Dec 11

Places, people and laws to remember from 2011

This blog’s author is of a buoyant, optimistic cast of mind. I mention this only in case it isn’t already obvious. My general view of the “crisis” in journalism in Europe and the US (not, please note, the rest of the world) is that while the business model for printed daily papers may be in deep doo-doo, journalism and news will find ways not merely to survive but to flourish and improve.

But there are journalists and writers in places for whom 2011 was a year of threats, jail terms, violence and misery. They should not be forgotten This is just a quick selection of those people who deserve to be remembered at the passing of the year – and the governments who deserve to be shamed for what they have done.

  • The Ethiopian government jailed two Swedish television journalists the other day for eleven years apiece on “terrorism” charges.
  • Wondering why you haven’t heard much from Bahrain recently? This despatch from Reporters Without Borders, written in restrained and careful language, will tell you why. They lock up bloggers and journalists, intimidate others and exclude foreign reporters they don’t approve of. Do not forget that in April the founder of the opposition newspaper Al-Wasat, Karim Fakhrawi, was taken into custody when his paper had been shut and he died in custody a week later. His death remains unexplained and no one has been held to account.
  • There are many things to worry the Chinese government nowadays, but they remain terrified of the stubborn handful of men and women who simply refuse to stop speaking their mind. The moment that the strength of the Arab Spring became clear, many of these people began being questioned and detained. Two of those who vanished into jail in the spring, Chen Xi and Chen Wei were given sentences of 10 and 9 years respectively just before Christmas.  They thought and wrote the wrong things.
  • On a quite different level – because no actual curtailment of freedom of expression seems yet to have taken place – is the developing disaster for the news media in Hungary (background here, latest developments here). I’m not enough of an expert on central Europe to know why Hungarian confidence in the the ordinary, boring-but-valuable institutions of democracy is so much more fragile than in neighbouring countries which also endured long decades of suffocation under communism and the Soviet Union. But it is.
  • And let’s never forget Russia, where the manipulation and threats have been normal for a long time. As ever, it’s always worst outside the big cities where the tourists go and the foreign correspondents live. One small, grim example here.

But I did read one cheerful scrap from Russia this holiday. In Dagestan, east of Chechnya there is a newspaper called Chernovik. This name translates into English as “rough draft” and is, I think, the best and most honest name for a newspaper I have heard for some time. I came across it in David Remnick’s superb New Yorker essay on Vladimir Putin and what has happened to news, information and journalism in Russia during his rule.

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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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Oct 10

Ali Abdulemam in Bahrain: freedom of expression on trial where it really matters

In Europe and the US we revel in controversies over the slightest interference with journalists’ right to express themselves and worry about whether investigative journalism is declining. Spare a moment for places where the arguments haven’t ever been able to reach that stage.

Ali Abdulemam is a blogger in Bahrain. He went on trial today for “diffusing fabricated and malicious news on Bahrain’s internal situation to spread rumours and subvert the Kingdom’s security and stability.” He was arrested in early September and there has been a vigorous campaign for his release. He belonged to the admirable Global Voices Online network. There are excellent detailed pieces from the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic.

A few years ago, it looked as if the tiny autocracies of the Gulf were starting finally to relax their powerful grip on politics and the media. Younger and more liberal members of ruling families were coming into positions of power. A profitable boom was producing the self-confidence to experiment, however cautiously, with a little openess.

With the economic crash, most of those gains have been reversed. Most strikingly in Bahrain, where the Sunni-Shia population balance has always been more precarious and potentially unstable than in the other Gulf states.

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