Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Visit to Al Jazeera and Search for Media Alternatives

AL JAZEERA's studio and office complex in downtown Doha is an imposing structure. It is a sprawling campus, its glass and concrete buildings providing a cool and professional ambience for an international news media organization.

My friend Ajit Sahi of Tehelka and myself were there for a short visit last week, and when I was entering through the guarded gates, I was thinking how different it was from the poorly lit, badly furnished, poor and shabby two-storey building back in Kochi, where we built up the news division of Kairali Channel eight years ago. Still, both belonged to a class of organizations which sought to challenge the western media monopoly in our times. Of course, they won and we lost.

It was Sunday afternoon, a working day in Doha. Dr Jaffer, who works in the major government hospital in the city, was so keen on his excited debates as he drove the car that often I wondered how his swanky Ford car manages to avoid having friendly encounters with the ones moving in front and the sides. The Doha roads in the rush hours looks like any other city: A relentless stream of cars, inside them solitary figures trying to manipulate the heavy traffic.

At Al Jazeera too, it was a busy day for them. It was the day of the state visit of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on a tour of West Asia to persuade the rich sheikdoms to part with their money to help the struggling financial sector back home and in Wall Street. For Al Jazeera, it was also the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the channel and they were organizing an international seminar on human rights as part of a new division they were launching on human rights with Sami Al Haj, as its head.

At Hotel Sheraton on West Bay, Ajit and Rasheed Bhai had a brief chance meeting with Sami Al Haj the previous day. Sami is a dark and lean man from Sudan, who had spent six and a half years at the Guantanamo Bay, after being arrested by the US troops in Afghanistan. He was a camera-person with Al Jazeera who went to Afghanistan to report on the lives of the people there but ended up being news himself. Released a few months earlier, he was now back in Al Jazeera, trying to rebuild his life and that of millions of others in every part of the world whose lives have been shattered by the bullies.

Most of the people we met in Doha had some India connection. Among Qatar's expatriate community, Indians are perhaps the largest in numbers and most successful. Sami too has an India connection because he went to college in Pune. Like Doha, Al Jazeera too is an an example of cosmopolitanism at its best. Its staff members are drawn from 40 nationalities, said Sarah Mahmoud Taha, a slim and darkish Arab girl who was our host in the channel.

Sarah, who is the international relations coordinator at Al Jazeera, too was very busy that day, but she took us around and answered all our questions. We first had a look at the Arab channel premises which is now 12 years old. Its Iraq bureau is also functioning from the Doha headquarters as after the US bombing of their bureau in Baghdad, they were not allowed to function in that country. Sarah too has her own India connections. Her father, a scientist, went to college in Mysore. I told her Mysore is close to my home town, Kozhikode, and Jaffer remembered one of their slain staff members in Baghdad bombing too went to college in my home town, at Farook College. She was very pleased with the information.

The premises of the English channel, launched two years ago, are close by but definitely much better and glittering. It is a world of glamour, glitter and technological prowess as the Emir whose rich oil fields finance the channel has not spared any expense to make it world class. Before leaving, we had a meeting with Satnam Matharu, a pleasant young executive who heads the international division. A person of Indian origin, his family migrated to Canada from Punjab.
Al Jazeera, though a representative of the new forces challenging the west, seems not to be very keen on covering India and other developing countries extensively. He said they do not have any office in India right now, except some arrangements for news coverage.

The concerns about media, its lopsided coverage,lack of sympathy for the live issues of the poor, dispossessed and oppressed were the major themes in the the three public functions we addressed in Doha. All of them were well attended and there was a lively exchange of ideas as the audience raised several sharp and very pertinent questions. The point I wanted to drive home was that it was futile to complain about the way mainstream media behaves. They are controlled by their class interests. If you want to raise your voice, then try to develop your own media organizations. Like Al Jazeera, like Tehelka and like our own three-year-old daily newspaper, Thejas, which I represented at these meetings. We have a new challenge here and great opportunities offered by the wonderful tools made available the new technologies, the high levels of public consciousness and the effective way resources could be raised from a vigilant public for a noble cause. What we needed to answer the challenge of monopoly media was determination and faith in our own strength.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Damodar Prasad writes in an email:


Read your blog post on Al-Jazeera.
It would be interesting to know the employees, journalists perception about the working conditions. Also like to know your own first-hand experience of Al-Jazeera's content development, the structure of hierarchy within the institution, etc.

We only know about Al-Jazeera through writings. There is also much talk about Al-Jazeera as an alternative discourse to CNN and BBC. Is it mere hype or is it true?

Damodar Prasad