Empire of the sands

Screen time: Al Antsey, head of Al Jazeera English, says there are stories around the world that deserve coverage but aren’t receiving any. Photo: Tom Pilston/PanosForeign correspondents generally dislike talking too much about the dangers of their job, acutely aware that when a repressive regime starts harassing internationals it’s likely doing a lot worse to its own citizens. Egypt’s latest army-backed government is no slouch at internal crackdowns, but has reserved a special ferocity for journalists, especially those from the Al Jazeera network. Some 20 of them now face trial on charges ranging from airing false news to belonging to a terrorist organisation, their “crime” being to interview members of the Muslim Brotherhood after it was outlawed on Christmas Day last year.

Among the detained or charged is Australia’s award-winning correspondent Peter Greste, who, after two weeks, reluctantly broke the code of downplaying professional hazards with an open letter from Cairo’s Tora prison. “I have sought, until now, to fight my imprisonment quietly from within,” he wrote. “It is now clear that this is a dangerous decision.”

This singling out of the broadcaster marks a crisis point for Al Jazeera (AJ). It’s also a weird compliment, confirming its reputation for fearlessness. And it confirms how seriously Arab governments take this relatively young network, which asserts editorial independence but is seen by some as a soft power extension of its chief backer, the Qatari royal family, and its ambitions to become a major player in the region.

Given all this, it’s somewhat surprising when I’m flown by AJ to its headquarters in Doha to find those in charge in lockdown over the issue, arguing that to canvass plans to protect their people could put the detained at even greater risk. Even more surprising is that this famously contentious broadcaster, which redefined news for the Arab world – and got branded a nest of terrorists in the process – seems to run like any other Western news operation. The same banks of lights, multiple cameras and people scurrying about with clipboards. The same illuminated, oversized desk behind which a groomed presenter calmly reads the bulletin.

This is a network without a local audience but 82 bureaus around the world. Eighty-two bureaus! Who gets to do that in the modern media landscape? So the reports come in from correspondents in Brazil, Palestine, India, Sudan; a six-minute discussion about the “cleansing” of Fallujah in Iraq, then back to footage which can be raw and a bit grainy but for all that is gripping. Not a car chase or waterskiing squirrel in sight, which is Al Jazeera English boss Al Anstey’s jokey (but not entirely) definition of what doesn’t and won’t ever get covered on his network. Not because he’s particularly down on aquatic rodents but because it’s his favourite symbol of all that’s wrong with the traditional news queue. “If you want to offer something meaningful, I don’t mean boring, but what’s actually going on in the world, then don’t put a waterskiing squirrel in your bulletin,” says the British-born Anstey. “Have some integrity.”

But integrity costs. Our main subject, Al Jazeera English, launched in 2006, but branches of the AJ brand are now popping up everywhere. AJ Balkans. AJ Turk. AJ America (the jauntily-named AJAM) has been on air since last year. The network also makes documentaries, and sport and medical specials, and has a strong, growing digital presence. Yet the existence and future of this very big business rests entirely on the whim of the Emir of Qatar.

His name is His Majesty Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, latest ruler of this small and stupendously rich Gulf kingdom in a family line running back almost 150 years. It was his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad, who created Al Jazeera out of the wreckage of a joint BBC-Saudi venture to broadcast to the Arabic world. When it collapsed in the mid-1990s, some 180 Arab experts were dumped jobless onto the market – and the then emir snapped them up, turning the Qatari capital of Doha into about as unlikely a home for the free-speaking Al Jazeera network as can be imagined.

For this is a place unfamiliar with either democracy or free speech. Civil liberties are restricted, organised political parties prohibited, criticism of the Emir an imprisonable offence – there’s a poet currently serving time for this crime – all of which is an uncomfortable match with one of the earliest of Al Jazeera’s many slogans, “Voice of the voiceless.” One can speculate forever what the emir was up to – he’s certainly not giving interviews – but the fact is, a considerable amount (but tiny proportion) of Qatar’s vast natural gas revenue is directed to a network employing more than 4000 staff broadcasting to 310 million households around the world. Which no one even pretends pays for itself.

How much does the Emir pour into Al Jazeera? That would be one of the subjects excluded from Al Jazeera’s promise of transparency in all matters. Al Anstey flatly refuses to reveal his annual budget except to say there is one, a very precise one, and “we’re resourced well to do exactly what we do”. It means he takes flak sometimes, like when he was in Australia last year lamenting the financial pressure driving the media world down the route of second-hand news, and someone in the audience sent a crawl across the screen, which said, “Can’t help but think easy to talk about business of journalism when you’re funded by the Qatari royal family.”

But Anstey denies any charge of smugness. “Many other outfits are funded, the BBC and ABC among them. The fact is, when you drive through the gates of this compound you go into a sort of neutral air space. Because we’re sitting here looking at the globe, the new world order. We’re not seeing it through a Western prism, or an American prism, or an Arabic prism, so in a way we’re everyone’s outsider.”

This is the Al Jazeera compound he’s talking about, base for both the English- and Arab-speaking stations, though they occupy separate buildings in Doha’s backstreets, each with its own team of guards. They’re modest, low-rise, in contrast to the city rising into the sky at breakneck speed around it, studded with the sort of glittering architecture that left me feeling like a country mouse. It’s as if there’d been a competition for out-there designs and someone decided, “Heck, let’s build them all.”

Again, it’s the money. This is the richest country in the world; per capita income is listed by the World Bank as north of $US100,000 though if you take out the migrant workers, who don’t count as Qataris – despite being 90 per cent of the 2 million population – it’s closer to $US700,000. Per person, per year. The sort of wealth that prompted luxury goods purveyor Mont Blanc to recently design a black leather falconry glove, especially for its Gulf customers.

Yet it’s Al Jazeera that has pulled the world’s eyes towards Qatar. It was an instant turn-on for Arab viewers who had never seen such a creature – until its launch, local news was basically an update on the leader’s diary, an arm of government propaganda. But the network only really hit the English-speaking world’s consciousness post-9/11, when it seemed to be everywhere, covering everything, including becoming an effective video drop-box for international outlaw Osama bin Laden. The outraged George W. Bush administration slammed the channel as an al-Qaeda stooge and purveyor of lies – and though the allegations were later disproved, the administration’s depiction of Al Jazeera as a nest of traitors took years to fade.

The issue was still bubbling when Al Jazeera English started world-wide recruiting in 2005. One-time Perth radio reporter Fauziah Ibrahim, now an AJE presenter, is one of a group of Australians I speak with who joined the network in this early phase – a kind of club within the club – and remembers her reaction when she was approached for a job. “I said, ‘Omigod, that’s a terrorist Muslim outfit.’ I’d heard about Al Jazeera, but in the most negative way.”

Shortly before, Ibrahim had resigned from business channel CNBC after a tough question to then head of BHP, Chip Goodyear – who’d just reported a whacking profit – about why he was refusing to offer or even negotiate with labourers striking for a $1 an hour pay rise.

“I got called into the office and hauled over the hot coals, and told, ‘We do not do that to BHP, to Chip Goodyear. Do you know how influential he is? If he doesn’t speak to us, he’ll go to Bloomberg, you’ve lost him.’ And that’s when I thought, ‘You know, I really don’t care. I’m much more interested in the story of the labourers.’ ”

When the AJE recruiter told her this was exactly what the network did, tell stories about real people, she was sceptical. “And he said, ‘No, believe me, they will pay you to go anywhere you want and tell the stories you want to tell.’ ” It turns out this is pretty much exactly how it happens at Al Jazeera. Another early hire was former Channel Ten journalist Hamish Macdonald. He was at Britain’s Channel 4 when Al Jazeera approached, posting him to the Asia hub in Kuala Lumpur during its start-up phase. “It was a hothouse of crazed activity, exciting but really scary,” he recalls. “We were just making it up.”

There were crazy days, agrees KL colleague Sharon Roobol, whose long CV includes a stint in Canberra with Nine Network veteran Laurie Oakes. “Cameramen and editors and producers were joining us every day. There weren’t enough desks or chairs or coffee cups. The brief was to cover global stories through voices on the ground, to look where the other networks weren’t. It felt like the future.” And Al Jazeera backed its people. Macdonald’s opening pitch was to travel to the Pacific Islands for a story about the world’s first global warming refugees. He was promptly given $US50,000 cash … and spent an unreceipted $US18,000 hiring a copra-trader’s boat to get him there. Those stories are marked 001-2-3-4 in AJE’s vaults.

“We don’t do that any more, our accounting practices are probably a bit more sophisticated now,” laughs Yoko Shimizu, ex-Channel 7, and now AJE senior producer in Doha, who runs into Macdonald, her old uni mate, at various disaster points around the globe.

“But the concept is the same, we’re allowed to splash on a really big story. For instance, every man and his dog covered the Japanese tsunami – for one, maybe two weeks. Al Jazeera maintained two teams plus myself for the whole month, then revisited every month after that. We have the resources to make sure these people will not be forgotten.” The staff multiplied, bureaus were set up in trouble spots like Tehran and Harare. There was plenty of vivid first-hand journalism and some early awards but five years passed before Al Jazeera English got its defining moment – the event that was equivalent to the Arab channel’s moment after 9/11, or to CNN’s moment during the 1991 Gulf War, which was defined by Peter Arnett’s electrifying footage of American bombs trailing phosphorescent green across the night sky of Baghdad.

AJE’s moment came during the 2011 Arab Spring: those wild, unforgettable images from Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Their team had it first, they had it best, and were still broadcasting live when president Hosni Mubarak – who’d tried everything to block transmission – unexpectedly caved in and resigned after 30 years of repression, still finagling to pass “his” empire onto his son. The mad joy which erupted as the news beamed onto makeshift screens in the square went direct – without cuts or commentary – out to the world. Right place, right time? Sure, but “we’d laid all the groundwork,” Shimizu says. “Our correspondents were there, they’d made the contacts, they were Egyptian. We’d invested time and resources into the country.”

Except what goes around comes around … Egypt’s military is now back in the saddle, with scores to settle against the broadcaster it has long accused of bias against it and in favour of the Brotherhood – reflecting Al-Thani family policy. Twenty-two Egyptian-based staffers resigned en masse last year, alleging a pro-Brotherhood editorial policy. And those with long memories recall the time an AJ anchor turned up as a guest to celebrate – and televise, live – a birthday party thrown for a Lebanese terrorist and convicted child-killer freed as part of a prisoner swap between Israel and the Lebanon-based Islamic group Hezbollah.

“In the Arab world, he was seen as a hero because he was defending the Palestinian cause,” says AJ top man, Mostefa Souag. “We didn’t know about that party. And that guy got a warning, which is our highest disciplinary measure.” As for the WikiLeaks revelation that AJ’s then boss succumbed to pressure from the American ambassador to moderate its coverage of the Iraq War – in line with government policy – Souag says: “I can assure you that nobody has ever changed the policies of this Al Jazeera. Not before and not now.”

Al Anstey is the former news director, now managing director, of Al Jazeera English. He’s quite the silver fox, ex-everywhere (imagine a less-pompous version of Jeff Daniels’ character in The Newsroom). But Anstey traces the fire in his belly to his early days at Associated Press, covering catastrophic floods in Bangladesh. Hundreds dead. Villages drowned. He waded out, camera on shoulder, and reported on the mourning and the misery, the lives shattered. “I pinged that story back to HQ – and when I checked the logs later, almost no one covered it. The lead story in London that same day was the storm that blew through northern England, injuring no one. And I thought, ‘There’s something very wrong here.’ People said, ‘Well, the floods happen every year.’ But doesn’t that make it a stronger story, that it happens every year? Doesn’t it deserve coverage?”

Twenty years later, Anstey left his job as ITN’s head of foreign news and the next day – April Fool’s Day, 2005 – arrived in Doha. He sat down with a small team and a blank sheet to decide what this new English-speaking network would be. While AJ Arabic could genuinely claim to have been a pathbreaker, the first in its field, AJE was born into a world dominated by CNN and the BBC – and, some might add, Fox. The issue was how to cut through.

Eyewitness reporting was the first key principle. Truly international. Challenge all sides. Be trustworthy. Explain at full depth. A big story at the time was the furore and riots over the Danish cartoonist who’d offended many Muslims with his drawings of the religion’s founder, Mohammed. “[This was] an extraordinarily complex story, which was being covered on the news in 25 seconds,” Anstey says. “As a viewer, I didn’t begin to understand what was going on.” So time was important, too, giving a story time.

But there’s considerable latitude in the interpretation of this principle. The exploitative treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, for instance, is a story which receives conspicuously little air-time on the channel. Like modern-day slaves – or “cattle”, as one manager in a recent Amnesty International report described his workers – they stream in from Nepal, India and Sri Lanka, working long hours for little pay, sleeping cheek-by-jowl in squalid dormitories hidden on the outskirts of the glitter city they are building. Safety and construction standards are lax, yet when a fire caused by an electrical fault ripped through one of Doha’s main malls in 2012, killing 19 people, Al Jazeera took flak for the slowness and scarcity of its coverage.

Most Al Jazeerans prefer to slide around this, agreeing only that it’s a “Very Sensitive Issue”. Fauziah Ibrahim is more forthright, insisting that while these stories do get covered in the end – even if less exhaustively – “we understand, too, that we need to tread that fine line with the Emir. We know who our paymaster is, we know we need to play by the rules, play by the game.”

I wonder, how far is too far, journalistically? “Well that’s the thing, I don’t know, because it comes from up there” – she points above our heads, the universal sign for management. “They say, ‘We’ve got to do the story, but this is how we’re going to do it and that’s that.’ ” It’s also “up there” that decides the stories that won’t be covered. “Like in 2007,” Ibrahim says, “no stories about gay marriage.” Then there are the stories that are covered, but she’s not sure the reasons why. “I’m constantly going to the program editor, ‘Why are we doing this story?’ As soon as they roll their eyes and look up at the ceiling, I go, ‘Oh, it’s from up there.’ So I try to find a different way to tell it.”

She’s only saying directly what is often whispered: that Al Jazeera serves its home country’s broader agenda and its ambition to bat above its weight in the region. Not so long ago, Qatar consisted only of desert tribes and a pearling industry. Now it’s backing rebel Islamist forces in Syria and, before that, Libya … it plays an active, even frantic diplomatic role brokering talks between feuding groups … and in eight years’ time it gets the ultimate international validation of hosting the FIFA World Cup.

Al Jazeera is no tame network. As Hillary Clinton said during her time as US secretary of state, “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials.” But in the arcane world of Arab politics, an internationally respected news network watched by millions is also a powerful card to have in the hand. “Every government wants power,” says Souag. “A small country like Qatar, you don’t expect them to have nuclear power, they don’t need that sort of thing. They need soft power. Soft power includes media.”

While Souag is now acting director-general of the Al Jazeera media network, back in the mid-1990s he was just another unemployed expert shaking off the dust of the BBC-Arabic collapse. When word came of the emir’s plans for a network in Qatar, Souag took it as some kind of joke. “Someone coming in with no previous experience whatsoever, with no culture of freedom of the media? You could not believe this was happening, this kind of jump with no introduction. You cannot do it.”

But it happened. And if, among its nobler aims of providing serious, high-grade journalism, Al Jazeera also gives Qatar an international profile, even a form of protection, “Is there anything wrong with that? If you can create a soft power that is beneficial to the rest of the world, and beneficial to you – including you, yes, protecting you – then I believe that’s very smart.” ■

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