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

AJI AJI

9 Responses to “Al Jazeera International: Looking hard for the promised difference”

  1. Sanjana Hattotuwa Says:

    Thanks Nalaka – pertinent questions all.

    Reading through it I wondered whether skin tone is as significant as you make it out to be. One the one hand, journalists in SL (as you know) are often far more biased and parochial than Juliana. On the other, it is not the increasing nature of global news reports (at least with the likes of CNN, BBC, France24 and AJ) that bureau desks in the region are responsible for covering a large swathe of territory? Journalists of these networks are by default parachute journos, save for stories that occur in the countries where their offices are located.

    Also, perhaps the documentary / story must be appreciated for its own merit? In other words, the skin tone of the journalist to me is of significance alongside the merits and demerits of exploration of the issue itself. Being alien to a country doesn’t necessarily make for worse reporting, just as being local doesn’t necessarily mean more insightful reporting. I’ve on more than one occasion listened to the voice of a “foreign” or “videsi” accent on TVEAP productions (e.g. “A Future Within Reach” produced for for UNESCAP / UNDP in ’05), but that didn’t mean that I appreciated the programme any more or any less.

    We must also recognise that a “white blonde woman” may well elicit responses and an essential honesty that a Sri Lankan or South Asian would not. Seen this way, her foreign identity could be an asset in the field, not an impediment.

    I agree with you on the pronunciation of place names and the manner in which she put some on the spot. It occurs to me that a programme of this nature would have done well to liaise with a Sri Lanka in order to get the pronunciation of place and person names as close to the original as a non-native speakers of Sinhala / Tamil can. More importantly, local input in the form of conflict, regional and communal dynamics may have prevented some of the mistakes made in filming those vulnerable to violence for expressing their views publicly.

    Cheers,

    Sanjana

  2. Moving Images Says:

    Thanks, Sanjana, for the thoughtful response.

    Another colleague, a very experienced journalist friend of mine in the UK, responded by email saying: “All good points, however I still believe it should come down to the best reporter for the job regardless os sex or race. Having siad that, operating iin a way that puts people in danger and gets their names wrong is unprofessional and shouldn’t be allowed.”

    So let me clarify: I wasn’t objecting to Juliana Ruhfus being female or white. I was merely pointing out: oh, how so very much like the other global news channels — and where is the real difference that AJI promised?

    In any case, I took up this particular edition of People & Power as an example illustrating bigger concerns about the way AJI is heading in the same direction as the other two.

    AJI started out making big promises which raised our expectations. Now they must live up to these. If our Asian stories are going to be told by non-Asians who haven’t been living and working in the region long enough to understand the myriad nuances, there is no difference that I can discern in AJI coverage from that of BBC or CNN. (To be fair, the two market leaders are trying very hard to achieve more localisation and greater cultural diversity in their newsgathering operations.)

    As for documentary values, Sanjana, I didn’t look at this as documentary at all. This is current affairs programming, which to me is part of newsgathering. Therefore, the creative freedoms of documentary film-making don’t quite apply here.

    My biggest complaint about this particular edition of People & Power is its callous disregard for the personal safety of some people it interviewed. This to me is unethical, inconsiderate and simply unacceptable. Clearly, the ethical newsgathering challenge I outlined is not being met by AJI.

    My overall point, plain and simple, is this: we don’t want AJI to be another BBC in southern clothes and looks, merely anchored from some southern capitals of the world. If AJI is serious about living up to its loftily declared southern credentials, it must do much more than this. Or they can just drop the rhetoric, and go back to being a BBC look-alike!

    – Nalaka Gunawardene

  3. Deepak Says:

    I think you are not giving AJI a fair chance, Nalaka. All the objections you raise seem rather petty to me, except for the point about the personal safety of the interviewees. In one case she can be clearly heard sympathising from behind the camera. I am not sure what arrangement she had with those men, but I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and think they did agree to releasing the tape even after that question. In the other case, the darkened silhouette is standard practice, to lend credibility to an anonymous source. It is much better than the “informed sources” or “observers” that are regularly quoted by the Lankan media to back up their case. I did not notice any condescencion in her voice or actions, but that is not to ridicule any such feeling you had. I am just giving you another data point.

    As for your other objections, who cares if she is white or blonde? I for one applaud AJI for bringing in (“parachuting in”) an external reporter who seems have, even in your opinion, given a balanced analysis. You fault her for being embedded with the army, and at the same time blame her for possibly exposing some interviewees to harm from the army! From what I see, she has got to places and news in whatever way she can. Some of it was embedded, some not.

    Finally, your objection to CNN and the Beeb was based on their analsys and coverage being either too US centric or Anglo centric or immaturely idealistic. It is not as if CNN and the Beeb have a habit of exposing their sources and AJI has promised to fix that. Rather the promise of AJI was to make a difference in coverage and analysis. In this particular case I think they have given good coverage and analysis — though I feel they are wanting in other cases, but that’s a different post.

  4. Moving Images Says:

    Deepak,

    Thanks for your comments, much appreciated. I’m glad you and I diverge on some points and converge on others.

    You say: “…she has got to places and news in whatever way she can. Some of it was embedded, some not.”

    Does this mean the end justifies the means? This is precisely what is inherently wrong in today’s television newsgathering. Use any and all means — including those that are unethical or those that violate privacy of individuals or expose some sources to physical harm — and get the story! This seems to be the modus operandi of BBC and CNN, and now, disappointingly, of AJI as well.

    I don’t agree the end justifies the means. I have expanded on this in my essay, ‘Communication Rights and Communication Wrongs’ published by SciDev.Net in Nov 2005. See: http://www.scidev.net/Opinions/index.cfm?fuseaction=readopinions&itemid=447&language=1

  5. Ayesha Says:

    Hi Nalaka: I read your post and comments with interest. You have touched on a sore point. But I wonder if we are trying to take on an ailing industry whose days are numbered. For sure, broadcast television news will continue for years or decades to come, but the era of journalist-as-sole-witness reportage has already ended. The essay you wrote with Arthur Clarke touches on this at https://movingimages.wordpress.com/2007/08/28/the-road-from-citizen-kane-to-citizen-journalist/

    If the mediasaurus – to use one of your own terms! – does not change its offensive ways, We the Audiences should phase them out even sooner than we otherwise would. We are moving towards Me-me-me-me-media, and in that new reality we reject any channel that does not live up to our expectations. Plain and simple.

  6. Jon Bono Says:

    I think yuo are too harsh with AJ. They have to survive in a harsh economic world. Let them survive first and become better as they go along. Give them a chance. An imperfect AJI is better for me anyday than imperfect BBC or CNN.

  7. Juliana Ruhfus Says:

    Hi –

    This is just a quick one because there are too many points to respond to.

    However, the one point which is very dear to me is the idea that you think I have endangered the people in my films. I would like to point out that prior to finishing the programme we took the sequences where people’s safety was in question, uploaded them on an FTP website, emailed them to Sri Lanka, asked everyone who was in it to watch them and ONLY THEN – when we had the explicit go-ahead from everyone involved – did we include them in the film.

    Maybe it is you who is prejudiced thinking I would be so callous to act differently?

    If you know Sri Lanka you will know well that without access from the military it would have been hard to get into Varkarai. You say these films are current affairs, but I believe that good current affairs reporters can draw on documentary elements i.e. you film with people and let them reveal themselves. It also makes for more objective filmmaking.

    I think hard about where I report and what I bring to it. I collaborate with local colleagues as much as I can. The feedback that I’ve been getting PRIOR to doing the story is that it would have been hard for a local Sri Lankan to do this – that to me is a reason for a foreign reporter to go in. I didn’t parachute – I have worked in Sri Lanka over the past few years – google me before you jump to conclusions.

    Finally, in order to be as inclusive as possibe at least at this end, we had a great screening for the trilogy of films in London’s Frontline Club which was unique in the fact that it was attended by various Tamil factions, Singhalese, NGO members, Sri Lankan diplomates and dissidents – in fact there were people queuing around the block to get in. There is a forthcoming event where we have invited Sri Lankan journalists for a forum on how to report from Sri Lanka – and staying safe!

    I am very open to criticism. I feel – especially as a western journalist at Al Jazeera – I need to be.

    But please – do your homework!

  8. Moving Images Says:

    I thank Juliana for belatedly responding to some points I raised. This is very much in the spirit of discussion and debate that the world of new media allows. In the past, film-makers got away with their creations, with only some commentary by critics, and there was less accountability to their audiences and subjects.

    I’m very glad to hear that Juliana has done all she says to ensure that the people whose visuals and voices were featured on her Sri Lanka films had full prior knowledge of the particular clips of their interviews to be used. This attempt is indeed commendable, although in practice I wonder how many ORDINARY people living in Sri Lanka’s East have easy access to broadband Internet to actually view a video clip placed on an FTP server. But that’s a logistical issue; she at least tried. (By the way, did everyone also see in what context their clips were being used, i.e. the preceding and following commentary? That makes a world of difference.)

    In spite of this, some people who were featured on the film on How the East Was Won can risk repercussions in the highly intolerant environment that prevails in Sri Lanka. It would have done the film no harm, and the individuals concerned a whole lot of good, if their true identities were masked. But that is a choice for every film-maker and Juliana has exercised hers. Let’s leave the matter there.

    Agreeing for a moment for argument’s sake that only a foreigner can properly cover some of these sensitive and controversial issues in today’s Sri Lanka, why did Juliana have to come all the way from little England? Were there no good journalist film-makers from within Asia who could have handled this delicate subject? This is not personal to Juliana, but if AJI claims to be the voice of the South, I would expect it to allow more Southerners to tell their own stories, of their country or their region. Juliana, with all her sympathy and experience, is sadly not from the global South.

    For example, several senior Indian TV journalists have covered the Sri Lankan conflicts over the years with accuracy, balance and credibility. I can name names and cite their work if needed. And they manage to pronounce Sri Lankan names correctly, which is a definite plus in ensuring authenticity in today’s media world.

    As I wrote in my original post, I have no issues with Juliana about the content and analysis in her films. All my concerns were about craft and process – how she gathered her material and interviews and how she put it together. I’m very glad to hear her claim that she has many years of experience in Sri Lanka, something that her own profile on AJI’s People and Power does not mention. Perhaps she worked in Sri Lanka in a capacity other than a journalist? (We have had some foreign aid workers and interns dabbling as film-makers who later went on to make ‘acclaimed’ documentaries about the Sri Lankan tragedy. Everybody loves a good war, it seems…)

    All in all, my overall criticism was not about Juliana or her individual films per se, but what they indicate about the gap between AJI’s rhetoric and practice. That gap, in my mind, remains until I see more evidence to the contrary. For me, AJI is a cheap imitation of BBC in southern clothes. If at all I have prejudice, it is against the arrogant, know-all BBC.

    But I give my benefit of the doubt to Juliana Ruhfus in this instance. Thanks again for your response.

    – Nalaka Gunawardene, 1 Oct 2007

  9. Juliana Ruhfus Says:

    Hi Nalaka,

    I appreciate that you put the response on your website. Just to be totally clear: the people in the east did manage to watch the footage which we posted on the FTP website (it’s an easy log-in, you get a link and a password from us to do so). Of course context is important and we therefore posted the WHOLE sequence and not just the specific section. It is always a difficult decision but we discussed with them that actually SEEING their discomfort at the question was the telling moment which is why we – with their consent – did not hide their faces.

    Al Jazeera aims to air more voices from the south. During our trip we met with a variety of filmmakers in Sri Lanka and discussed with them what kind of films they could make for our strand. I consider that to be part of my work at Al Jazeera – to build contacts and bring other voices to air. But this takes time.

    Our strand, People & Power, works with filmmakers from around the world and we are continiously looking for more. Anyone can submit proposals and if the proposals are good and they can show a track record and come with experience and good access we will commission these ideas. Our Asia office in Kuala Lumpur is pro-active in contacting filmmakers in the region to do so.

    Al Jazeera is coming up to its first anniversary. It has been a gigantic task to get a global broadcaster set up. No doubt there’s much room to improve but you have to start somewhere.

    That said – I also believe that it is too simplistic to say Asian filmmakers will do better reporting on Sri Lanka than western filmmakers. What I would like to see is reporting by merit where experienced reporters from all over the world cover stories in various parts of the world. Sometimes it helps getting an inside report, sometimes it’s good to have an outsider looking in.

    In this spirit I’d also like to see more non-western reporters covering stories in Europe rather than ghettoising them and asking them to do stories in their region only. As a German for example I would welcome a Sri Lankan doing a story on Germany unravelling why and how events happen the way they happen there and if it’s a good report I would take little issue with the names of towns being pronounced with a Sri Lankan accent.

    I take issue with bad, biased and uninformed reporting – not with the colour of the skin of the reporter who does the story. To me, that is the true spirit of Al Jazeera in a globalising world – broaden the perspectives all around!


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