New Internationalist

Operation Filmmaking Part 2: inside Al Jazeera

I have an extra day in Qatar, once the film festival is over. My friends encourage me to visit the desert – where I can ride camels or sand buggies and sleep under the stars – or go scuba-diving, or even catch a short flight to Dubai to go shopping.

The Persian Gulf holds many attractions for the intrepid traveler, but I’ve already made up my mind: for a media junkie, no visit to Qatar can be complete without a trip to the Al Jazeera TV channel headquarters in downtown Doha.

Suspicious nod of approval

For those of you who might want to check out the place on your own – a warning: it’s tougher to get into the Al Jazeera compound than to enter most countries. There are two security checkpoints with stern-looking guards. You need a special pass from someone ‘on the inside’ before you can even set foot inside the first gate.

I use the term ‘day pass’ loosely; the document looks more like a visa to enter a foreign country, and I must carry my Canadian passport with me. My bag is put through an x-ray machine and I pass under an airport-style metal detector before I’m given a suspicious nod of approval from the final guard.

The tight security is no surprise. Al Jazeera’s probing and uncensored coverage of events happening in the Arab region have earned them many enemies, often from opposing camps. Their logo, in Arabic script, means ‘the opinion and counter opinion’. Since the network’s launch in 1996, with an Arabic-only news channel, Al Jazeera has shocked, provoked and inspired viewers, covering issues that would usually be banned by media in their home countries.


Al Jazeera English newsroom.

They gained worldwide fame for being the only international network with reporters on the ground during the US ‘Operation Desert Fox’ bombing campaign in Iraq in 1998, and became infamous for broadcasting videos from Osama bin Laden after 9/11. In 2006, Al Jazeera launched an English-language news channel and has gained popularity among viewers weary of the censorship and pro-Western bias of CNN and the BBC World Service.

Since the beginning of this year, Al Jazeera has provoked the ire of authorities in several Middle Eastern ‘hot spots’ for allegedly fomenting the ‘Arab Spring’ – the wave of pro-democracy revolutions sweeping the region.

On the other side of the world, in the great media wasteland known as the United States of America, Al Jazeera’s English language station is blocked in most states. The station has responded to the blackout by asking Americans to sign an online petition that goes straight to their local cable provider, asking them to offer Al Jazeera.

They also post live footage on their web page. An article published in the US Huffington Post on 4 January found a 2,500 per cent increase in Al Jazeera’s web traffic over a 24-hour period early that month, 60 per cent of which came from the United States.

Incognito reporters

‘We’re not a particularly popular channel with many governments,’ says Heather Allan, head of newsgathering for Al Jazeera English Channel, with a wry smile. She runs through a list of countries where the station has been banned or refused journalist visas: Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria. ‘For a long time we were the only broadcasters in Yemen,’ she says, with some pride. ‘Until all our visas ran out.’

Often, their reporters are incognito, filming with everything from handy cams to cellphones. And the station relies a lot on what Heather calls ‘citizen journalists’ – footage, photos and information from people on the ground. But Heather admits that sometimes their interview subjects go missing for speaking out against repressive regimes. A look of concern passes over her motherly face. ‘We’re very mindful of what we’re doing and how it affects people,’ she says.

Al Jazeera’s own reporters also put themselves at great risk. A poster hanging on the station’s front gate calls for the release of four Al Jazeera reporters, held hostage in Libya earlier this year (three have since been released). On 29 April, the same day I return home, Dorothy Parvaz, a journalist with Al Jazeera English, was detained in Syria by government officials. Over a week later, the station received information that she was being held in Iran. As of 15 May, she has still not been released. Concerned readers can sign an online petition here.

The network’s reporters have been suffering persecution since the early days and staffers have built a small museum inside the main building, with shrines to reporters fallen in the line of duty.

Tariq's vest.

There’s the vest worn by Tariq Ayoub at the time he was killed when two US missiles struck the Al Jazeera Baghdad bureau in the early hours of 8 April, 2003. And the outfit worn by Sami Al Hajj, the Al Jazeera cameraman who was held in Guantánamo Bay for six years without trial:  his crisp white trousers, white running shoes, and white socks looking stark and empty.

Even more moving is the Red Cross letter from Sami to his wife, two years into his detention. In broken English, written in a hurried scrawl, he asks her to please bring their young son, Mohamed, to Qatar. During his detention Sami suffered torture, inhuman conditions and sexual abuse, and yet his one desperate hope was to assure his family’s safety.

The Dream Team

With such a reputation for trouble, why are reporters from around the world flocking to work for Al Jazeera? Heather points out that at a time when news networks are in crisis, Al Jazeera is expanding, with bureaus all around the globe – from London, Washington, Toronto and Mexico City to the ‘less usual’ sites such as Gaza, Islamabad and Harare.

Heather, from South Africa, worked at NBC for over 30 years, and has covered news in the US and Africa. Her high-profile CV is typical for Al Jazeera staff. The station’s management have hand-plucked some of the most highly respected journalists from US broadcasters, Canada’s CBC, the BBC and other top media outlets, creating a sort-of international media ‘Dream Team’.

The network is funded by the Emir of Qatar, a fact that liberates the station from the commercial demands that have sent many media outlets into economic crisis. Despite –or perhaps because of – being funded by Qatar’s progressive Emir, Al Jazeera is generally recognized for having editorial independence. The network has become an oasis of press freedom in a region known for stringent censorship.

For Atef Dalgamoni, one of the network’s founders, Al Jazeera is more than a television broadcaster. It is hope and freedom – a chance to bring human rights issues to the forefront and stimulate a new consciousness in the Middle East and around the world. ‘Al Jazeera is like one of my daughters,’ says Atef with fondness as he shows me around the station. ‘I’ve watched her grow up.’


Newsroom.

Like many of Al Jazeera’s Arab staff, Atef has lived in the West for many years, working for British media, before the promise of Al Jazeera lured him back in the 1990s. He is energetic and wiry, with a short, fatherly beard and moustache. It takes us a while to maneuver through the station’s many buildings because young staffers keep stopping to chat and joke with him.

Documentary hours

Until recently, Atef headed up Al Jazeera’s documentary channel, the first Arabic channel devoted exclusively to documentary film. In one of those bizarre, small world coincidences, a few years ago the channel showed a film I made about a valley of mango farmers in Peru, who stood up to a Canadian company and the global mining industry. Tambogrande’s farmers developed an incredible non-violent resistance campaign, and won their struggle. It’s a rare ‘happy ending’ story.

But I always wondered why Al Jazeera wanted to broadcast the film. Even though it was popular on the festival circuit and won awards, Canadian and American broadcasters refused the film on the grounds that it was ‘too political’, or had ‘too many people speaking Spanish’, or that they already had enough programming produced ‘in-house.’

Mostafa Nagy, the new head of programming at Al Jazeera’s documentary channel, isn’t surprised that they programmed my film. He tells me the channel’s mandate is to create a bridge between peoples and cultures, and to promote values of ‘tolerance, democracy and respect of liberties and human rights.’

They produce 250 hours of their own documentary films and acquire about 1,200 hours of programming from around the world each year, drawing in three million viewers a month. The channel has helped spawn a revolution of its own in the world of Arabic filmmaking, giving rise to a young generation of Middle Eastern documentary makers intent on pushing the genre to new limits.

Mostafa is especially proud of the artistic exploration seen in a lot of recent Arab documentaries. He said that in the past, Arab filmmakers didn’t have the funding or the know-how to use techniques like recreation or animation, and freedom of expression was non-existent in most countries.

He himself grew up in Egypt, born to a British mother and Egyptian father. At home, he was encouraged to express himself, but out on the streets, in Egyptian society, Mostafa felt like he always had to look over his shoulder. ‘In Egypt there was an inability to be free and say what you wanted to say,’ he said. As a young man, he moved to England, in order to work unhindered, and has made over 50 documentaries. Al Jazeera brought him back to the Middle East, and now he wonders if the revolution in Egypt has opened yet another door.

‘It’s given me hope that I could go back and live there someday,’ he says. Revolution, democracy, human rights and persecution: love them or hate them, there’s no denying that Al Jazeera is at the forefront of the newly emerging Middle East.

My little day trip certainly beat riding camels in the desert, and I leave Al Jazeera’s compound wondering what Latin America would be like if we had a network devoted to freedom of expression and human liberties – or China – or even (gasp) the United States?

It doesn’t hurt to dream.

All photos by the author.

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