I’m in Cambridge today, enroute to Doha, Qatar, for the second annual Al Jazeera Forum, a meeting with the provocative title “Defending Freedoms, Defining Responsibility”. I’m either speaking on a panel on blogging on Wednesday or a panel on Thursday on “media and power”… or perhaps both – I’m sure I’ll find out once I hit the ground.
My trip to Doha will be my first trip to the Persian Gulf, and my first visit to one of the wealthier Arab nations. (I’ve travelled several times to Jordan, once each to Egypt and Tunis, but never to Saudi, Bahrain, UAE, etc.) The little I’m able to glean about Qatar from wikipedia and the CIA world factbook is fascinating – former British colony known for pearls, became a wealthy petrostate, one of the highest per capita incomes in the world… large Indian, Pakistani and Iranian populations, many in Qatar as economic migrants. Given my lack of Arabic, my full schedule, and the fact that I’m in the country a total of 60 hours means I’m not likely to get too many impressions of the country, but I have high hopes of making it out of the hotel for a walk to the harbor in Doha.
Like many Americans, I don’t entirely know what to think about Al Jazeera. I find some of the network’s policies baffling (the decision to air statements from Bin Laden), others provocative but understandable (a focus on showing civilian casualties in Iraq and Palestine) and others admirable (a willingness to run reports critical of governments in the Middle East.) I saw, and appreciated, the documentary “Control Room”, a sympathetic portrait of the Al Jazeera newsroom. And while I tend to dismiss a lot of anti-Jazeera rhetoric in the US as arabphobia, I am cautious about the fact that I don’t speak Arabic, don’t understand what’s being broadcast on the network, can’t get access to the network via my satellite provider and therefore am not in a position to make up my mind about the fairness of their coverage. I’m fascinated by this conference in part because I hope it will help me better understand what Al-J is trying to do, and whether or not it’s succeeding.
(I’m very lucky to be attending the conference with a number of good friends – Dan Gillmor; Haitham Sabbah, Global Voices’ Middle East editor; Daoud Kuttab of AmmanNet; and Marc “Abu Aardvark” Lynch of Williams College. I’m looking forward to triangulating my views and opinions with such smart media thinkers. I’m also hoping to meet some of the other GVO Middle East contributors – I’ll keep you posted.)
Emeka Okafor offered a provocative blog post a few days back: “Africa Needs an Al Jazeera”. (The question seems to have been raised first by Philip Fiske de Gouveia in a paper titled “An African Al Jazeera?) Emeka points to a new effort – “Africa TV” – being put together by Kenyan Salim Amin as a possible candidate for an international network that covers Africa with African reporters, an African perspective and focus, but doesn’t shy away from controversy and investigative journalism. It’s not a new idea, but it’s a very exciting one – and it’s interesting to see Al-J held up as the model, rather than thinkers advocating for “an African CNN”.
Light blogging tomorrow, lots of blogging Wednesday and Thursday from Qatar, I hope.