Wednesday, April 25, 2007

ALJAZEERA: PROPAGANDISTS OR THE FUTURE?

This is our last day in Qatar and I have been unable to write here much simply because there’s been too much to do, both interesting and obligatory. It is now prayer time -- Muslims pray 5 times a day -- and you can hear the call to prayer as I sit here on a pier along the inlet coast on the Doha boardwalk and look across the bay at a skyline of a hundred hi-rise buildings, all of which were built yesterday or the day before. As my bud Paul points out, our hotel, on the tip of the peninsula of buildings I’m looking at, was the first one built after Qatar became a country in the mid 70’s. This is a place growing at warp speed.

Yesterday the big event was the trip to Aljazeera headquarters, something that we were only able to arrange a few hours before we drove through two sets of guard gates with little or no identity. In fact Paul’s identity was his name on a piece of paper and they said, “Fine, no problem.” As long as you don’t have a video camera, which of course we did. Aljazeera is Qatar-created and based, and is widely considered in America to be the propaganda arm of Osama bin Laden and other Arab America-haters. We were anxious to face the media devil who liked to broadcast American captives in Iraq getting beheaded on mini-DV cameras and all of those other “rotten apples” who were keeping us from establishing freedom in the Middle East. Aljazeera thinks of itself at the BBC for the rest of the world. The current administration thinks of them as Fox for the bad guys. You decide, assuming you could watch Aljazeera on American cable, which you can't.

The devil’s PR guy was a young, tall, soft-spoken Arab named Abdullah whose self-defined mission was to show us every broom closet and editing nook in the whole world news complex, a series of one-story buildings away from the big skyscrapers and 400 other buidlings under construction. The entry of the original Aljazeera, the Arab-speaking production unit (they now have an English-language unit and a pure documentary unit), was a room full of glass encasements with artifacts from the field.

One display was that of the Aljazeera (AJ) reporter who was “accidentally” shot down by American gunfire while reporting from the roof of the press buiilding in downtown Baghdad. Another display showed a picture and some handwritten letters from an AJ cameraman who is being held as a terrorist suspect at the American gulag in Cuba. The letters were to his child also pictured on the wall. The guy could be a deadly killer of Western infideds, I guess, but he sure looked like an innocent-faced tech worker with a family to feed. His story will be fascinating when he gets out, a story you will first see on Aljazeera.

Other displays held camera and other production equipment damaged on the battle front somewhere. AJ covers a lot of battles. Except for Iraq, where they were ordered to leave, they have bureaus in every war zone on earth, no doubt. While American news operations, except for CNN, probably, are cutting foreign bureaus because American viewers could care less about the war in Somalia or the election in Nigeria, AJ does nothing BUT foreign news coverage. The local Qatari rulers, the Emir and his administrators, don’t really like to turn on the TV and see news about Qatar, especially bad news. Their control of local news, on AJ or elsewhere, is only just starting to loosen. You can now read letters from disgruntled foreign workers in the local paper. As I said, this is a country changing from a desert tribal model of society to a world power at warp speed. It’s a great place to watch the history of the future unfold.

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