Al Jazeera International: Looking hard for the promised difference

Image courtesy Al Jazeera

This is how Al Jazeera International (AJI), which started broadcasting on 15 November 2006, promoted itself.

In its own words, the 24/7 English language channel set out to ‘balance the information flow from (global) 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.’

Noble ideals, indeed — and we fervently hope they succeed. That’s what I said in my op ed, Ethical Newsgathering: Biggest Challenge for Al Jazeera, published online within days of the new channel going on the air.

I said: “In recent years, the self righteous arrogance and the not-so-subtle biases of BBC and CNN have become increasingly intolerable. But unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJI runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two older rivals are mired in.

“CNN can’t get out of its US-centric analysis even in its international broadcasts. And the BBC news team is 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, these global channels have sometimes traded in their journalistic integrity for privileged access, exclusives or -– dare we say it? -– to be embedded.”

I admit that I haven’t been watching enough of AJI to come to any firm conclusions. One reason: the new channel is still not widely available in some countries that I visit and spend time in.

But going by what is on their YouTube channel, where some 1,300 video segments have been placed so far (as at 29 August 2007), I have a rough idea of AJI’s first few months of coverage.

I’m looking long and hard for the difference that they so emphatically promised. Instead, I find them a paler version of BBC World, at times trying oh-so-hard to be just like the BBC!

Take, for example, the coverage they have recently done on the bloody and protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. Being where I live and work, I take a particular interest in this topic.

In a 2-part edition of AJI’s People & Power programme, Juliana Ruhfus investigates the impact of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

People & Power: How the East was Won: Part 1 of 2

People & Power: How the East was Won: Part 2 of 2

I don’t have a problem with AJI’s analysis in this documentary, which tries hard to be balanced and fair in what I know is a very difficult subject to cover, with intolerant hardliners on both sides of the conflict.

But I have several issues with how it has been put together – the norms and ethics of their newsgathering.

* A white blond woman, so evidently a parachute journalist, is reporting and presenting the story. Why isn’t an Asian telling this story?

* She is repeatedly mispronouncing all the local names. Just like the BBC does as a matter of routine.

* She gestures, interviews and talks exactly like those know-all reporters from the BBC. At times I detect a faint condescension in her voice, but that may be my imagination.

* For part of the coverage, the intrepid AJI reporter becomes embedded with the Sri Lankan armed forces, and interviews civilians under the watchful eye of military men. This is hardly a credible way of eliciting any honest responses!

* More importantly, she shows little regard for the personal safety of some people she interviews. At one point, she asks three muslim men if the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka is now any safer than before it was ‘liberated’ by the government forces. The men are clearly uncomfortable with this question. Honest answers can cost them dearly. But why should she care? She persists, showing close-ups of these individuals.

* Even when she interviews people who had explicitly asked for concealment of their identity, she leaves tell-tale signs for those identities to be easily guessed. A woman whose teen-aged son has been coerced into joining a paramilitary group is filmed in silhouette — not a good enough cover. Real voices have not been altered through a synthesizer.

These and other observations blur the difference between BBC and AJI in my mind. With a few notable exceptions, most BBC reporters don’t care one bit about the hapless, distressed people whom they interview. All they want is to get a ‘good story’ with dramatic visuals.

AJI is desperately trying to outdo the BBC in all the latter’s wrong aspects. Otherwise why should Juliana Ruhfus try so hard to get a damning comment from an interviewee evidently ill-at-ease of being ambushed by this western woman?

I still want to have an open mind about AJI’s promised difference, and keep hoping that it will emerge sooner rather than later. But this kind of newsgathering and film-making don’t augur well.

If this is the ethical standard of journalism that AJI aspires to, we who had high hopes of their becoming a real alternative to the dominant two are going to be disappointed.

Read my earlier post: Wanted: Ethical sourcing of international TV News

Watch Al Jazeera on YouTube