Compromising agenda?

The launch of al-Jazeera English is big news in the media world. It has already caused Tony Blair to admit the obvious over Iraq and will certainly continue to provide perspectives on world events that we rarely see in the Western media. However, this information is clearly worrying:

While in Ivory Coast on a reporting trip earlier this month, I met Gabi Menezes, Al Jazeera English’s Abidjan-based West Africa correspondent. She was rightly excited about the launch of the latest news network for the English-speaking world. Ms. Menezes’ description of Al Jazeera English’s plans for Africa intrigued me, considering the relative paucity of western television bureaux on the continent. The network had also posted correspondents in Johannesburg, Cairo, Nairobi and Harare. The idea of a Zimbabwean bureau struck me as a bit odd since the animosity of President Robert Mugabe’s regime towards local and foreign journalists is well-documented. Yet Zimbabwean Farai Sevenzo, a highly-credible journalist formerly with the BBC’s Africa service, is the correspondent. Considering its would-be rival, the BBC, is banned from the country, Al Jazeera English’s September 19th press release touting its Africa coverage gushed about its decision to set up shop in Harare. “In pursuing a news agenda that is all-inclusive, it is the only global news channel to be granted a license to operate a bureau in Zimbabwe,” the network said. “That will give Al Jazeera International unique access to this part of Southern Africa.” (NB: The network changed its name from Al Jazeera International to Al Jazeera English.)

Forget for a moment that “this part of Southern Africa” is now covered out of South Africa by most credible news organizations because most, if not all, of their Harare-based correspondents have left or been forced to leave the country by Mugabe’s regime. Let’s also suggest that Mugabe may be more popular amongst his citizenry than the western media has reported; indeed, perhaps millions upon millions of Zimbabweans remain grateful to the aging but brilliant orator for his role in the struggle to liberate the country from white rule. Still, even all that nuance can’t eradicate the reality that Zimbabwe is an economic mess. The World Bank, which isn’t particularly known for its cynicism towards aid or oil-inflated African growth rates, recently pointed out the country experienced negative growth of 2.4 percent in 2004. Four-digit inflation, at 1,070 percent in October 2006, can hardly help consumers who are already suffering from all kinds of shortages. That doesn’t account for the repressive measures used by the government against its real and perceived opponents.

All of that begs a single question: Precisely what are the terms of Al Jazeera English’s license to operate a bureau in Zimbabwe? If Mr. Sevenzo is allowed to produce stories that examine the faults of the Mugabe regime, which he has already done, then no one should dare question Al Jazeera English’s decision to establish a bureau in Harare. That shouldn’t preclude the network reporting on the positive aspects of life under Mugabe, assuming they exist. However, if the network’s stories gloss over Zimbabwe’s difficulties because the bureau wants to avoid offending the regime, then everybody will lose. Viewers won’t be granted an accurate picture of the country because the network is pulling its punches. Zimbabweans not in favor of Mugabe will likely consider Al Jazeera English to be one of his major apologists. Al Jazeera English will have sacrificed accuracy in favour of access, damaging its credibility amongst many Africans.…