International news: pack a parachute?

Rageh Omaar, the host of the “Witness” program on Al Jazeera English, leads a discussion on “parachute journalism” versus the “journalism of depth”. Martin Bell, a legendary BBC reporter, disputes the disparaging term from the outset, introducing himself as an “unrepentent parachutist”. International journalism, he tells us, is international – most journalists work in countries other than their own. The trick, he believes is to be a quick student and to develop certain traits: a sympathy for people and a suspicion of governments and politics. “I’ve been a politician. Believe me, they are seldom the sons of gentleman.”

One of the key responsibilities of journalists is to end the sanitization of war. The nations that sanitize the most – the US and the UK – seem to go to war the most casually, with disastrous consequences. At the same time, reporting from the battlefield is “more dangerous than at any time since 1945.”

Bell tells us that journalists need two allegiances only: to your audience and to the truth. “If you find yourself seeking the friendship of politicians, you are doing something wrong.”

Dahr Jamail has made a name for himself reporting, independently and unembedded, from Iraq. He tells us he wasn’t a journalist when he went to Iraq – he was a citizen concerned about the discrepancy of news coverage and the willingness of journalists to be “state propogandists”. His goal was to show the importance of reporting what people on the street think.

He was in Baghdad for less than 48 hours before hearing stories about torture, including pictures and sculptures of people suffering horribly at the hands of their captors. People were referring to Baghdad airport as “Guantanamo airport” because that’s where all the planes leaving where going. He tells the story of a torture victim dropped off at a city hospital – paperwork indicated that he’d had heatstroke, had suffered a heart attack and had slipped into a coma. But “that didn’t explain why his head was bashed in, why he had eletric point burns on his body”. Jamail sent a synopsis of the story, he tells us, to 150 newspaper editors in the US, including the New York Times and the Washington Post – not one picked it up. Six months later, Sy Hersh broke the story about torture at Abu Ghraib, but they could have picked it up much earlier.

In a later question, talking about the difficulty he has had getting US papers to pick up his reporting, Jamail talks about the importance of blogs and emerging media in putting pressure on mainstream papers. “I’m glad [media] is in a crisis. It deserves to be in a crisis.”

Samir Aita, who edits the Arabic version of Le Monde Diplomatique, argues that international journalists have two problems to solve: they need to understand the interaction between geopolitics and local affairs, and they have to understand how to report those realities to their local audiences. How do you explain Somalia? You have to explain fighting between businessmen, between factions and tribes as well as in religious or political terms. Looking at Ethiopia’s involvement in terms of a Christian country fighting a Muslim is an oversimpliciation that misses the reality of Ethiopia “doing the US’s business”. We need researchers, people who understand the background, to contextualize these issues, as well as people who can make these stories understandable to their audiences. Le Monde Diplomatique deals with these challenges internally, because there are 64 different editions of the publication – it is, in itself, a network of people figuring out how to translate these ideas and concepts into different languages.

Abdel Waha Badrakhan, the “editor elect” of the Al Jazeera newspaper, explains that Arab journalists used to believe that parachute media was a consequence of dictatorial governments and assumed that once they could follow the model of western journalists, they’d produce better, more contextualized media. There’s a lot to respect in the history of western journalism, he argues, singling out Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh for praise. But with the “increasing interference of the US in regional affairs,” he sees problems with the Western media as well and wonders, “is the US following the lead of Arab governments” and trying to control the free flow of news and information? The Iraq war, he contends, is a case study in how to hide information while fighting a war.

He asks whether Western biases are slanting the coverage of Darfur. “Is it really genocide? Or are there American interest in minerals involved in that situation?” He points out that the world only really understood what was happening in Guantanamo once Americans started asking what was going on. (The coverage of Darfur comes up twice in Badrakhan’s responses to questions – he clearly thinks that coverage needs to acknowledge a US/China rivalry, and needs to ask questions about the involvement of Southern Sudan in the Darfur conflict.)

One of the questions that comes from the floor reminds me of just what a tricky situation Jazeera finds itself in. The questioner reads from his notes, declaring that the Arab world has needed an English-language media that supports the Palestinian cause. The positioning of Al Jazeera English as a “neutral” network is something he sees as detracting from the network’s fairness. He declares that he now starts his days with BBC instead of Al Jazeera in Arabic, and expresses his hope that Al-Jazeera English won’t steer in the same direction. It’s a useful contrast to the complaints I often hear about Al Jazeera in the US, usually from people who haven’t actually watched the network…

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