Apr 7, 2013

Al Jazeera takes on just another dictator

Saturday, April 6, 2013

by Marc Edge

The international news pioneer Al Jazeera has lots of experience covering dictators. The Qatar-based satellite TV broadcaster, which was founded in 1996 with US$137 million in funding from that Persian Gulf country's emir, made its name covering the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Bainimarma: "That's an insult."
That was the subject of a fascinating documentary by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, called Control Room, which explored important issues of objectivity and propaganda. Al Jazeera brought a balance not before seen in Arab media, broadcasting not just government propaganda, but also daring to cover the other side as well. Its motto was "The opinion and the other opinion," and it took balance so seriously that soon Israeli voices were even heard in the Arab world. That angered many Middle Eastern governments, so much so that Al Jazeera was banned from Iraq, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. It was also denounced by the U.S. for airing video of battlefield corpses and interviews with POWs and even Osama bin Laden. Its rich funding has allowed Al Jazeera to install 70 correspondents in 35 bureaus around the world at one count, enabling it to provide coverage of international events that has arguably surpassed CNN and now rivals BBC World. It soon became the go-to source during the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings that began springing up across the Middle East a couple of years ago. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called it "real news," in contrast to the pap produced by the American networks.
You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.
Al Jazeera began broadcasting in English in 2006 but was unable to gain a toehold on more than a few cable systems in the U.S. and Canada. It may have remedied that problem earlier this year when it bought tiny cable channel Current TV from former U.S. vice president Al Gore for $500 million, which it will use as the base for its planned Al Jazeera America. It is now in the process of beefing up its U.S.-based journalism and just last week lured away CNN anchor Ali Velshi, who is an Arab-Canadian. 

Al Jazeera even provides much of the international news coverage seen in Fiji, as it is broadcast on both Mai TV and FBC to help fill those long hours of off-prime programming. That makes its interview with prime minister Frank Bainimarama significant, because the hard questions it asked Fiji's dictator stand in sharp contrast to the timid coverage provided by the country's domestic networks.

Can you imagine a reporter for FBC or Fiji TV describing the prime minister's constitutional consultations the way that Al Jazeera correspondent Andrew Thomas did? 

"What might seem like the ultimate democratic exercise, asking all Fijians to review and endorse this document," intoned Thomas, holding up a copy of the Bainimarma draft, "is dismissed by many as a sham, a way for Fiji’s military ruler to tighten his grip on power." 

Then the Sydney-based "roving" correspondent, who has been with Al Jazeera since 2010, had the temerity to actually allow a Fijian to voice these types of concerns. It's a good thing he got out of the country before his report went to air. Now that it has, Thomas may not be allowed back. His description of the Bainimarama draft was heard over shots that included one of the Fiji Sun's screaming front page headline that recently urged Fijians to SUPPORT HIM.
It keeps Bainimarama in power until election day and allows him to lean on the media and sideline opposition parties and critics in the run-up to it. Then it gives extraordinary powers to whoever is elected prime minister. No community leaders will review this document. Instead the prime minister has taken to the airwaves, asking the people to put their comments straight to him. 
The report then shows Thomas and Bainimarama walking and talking, with Permanent Secretary for Information Sharon Smith-Johns following close behind. “No, no, all positive, no criticism,” Bainimarama is heard telling Thomas before the report switches to an exchange from their sit-down interview.
Thomas: Are you confident that you will win next year’s election and is that because you’ve essentially rigged the constitution to make sure you do get elected?
Bainimarama: I think that’s an insult to the people that’s put together this constitution, when you say “by rigging this constitution.” You don’t rig [a] constitution. The constitution is for the people of the Fiji. You think I did all this just to rig the constitution?
The report then cuts to the British-born correspondent telling viewers that this is "exactly what some people do think" before airing part of an interview with CCF head Rev. Akuila Yabaki.

"This amounts really to a constitutional coup," Yabaki tells Thomas. "He would have been the author of a constitution that concentrates power in the prime minister, and if he becomes prime minister he benefits from a constitution which he himself has authored." To which Bainimarama protested that his critics are "talking out of the top of their heads. They don’t know, really. They don’t want to know what we have in place."

Thomas left Fiji's democratic future hanging in his extro: "As well as a tropical paradise, Frank Bainimarama says he wants Fiji to be known as a respected democracy. Whether his constitution can provide that, though, is unclear."

But in a subsequent blog post, Thomas gives a more candid assessment of the regime's draft constitution.
Many in Fiji and elsewhere fear the government-sanctioned charter will merely provide cover for ongoing autocratic rule. . . . There has to be a level playing field going into [elections]; the dice can't be weighted in one candidate's favour. That's what good constitutions ensure.  They level playing fields and make sure the dice aren't dodgy.
Then he tells the story of the lunch he attended on Thursday with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who hosted a group of foreign correspondents. Seated conveniently close to the Seat of Power, he says he was able to apprise her of his visit to Fiji and grill her on the situation there. Gillard gave the "stock response about Fiji," according to Thomas, "without referring directly to concerns over the latest incarnation of the constitution."
She said, "Commodore Bainimarama needs to be held to his promises and accountabilities about having those elections, and they need to be held on time and properly done." Few now doubt Bainimarama is indeed committed to the first part, that elections are held "on time". But, without the second part as well, elections “properly done”, Fiji may be a democracy in name only. 
Al Jazeera has now given worldwide TV coverage to the misgivings many have over Bainimarama's manipulation of Fiji's constitutional process.

Coming hard on the heels of the Economist's recent dissection of his machinations, it shows that it is unlikely Bainimarama's draft constitution will stand up to international scrutiny, at least from journalists. Whether it will pass muster with foreign leaders is another matter, of course. But one thing is for sure, as Thomas notes in ending his blog post: "Constitutional clauses can sometimes be dry, but they can also be crucial."

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