Al Jazeera Fourth Forum (14-16th march) is just over in Doha, Qatar. Three days of debates mostly focused on geopolitics from a middle eastern perspective: the strategic importance of Turkey and Iran as neighbouring countries, but also of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China. This is the “new world political order” the Al Jazeera way: not only US, not only Europe, not western centered. The Forum agenda seems to reflect perfecly this emerging perspective, which is also interpreted on a TV level by the English channel.
But for the Arabs the debate that first counts is still the Middle East and particularly the Palestinian issue.
Gaza is still the hottest potato: and, as remarked by one of the panelists of today’s Gaza session, we don’t have to consider it “history” yet. 3iani, we can’t consider it as a written page but more likely as a still-to-be-written one. There are many individuals and organisations in Europe currently working to bring Israel to the International Court for having committed a crime against humanity, so the page is yet to be written. Moreover, as the world famous journalist Robert Fisk recalls -he is one of the guests of the panel together with Alain Greish from Le Monde Diplomatique and Ahmed Sheikh, Al Jazeera Head of News-, in Western media we also have the problem of facing the past, i.e. to trace back the real beginning of the Gaza crisis which is not on the 26 of dec 2008. He reminds the audience that the crisis started more than 2 years ago, in 2006, and since then the Palestinian population was isolated and suffered a big humanitarian crisis. He sadly adds that the media in general is conflict-driven, the TV channels don’t light their cameras if there is not a “story” (which should be an invasion, a rocket, but not people that are starving and dying). The problem is, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Sheikh remarks, that then they started to be very suspicious about why channels like Al Jazeera have access to this kind of stories, while the answer is very easy: because we invested before, we have been there for many years, he said.
Same in Afghanistan: I remember that when Tayseer Allouni, Al Jazeera correspondent over there was the only to get access to Bin Laden for an interview and then the office was receiving the famous tapes everybody was attacking the channel. Why Al Jazeera? Why not another? Well, answer is easy: cause they were there, they invested money, they built a relation with them. Just like CNN did with Peter Arnett in the First Gulf War, but at the time nobody would have found it strange.
I think it’s time to stop asking questions like this and blaming Al Jazeera. I think it’s time that European media, too, invest in crisis zone but not actually only when the conflict is happening. I think it’s time we start to understand places like the Arab world, Afghanistan, and whatever by living there, understanding the languages, making an effort to understand the cultures, too. Otherwise, we will be to blame. And when somebody from the audience asks Al Jazeera Arabic why they haven’t been as “objective” as Al Jazeera English was in reporting the Gaza conflict (I wonder if the guy does actually understand arabic but it is very unlike: most likely he has just watched images on the Arabic channel and then decided they were biased anyway), Ahmed Sheikh has to remind him that they interviewed many Israeli officials, and they gave the floor and the airspace to Israelis, too. Robert Fisk actually adds something very important to the current debate about “objectivity” in the news: what does it mean to be “objective” in such a situation like Gaza?Does it mean we have to give 50% of airtime to Israelis and 50% of the time to Palestinians and let the audience decide by itself?Is it possible to do this for Gaza the same way we do it during an election or a football match by giving the floor to one party or the other, to one team or the other (what we call in Italian TV, borrowing by Latin, “par condicio” which ends up to be a “sandwich news”? first half cheese, second half tomato in equal parts..)? How can we apply this rule in a situation where journalists are prevented to enter where the actual conflict is happening?So how can they actually report the two sides of the story if one side is forbidden by the other side to be watched and told?
Fisk thinks we have to think about justice before thinking about “objectivity” (which by the way doesn’t exist in general terms and particularly in this Gaza situation for the reasons above mentioned) and I actually do agree with him. We shouldn’t be ashamed to have an ethic in our profession, or values that drive us. Values are not only “objectivity” which by the way can’t be applied in such an unjust unbalanced situation. How can the news be balanced and objective if the situation is objectively unbalanced?
This is, I have to say, a very bad Western habit to think that values can be applied in general conditions while there are no general conditions ever. There is always a context.
Having said that, I really wish Western media can understand and move forward. The real point is not how much floor you give to Palestinians and Israelis, the real point is how you frame the context of what’s happening. And how you portay the Palestinians, too. Cause actually there is no such a general thing as Palestinians, there are different human beings that think different ways. There are Palestianians who are against Hamas, others who are against Fatah, and others that are simply against both of them. The issue is much much more complicated than this. The real question is: how can we expect to challenge Al Jazeera -which could be actually be challenged for the way it portays Palestinians and for the way it portrays one part of the Palestianians as it was all of them- if first, we don’t understand it, and secondly, we are always stressing on this “generalisation process”? Palestinians are no more individuals, they become just a collective entity opposed to Israelis in our generalised view. I wish I could see one day a more complex and deeper debate on those issues which concern us as media professionals and as human beings too.
photo by Joi Ito published under Creative Commons license: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/3358743639/in/photostream/