07
Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactful

Wadah Khanfar can claim to be one of the world’s most significant journalists in 2011. He doesn’t make that claim himself, but he ran the Middle East’s most outspoken satellite broadcaster, Al-Jazeera, as the revolutions erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and as they spluttered in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Last night he came to City University to give the James Cameron Memorial Lecture and most of his audience wondered if he would shed any light on his abrupt departure from Al-Jazeera’s director-generalship a few weeks ago. He shed no new light directly. But a few hints were dropped, and they illuminate both the power and the limits of the Arab Spring.

When people suddenly announce they are going to “move on”, that decision can be assumed to be not entirely voluntary. The deal to depart is sealed with a payment, conditional on neither party saying more than a very limited amount in public about the rupture. Khanfar was not replaced by a journalist or broadcasting executive but by a member of the Qatari royal family from one of the state’s oil and gas outfits. Khanfar is a charming and plausible speaker, but I doubt that many in his audience quite bought his explanation that after eight years at the top of Al-Jazeera, he had decided to quit while he was ahead. The indicators point to Qatar’s ruling family wanting someone a little “safer” in charge.

Al-Jazeera’s foundation in 1996 was a remarkably bold act by the Emir of Qatar. Even if Al-Jazeera did not report quite as vigorously on Qatar itself, it was allowed to report without inhibition on other states in the region. The Emir in effect tore up the convention among Gulf ruling families that news media from their own state try to avoid embarassing rulers of neighbouring states. Or at least that appeared to be the case until the Arab revolutions began this year. And Al-Jazeera’s own journalists rapidly built the station’s own editorial identity and strength, probably becoming more famous, influential and controversial than its cautious founders anticipated (backgrounder here). Qatar, Khanfar said in answer to a question last night, did not start Al-Jazeera “for charitable reasons”. The state had “expectations”, he said; but then, he added, so did Al-Jazeera’s journalists have their own expectations, aims and agenda. The channels, Khanfar said, found their “mission” and created a “solid identity”. This identity, he implied, was not quite what Qatar’s rulers had in mind.

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Wadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactfulWadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactfulWadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactfulWadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactfulWadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactfulShare This Post

06
Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar in London

Wadah Khanfar, until very recently the director-general of Al-Jazeera, is due in London this evening to deliver the James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University. This is the first time a journalist from the Middle East has been invited to give the lecture (the year of the Arab Spring seemed an appropriate moment) and the first time that Khanfar has been in London since he suddenly announced that he was stepping down from running Al-Jazeera.

To get an idea of the importance of satellite television in general – and of Al-Jazeera in particular – in this year’s events in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain take a look at the annual Strategic Survey of the Institute of Strategic Studies (the relevant section starts at p97). I have a fair idea of who wrote the (unsigned) analysis and she is very expert. There have been many analyses of the influence of social networks and satellite television on the Arab revolutions. Because the IISS survey is sober and careful, its carefully weighed evidence about the influence of cross-border broadcasters counts for more. A slightly less sober (but well-rated by insiders) account of Al-Jazeera’s sudden global fame from GQ is here.

We still don’t know exactly why Khanfar left his job: this is his explanation and this is a summary of the rumours. Khanfar is a journalist; he was replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family previously working in a state oil and gas compnay. All of the above (significance, reasons for departure) in this piece from the Columbia Journalism Review. We may learn more this evening; I will report back tomorrow.


16
Jan 11

Tunisian repercussions and perspective

The capacity of new media to spread ideas at speed retains the power to astound me still. But, of course, people leap to conclusions equally fast and ideas get warped.

There’s been an on-the-margins discussion triggered by events in Tunisia about whether the toppling of the President was a “Twitter revolution” or a “Wikileaks revolt”. On the latter, here is a savage and funny riposte to the idea that Tunisians needed Julian Assange’s help to realise that their government was sclerotic and bent.

On the Twitter issue, Marc Lynch has a wise new post correcting the perspective by placing Twitter in the context of all the media changes of Arab societies, including the proliferation of cable and satellite channels led by Al-Jazeera.

Having made a minor contribution to all this by suggesting that the Wikileaks cables may have influenced the Tunisian situation and by stressing that newer media power in Arab countries, can I just go back to the ideas which I hope will survive the passions of the moment to be investigated in tranquility?

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15
Jan 11

Tunisia: what lessons?

Events in Tunisia continue to move at speed, so it seems worth coming back to the topics of yesterday’s post. The fear that nobody was paying much attention to the riots in Tunis and other cities has dissolved with the flight of President Ben Ali. Now everyone’s watching.

On the long-range issue of the role of social or informal media in the Tunisian drama, Ethan Zuckerman (of Global Voices and Yale) gently disagreed with my assertion that social media had played a decisive role. We agree that what’s happened isn’t a “revolution” until Tunisia holds free elections, but Ethan says that “social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole.”

He’s right of course. Ethan also makes the good point that by making it hard for foreign correspondents to operate in Tunisia, the regime paved the way for global media to rely on, and to amplify, the voices of bloggers and tweeters when the riots began. But in such a situation all sources go into the mix: trusted personal contact (digital communications offer great opportunities but are vulnerable to interception and manipulation), mainstream media (in this case such as Al Jazeera, coming from outside) and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Update 15/1/11: Ethan has since posted on the Foreign Policy blog a fuller overview).

The only way to truly determine cause and effect would be a proper survey of thousands of Tunisians and their sources of information. Conditions probably aren’t going to allow that for some time. My hunch is that such a study will show that social media – powerfully fuelled by a handful of lethal revelations from Wikileaks – played a powerful role in mobilising people onto the streets and convincing the regime that they had lost the battle to spin people back into line.

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14
Jan 11

The power of social, networked media in Tunisia

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices asks: what if there was a revolution going on in Tunisia and nobody was watching?

The first part of the answer is that what’s happening in Tunisia so far amounts to a revolt and not a revolution. The Jasmine Revolt (so called after the country’s national flower) has shaken the regime of President Ben Ali but not brought it down. The government hasn’t lost its nerve and remains in control of the streets. The President’s concessionary speech last night bought him some time.

But that isn’t really Zuckerman’s point: he’s worried that fewer people are following what’s happening in Tunisia than followed events in Iran in June 2009. Here are a few reasons for the difference:

  • The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.
  • Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French mainstream media have covered the story.
  • It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.
  • Working as  a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”
  • Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.
  • The early days of the the Tunisian disturbances fell into the news twilight of the Christmas and New Year holidays.
  • There is no Tunisian equivalent of the left’s bad conscience about Iran. When the ayatollahs took over in Iran in 1979, they were greeted in Europe and America by panegyrics from progressive opinion which look truly embarassing to read now that we know what an Islamic clerical dictatorship actually looks like. Some guilt still persists and helps to fuel interest and concern about Iran.

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29
Dec 10

Wikileaks and…Tunisia

A few posts back, reflecting on the arguments swirling over the release by Wikileaks of the American diplomatic cables, I said that I couldn’t see any geopolitical situation which might have been changed by the appearance of the information. I’ve spotted one case which might (only might) be an example of a specific country being changed by the revelations.

 Wikileaks and...Tunisia

President Ben Ali

The country is Tunisia, where anti-government demonstrations and riots have broken out in the last ten days. The events have not been widely reported, but are extremely unusual in a state held in a tight grip by an old-fashioned ex-military strongman, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. There’s a summary here (but the parallel with the fall of Romanian dictator Ceaucescu is implausible), more detail and rumours here and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni here. The picture on the Al Jazeera piece of the protesting Tunisian lawyers in their black gowns and white collar tabs doesn’t suggest that a violent revolution is under way.

Now recall that one of the diplomatic cables to get early attention was the one from the US Ambassador in Tunis which mentioned seeing the pet tiger kept by the President’s son-in-law (and possible successor) and glimpses of the son-in-law’s “over the top” lifestyle. In a less gossipy despatch a year ago the ambassador put Tunisia’s problems in a nutshell:

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29
Nov 10

Wikileaks, Arab governments and new media

One early thought about the Wikileaks release of the US diplomatic cables. There’s been debate for years about the effect of new media on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Would satellite television, the internet or Facebook break the monopoly of power held by the Chinese communist party? Could bloggers laugh Hugo Chavez out of power?

The answers which slowly emerged to these questions showed a variety of effects. China’s rulers mounted a colossal effort, mostly successful so far, to restrict the political effects of peer-to-peer communication. In relatively open democracies, social media will make changes to political discourse but they don’t look drastic or sudden so far.

But the countries in which the effects of new media are going to be most dramatic and visible are those with traditional oligarchic media and limited democratic mechanisms. The rules which govern the political space in Arab societies are being put under severe strain.

Mainstream Arab media are now faced with a bulk load of awkward stories they might prefer to ignore or play down while the same material races round the developing Arab blogosphere. This is all explained with helpful links by Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy (I’m new to this blog and so cannot yet explain its mysterious subtitle: Abu Aardvark’s Middle East Blog). I think Lynch is exactly right, not least in focussing on the test for Al-Jazeera, based as it is Qatar, whose ruling family are likely to feature when the whole document dump has been fully searched.

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06
Jun 10

Bureau of Investigative Journalism lifts off

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Britain’s answer to the American ProPublica and working out of City University, hit the ground running this weekend with the publication of its first story, a joint investigation with the British Medical Journal. The story revealed that a number of scientists who have advised the World Health Organisation on a possible flu pandemic have done paid work for drug firms who stood to benefit from WHO plans to deal with a major outbreak.

Harvey Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine in Washington and who chairs the WHO committee which reviews plans for the H1N1 virus, quickly released a statement saying that his commitee would be looking at this question when it next meets.

The story ran early on Al-Jazeera and was picked up quickly by The Guardian and dozens of others. A small milestone in the efforts to rebuild the strength of investigative journalism beyond mainstream new organisations. More scoops to follow. (Declaration: I’m a BIJ trustee.)