al Jazeera Network, had confirmed participation and a seat was kept reserved for him on stage even as the opening panel kicked off.
The amiable moderator, Jennifer Lewis from Singapore, kept on asking for Khanfar to please come on stage. He never did.
The seat assigned for him remained empty all through the inaugural session. Some speculated if that was due to the recent reshuffle at Al Jazeera, which some interpreted as a pro-US coup in what until recently was regarded as the world’s most outspoken broadcast media network from the majority world.
I myself have been a cautious cheer-leader for Al Jazeera International. For example, on 18 April 2007, I wrote about AJI placing its content on YouTube to enable US-based viewers to watch the channel that was blocked out of many US cable networks.
AJI has been on the air for only six months, so we must reserve judgement on its performance for a while longer.
Many of us media-watchers were optimistic and hopeful that AJI would offer a much-needed counter to the blatantly one-sided and self-righteous coverage of the dominant international news channels, BBC World and CNN International.
AJI set out with a lofty agenda, saying it wants to ‘balance the information flow from South to North, providing accurate, impartial and objective news for a global audience from a grass roots level, giving voice to different perspectives from under-reported regions around the world.’
It also wanted to revolutionise English language TV in the same way it turned Arabic TV upside down, ending the monopoly of the airwaves by state broadcasters and governments.
Writing an op ed within days of AJI starting its broadcasts on 15 November 2006, I reacted to these stated ideals as follows:
“Noble ideals, indeed — and we fervently hope it succeeds, but unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJI runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two rivals are completely mired in.
“While CNN can’t get out of its US-centric analysis even in its international broadcasts, the BBC news team is more like a hopelessly mixed up teenager: one moment they are deeply British or at least western European; the next moment they are more passionate about Africa than Africans themselves.
“Desperately seeking legitimacy and acceptance in wide and varied circles, these two global channels have sometimes traded in their journalistic integrity for privileged access, exclusives or – dare we say it? – to be embedded.
“They have increasingly come to epitomise a disturbing trend in international news and current affairs journalism: the end justifies the means.”
I argued in my essay that the end does not justify the means of gathering news.
“If products of child labour and blood diamonds are no longer internationally acceptable, neither should the world tolerate moving images whose origins are ethically suspect.
So that’s the real challenge to Al Jazeera: to usher in real change, it needs to transform not just how television news is presented and analysed, but also how it is gathered.”
We have been watching — whenever we can catch it, that is — how AJI is covering the complex and nuanced world we live in. So far, the impressions are not encouraging. We have to look long and hard to tell the difference between BBC World, CNN International and AJI.
We will keep watching, and give the new kid on the block a bit more time to prove itself.
And we look at not just what’s shown on AJI, but how those pictures get there.
Read earlier post: Banned in the USA, Al Jazeera now on YouTube