A few months ago I noted the start of the ‘new’ blogs section on the Al Jazeera English website, and the utter lack of imagination that had been put into them, not least by the correspondents, who seemed to think that describing the tedium of their journey to their latest interview was a suitable substitute for in-depth analysis and investigative reporting.
Since then I have been watching with a growing sense of despondency the accumulation of lazy, pointless hackery which only serves to bolster the ego of the correspondent (as they weren’t bolstered enough by useless managers and acquiescent editors) and leave the audience wanting, especially while the excellent Focus section of the same site dwindled and atrophied.
Fortunately there have been some rare exceptions, including one excellent posting in February from Jane Dutton about her visit to Eritrea to interview the country’s president – now, you can follow the link if you like, but as of today, it goes to an Error 404 page, as it seems the article has been removed from the Al Jazeera website.
The posting, when it existed, was the perfect example of how to use blogs and first person narrative to get behind the story, and give the audience more understanding about the context of a piece – in this case using a blog written after the fact to get around the government minders and reporting restrictions so often imposed on journalists by dictatorial regimes.
Now though, it has been removed, the blogger has been censored and the truth has been lost, probably on the orders of some invertebrate, obsequious lickspittle of a manager who knows nothing about news and journalism, and cares even less about his audience.
A quick Google search explained why – Qatar is doing business with this secretive and brutal African regime for its own ends, and the Eritrean president is lapping up their money and their largesse, while his people are trapped in their own country, and will be shot if they try to leave – no wonder the emir of Qatar wanted the truth about Eritrea suppressed, and since he pays for Al Jazeera, he calls the shots.
So much for Al Jazeera’s code of ethics, and its claim to be editorially independent, impartial and objective.
Fortunately as well as being spineless and brown-nosed, Al Jazeera’s managers are also remarkably stupid, as the article had been published long enough to be cached by Google and many other search engines; however in the interests of freedom of information, here is the article in full:
Eritrea’s president declares me ‘insane’ – by Jane Dutton
We hadn’t even arrived in Eritrea when I started to get a sense of the man I had been sent to interview. Our flight from Dubai airport was delayed. Nobody told us for how long or why. Four hours later, when the plane finally arrived, we found out the president had decided to borrow it for the morning, on a whim.
We were on our way to one of Africa’s most secretive regimes.
Granted a rare interview with the Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, a man constantly ranked in the top 10 of the world’s worst dictators and accused of helping turn the Horn of Africa into one of the most volatile regions on the planet.
Our plane – Eritrea’s only carrier – was one of the few international flights that still fly into the country: a desolate place blighted by years of war with Ethiopia and Yemen, and increasing political isolation.
At the airport we were met by unfamiliar silence – no network connections, no SIM cards, no blackberry! And Rafael, our minder. Rafael is a man of contradictions: even his backcomb appears to grow forward.
“Let me tell you the truth,” he would say every couple of hours, immediately followed by anything but. He also ominously warned that he could keep a watch on our every movement if he chose to do so, at our hotel, on the job.
Our interview was scheduled for Saturday and we were told it would take two hours to get to the city of Massawa, the president’s new bunker retreat on the coast. He is reported to spend more time there after an attempted assassination last year.
The roads are manned by checkpoints. The population’s every move seems to be watched and noted in this country. And it probably is. Eritreans need a visa to leave and there is very little chance of them ever getting one. But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands escaping every year.
The UN estimates that 63,000 sought asylum abroad in 2009. Around 1,800 brave the shoot-to-kill police orders to cross over into Sudan every month. The majority say they are fleeing the permanent military service and repressive nature of the regime.
After several shouting bouts with Rafael, we finally get to Massawa, an exotic port city built by the Turks in the 14th century – a fascinating place with narrow alleyways and looming mosques. It is supposed to be the hottest place on earth. And I would concur.
I noticed then it wasn’t just the capital that was surprisingly clean – everywhere we went in Eritrea was immaculate. The streets are shiny bright, the hotels are spick and span, even the food is safe.
Our interview was delayed by a day and instead we were corralled into watching Massawa’s 20-year celebrations of liberation from Ethiopia. We decided to shoot a promo for our interview while we were there. People were out in that sweltering weather to see their long-time leader, carefully controlled by police.
What amazed us was that the police had no qualms about beating women and children with sticks a few feet away from where we were shooting. A truly shocking scene. And our cameras were still rolling.
The next day we were all set up and ready at our interview location in time for the planned dawn o’clock interview. We guessed the president would keep us waiting, and he did. Six hours later he arrived. We were all drenched with sweat and jangled with angst by the time he sat down.
Was he going to throw us out of the country for asking the questions we wanted asked? Why is he helping Iran supply weapons to Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi fighters in Yemen? Why does he order the police to shoot-to-kill anyone escaping from the country? Why is there no free press or free speech? Why were all of his political opponents whisked away never to be seen again? How come he refuses to let aid agencies feed the two-thirds of his country who are starving?
This was a man who came in on a promise of liberating his people 20 years ago. Every question I asked was met with a blank stare, a flat denial, cold laughter and finally allegations that we were making it all up. And he told me personally I am simply “insane”.
Back in the car and back on the winding roads, climbing thousands of feet to the cooler capital of Asmara. You can smell coffee percolating through the streets: thick, lovely and freshly brewed – the legacy of Italy’s colonial rule under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.
All the buildings boast a beautiful jaded art deco influence, and the streets are full of old men cycling with their hats doffed to one side alongside colourful Fiats from the 1960s. We ended the day with a piece to camera from the tank graveyard on the outskirts of the city. Thousands of armoured vehicles dismantled and stacked heading for the trash heap.
They were used in the 30-year battle against Ethiopia. And although that was two decades ago, Eritrea remains on a permanent war footing. The majority of the population is conscripted – whether it be in the army, in the hotel bar, as a street cleaner or our ever present minder Rafael. They remain braced for an Ethiopian attack that may never come.
So I heard through the grapevine today that those clueless wonks at Al Jazeera English had launched a new blog section on their website. Obviously “new” is a relative term for them because the “blog” is a product of Web 2.0 and therefore already well past its sell-by date (and yes, I am aware of the irony of saying that in my own… blog).
Still, the BBC have had blogs for years, as have CNN, so I guess it was only a matter of time before Al Jazeera English copied them; which is a shame because to date, the Al Jazeera website had stood firm against the stereotypical “blog” and focused on its excellent feature writing instead, often bringing these together under a single subject or reporter name, rather than just giving them their own blog-branded new media ghetto.
One hopes that these one-day-wonders won’t replace the well-written and truly original journalism that Al Jazeera regularly put onto its website’s Focus section, but I’ll bet they do, and then try to pass it off as “convergence”.
(You can always tell when a Newspaper or a TV executive is lying about convergence, and using it to cover up cuts in spending – their lips move.)
Obviously whoever is in charge of innovation there must be on long-term sick leave because the blogs are now “the in thing” while elsewhere on the site all of their excellent comments have been shut down on both the website and their YouTube channel – so much for being the “voice of the voiceless”.
The head of common sense must also have been having an off-day because while the new blogs have been mentioned fleetingly on-air, there’s absolutely no mention of them at all on the Al Jazeera English front page to date.
Come on Al Jazeera, you can do better than this.
(Oh yes, if you want to see these wonders of the new media era, they can be found languishing at their own site – and one further observation: Why didn’t the Asia-Pacific region qualify for its own blog?)
Following my posting the other day about the less than credible media debate being conducted by Fox News in America, I tuned in eagerly to Al Jazeera‘s latest edition of Listening Post which focussed this week on the issue of media coverage of the torture debate in the US.
As ever, the reporting by Richard Gizbert pulled no punches:
“Weasel words and sophistry” was the famous description used by Alistair Campbell to deplore the BBC’s initial response to his complaints about the Gilligan report which asserted, quite truthfully as it turns out, that the British Government knew their own dossier on Iraq’s WMDs was largely fiction.
The problem was that Campbell succeeded in making the story about those words, rather than the issue itself, as a result of which a senior civil servant lost his life and the BBC’s editorial independence was damaged beyond repair.
Exactly the same in now happening in the US over the issue of the word “torture” and sadly the once great bastions of American journalism, such as The New York Times have allowed the debate to be shaped by the politicians rather than by common sense.
As Listening Post demonstrates, the NYT appears to be refusing to use the “T”-word, claiming there has been no legal judgement that waterboarding is torture; the problem is that everyone else, including the broadcasters, are following their lead, or should that be, lack of a lead.
So this journalist has a simple question: If it quacks and waddles, why does the NYT and every other spineless journalist in America need a Supreme Court ruling to tell them it’s a duck?
An example of the kind of “fearless journalism” we were promised with the launch of Al Jazeera English – what a shame it’s taken the best part of three years.
It’s also a shame that some of this appears to be so awfully contrived, especially that phone call!! The real phone conversation with such an intransigent would more than likely have gone very differently.
Al Jazeera English got lucky in the War on Gaza because their correspondents were already in the Gaza Strip when the barriers came down for the rest of the world’s media – fair play to them that they made great capital out of it.
However the test of good journalism is not just on how you cover a war, it is how you continue to be ground-breaking and original every day, and this kind of story is the perfect example – if only AJE would get their fingers out and do this more often, the world needs to know more about the way in which, slowly but surely, Israel is making a Palestinian state impossible.