Tuesday, 22 February 2011

About Those 'African Mercenaries', An Open Letter to Al Jazeera From Africa

Dear .......... (Insert name of media organisation and modify letter as you wish)


Dear Al Jazeera


I have decided to write this letter to you as you've been the channel I watch the most for informative coverage on events in the Middle East and North Africa. In many ways your coverage has been amazing and I sincerely applaud the unbelievably brave efforts of your journalists who had to work under very difficult conditions to cover events in North Africa. However I now write to you with concern at international media's coverage of events in Libya, particularly concerning 'African mercenaries'. I honestly don't have a problem with the term 'African mercenaries' because this is how Libyans probably refer to Black non-Libyans, but what bothers me is the way some of your tv anchors and field journalists continue to push this meme on air. For example on Sunday the anchor on Al Jazeera English, David (I didn't get his last name, he was an older man with an English accent hosting the news around 6 p.m GMT) said 'mercenaries are coming from Africa' ...but Libya is in Africa. As correction perhaps, the Al Jazeera website had an excellent Features article, 'In Search of an African Revolution' the very next day on Monday (21 Feb) addressing this very issue.


And yet your other journalists continue to refer to 'Black African mercenaries coming from Africa' (as with the 1p.m broadcast at the Egypt/Lybia border on 22 Feb with the courageous and brilliant Jamaal Elyshayyal) yet some of those mercenaries are also reportedly Arab and European. (RE: David Smith's column in Guardian UK) Understandably this may have been an unintentional oversight on the part of the news network as this is what Libyans on the ground are reporting, but I think continually pushing a singular narrative about a more complex story has the danger of reinforcing an African and Arab narrative that has an uncomfortable racial connotation to it. I am not accusing Al Jazeera of having a racial bias, far from it. I just feel its important for the network to be sensitive to how this issue plays out to an international audience of both Black Africans and Arabs when the full story is untold. 


Elsewhere, other Al Jazeera and international journalists who although tweeting in their personal capacity, tweet the news and again they repeat this 'mercenaries are coming from Africa' line. One has to wonder whether we're looking at the same map when we speak of Africa or is this some journo code-speak ordinary people are not privy to?



As reports are emerging, it seems to be that the 'mercenaries from Africa' are most likely from Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Tunisia and Guinea as well as South Africa and parts of Europe. So they are White, Arab, European and Black, not all Black Africans. They may not be from the Congo, maybe not from Somalia but almost certainly not Zimbabwe as some wild speculations claimed. Yes, there was no plane full of soldiers dispatched from Harare to Tripoli at 1 a.m (!) on Sunday morning - any well-educated Zimbabwean could have told these international journalists tweeting in their personal capacity that this 'witness account', as dubbed by Al Jazeera, was untrue. Of course AJE is only the messenger so you can't be blamed for what you can't verify and I don't blame you. But since this is an open letter I may as well post some info for other inquiring minds who'll stumble on my blog. For starters soldiers are not mercenaries, our history of mercenaries is mainly from the apartheid era, Mozambique's civil war and the Angolan war when White South Africans and White Zimbabweans (some of them were former Rhodesian soldiers) would use Zimbabwe as temporary base but they did not operate in Zimbabwe. Secondly today in Zimbabwe we have thugs (don't often use guns but often beat and rape) not mercenaries (skilled hit-men like Simon Mann (Equatorial Guinea plot)) that are busy with their own electoral campaign of violence, thirdly Zimbabwe's thugs* have no knowledge of Libyan terrain and finally Zimbabwe doesn't speak French. Sadly no amount of @'ing international journos on twitter could kill this rumor. But as untruths die in time, I sincerely hope that this untruth will die sooner rather than later. (see Smith's column)


Anyway about these mercenaries and Al Jazeera's role in coverage. As there have been suggestions that it is likely the 'African mercenaries' are from the above-mentioned African countries, I'd like to know why an investigative journalist couldn't be dispatched to these countries to find out how the mercenaries work - surely Chad, Tunisia and Niger are not as hostile to international journalists as Mummar Gadaffi's Libya. If not, could a Chadian Ambassador or Activist could be invited to Al Jazeera studios to share their view? How can the story of mercenaries be reported to the exclusion of Chad, yet Chad is the French and Arabic speaking nation where some of these hitmen are allegedly coming from?


It bears repeating that Chad is an Arab African nation. It is Libya's neighbor. As your coverage is mainly centered on the 'Arab World' its tempting to think that Chad is perhaps not Arab enough that it should be spoken of and not spoken to in news reports and analyses. I appreciate that this is a fast-developing story and there are many angles to cover, but the impact of events in Libya on security and political relations between these two countries cannot be so insignificant that it's not worthy of mention, can it? At the very least one would think, Idriss Deby must be having sleepless nights while the Arabs next door are revolting. He could very well be the next Arab dictator to go. Does the Chadian government not have an opinion on the fact that the Brotherly Leader, King of Kings of Africa is said to be using Sub-Saharan Arab Africans and Africans to kill North African Arabs? Oops I'm sorry, I meant Chadian gunmen are allegedly crossing the border to help murder protesting Libyans? And Niger? Is it too poor to mention? 0.12% of the people speak Arabic if that helps.


UNHCR is becoming increasingly concerned at the displacement and violence experienced by foreigners living in Libya, including the other one million plus legal and illegal migrants from different parts of Africa other than Egypt. In the interests of humanity, its only fair and right that Al Jazeera to report on the fate of these people as well as they have reported Egyptian, Turkish and Italian migrants returning from Libya. 


This isn't just an Arab story, its an African story and it's a World story too. It must be told as such, with its multi-layered, complex, tragic and heartwarming narratives including the all too-often forgotten voices of poor migrants and refugees of all hues, tongues, nationalities and faiths. 


Al Jazeera's code of ethics states that the organisation aims to: 

1. Adhere to the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity, giving no priority to commercial or political over professional consideration.
2. Endeavour to get to the truth and declare it in our dispatches, programmes and news bulletins unequivocally in a manner which leaves no doubt about its validity and accuracy.


To me, this suggests that Al Jazeera strives to be impartial, give a voice to the voiceless and empower people to hold their governments and institutions to account. As the media organisation is becoming a leading player in international affairs, Al Jazeera has the chance to re-shape political and social discourses of our time, it has the potential to shift the centers of power from the traditionally empowered to the historically marginalized. Given that Al Jazeera wields this potential influence to enable a plurality of voices to speak, as a viewer, I don't understand why the Libyan Uprising being covered from a largely singular perspective. I feel that the story is still told from a West v Middle East perspective. Granted it is thankfully being told from the Middle Eastern side, but the speakers still remain the same. You promise to uphold 'fairness, balance' so it's fair to ask, when will other voices be invited to speak on this matter? Here's a suggestion, just for a day, in between field reports, you could have ongoing satellite conversations with diplomats from the UN, AU and Arab League battling it out with Libyan activists and bloggers who want to know where the real help is for Libya is, rather than going through a never-ending list of London and Washington's political and financial experts. I think that would be an 'unequivocal' display of 'fair and balanced' ethics, non?


If the Arab League, the EU and United Nations are being interrogated for their role in stopping the carnage in Libya, then the AU should be in the spotlight too. Its shameful that they have been silent on this issue and yet they, under Article 4 of the Constitutive Act, have a humanitarian responsibility to intervene in the affairs of a member state of the African Union when a crime against humanity is committed. Its funny but sad and infuriating that Al Jazeera spends more time discussing what the Arab League must, can or will do yet it can only issue condemnations and suspensions of Libya. None of these things will stop the carnage. The African Union has a peace keeping force that could help Lybia, that is why John Kerry of the Obama administration suggested this tonight (at about 7 p.m GMT 22 Feb), but the Al Jazeera anchor and Libyan analyst in the studio glossed over this and went back to discussing the Arab League and UN.
The news broadcast then switched to gathering views from around the world and South America, North America and Europe all had opinions. Nothing from Africa. Nothing from Asia. I laughed out loud, but inside I died a little and it hurt a bit. Is the Africa beneath the Sahara that irrelevant? Have African leaders, diplomats and UN representatives not been asked? Perhaps your Africa news desk is aware that the African Heads of Missions (AU) might be meeting in South Africa today. If its taking place it would be great if one of your correspondents in S.A could ask senior AU figures about the possibility of sending Lybia some of the peacekeeping troops that are partly funded by Gadaffi. As an African member-state, this is Libya's security investment so the AU should be pressured to get in there and save Libyans from the terror of this mad man and his sons. Please don't let the AU escape from responsibility because it doesn't fit the 'Arab World Revolutions' narrative. Right now Libyan lives matter more than pondering about 'new pan-Arab uprisings' and decoding Hillary Clinton and William Hague's diplo-speak.


I honestly don't mean to offend, but I'm a frustrated viewer who enjoys Al Jazeera's coverage and believes that the network has the ability to be the champion of the people. All people. As an African I was raised to see to the Continent as a whole with all its differences, contradictions and multiple identities, not to the exclusion of others. We are all Africans. The countries below the (sometimes imaginary) Saharan line may be the North's poorer half, but we matter too. In solidarity, the Lybian, Egyptian and Tunisian struggles are mine too as a young-ish person who lives under an oppressive regime. Including the Sub-Saharan Africans in this conversation would only further the North Africans cause as both the AU like the Arab League is a mixed club of despots and liberals all of whom have a case to answer to oppressed peoples on the whole Continent.



You can see a slightly longer version of this letter posted on my blog. A number of people have read it, shared it on twitter and some people, North Africans included, have commented on the post. I have also shared it on Twitter and have gotten a positive response thus far. I hope that despite, my cheekiness you will address my concerns. You may perhaps take comfort in knowing that I'm not singling out Al Jazeera, it's an across the board progressive media non-engagement with Africa as a whole and I will be writing open letters to the few revolutionary-inclined print media organisations that I've relied on for coverage as well.

I look forward to receiving a response from you regarding the concerns I have raised.

Thank you for reading my letter.

Yours Sincerely

A. Viewer
*'Zimbabwe's thugs' is not to imply that I am covering or defending for their brutality but a clumsy way of saying that their violence has been unleashed out on innocent, often defenceless people within the borders of Zimbabwe.
** This is the modified (supposedly better) version of a letter that I have now sent to AJE.

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree, but you know the missconception is do deeply inplanted on the mind, am Arab but i made a choice: Islam so i consider everyone my brother and i hate racism, i'm always fightin against arab racism on black brothers....
But Al Jazeera didn't mean it when they seperate Libya from Africa it's on the minds.
This is not an excuse of course, when people asking me where i'm from i always answer Africa but they look at me like WHAT?
I don't know why North Africa is seperated from the rest of the continent. Maybe a case of divide to conquer.
Like one my arabic friends who thinks like me said ironiclly : oh, there is a North African continent? i didn't know?.
I hope one day people of Marocco Algeria... will said like i do we are africans.
By the way thoose people who separate Africa from North Africa do,'t find trange to play in the African Cup .

phx said...

Very insightful, you opened up my mind.

Sophia said...

The favorite passages of this grateful Egyptian:

"Is Chad not Arab enough and is the impact of events in Libya on security and political relations between these two countries so insignificant that it's not worthy of mention?"

"This isn't just an Arab story, its an African story and it's a World story too."

"If the Arab League, the EU and United Nations are being interrogated for their role in stopping the carnage in Libya, then the AU should be in the spotlight too."

Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

You must have been educated in the US - there's a lot of PC in your words, and that's not African nor Arab for SURE.

KonWomyn said...

Hi Anonymous at 2159

Thanks for the comment. You're right there's a sentiment that being African somehow means one is inferior and that's come from centuries of racism, slavery and colonialism. I think its time that people started to address those differences and media like Al Jazeera can help.

There so many people all over Africa who were cheering for Egypt and even now as Libyans are being killed people are crying for Lybia - but these people are never shown on TV. In times of crisis, the division between Arabs and Africans or North and South is irrelevant.

If your friends knew how much the rest of us supported Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt & Lybia they wouldn't look down on the idea of being African.

Please post again and let me know what's happening in your country and I'll put it up on my blog.

...peace

KonWomyn said...

phx

Hello. Are you from DV's blog? Thanks for stopping by and checking out my blog.

Sophia

Thank you for reading tweeting and dropping a comment! Your struggle as an Egyptian is my struggle too. :)

Anonymous 0439

Hey. No, I'm not PC or American-educated, this is quite blunt actually. Al Jazeera might not like me much after this. : )

Joe Black said...

We don't owe Al Jazeera any political correctness or politeness. We are consumers of their product, and we should have a say when their product is below standard.

Look at the successes in the so-called Arab revolution - Tunisia (African) Egypt (African) ... and yet they totally ignore African voices in all of this.

I have been watching AJE all along and they haven't had one (black) African talking head on this issue - not one.

Conversely, any word from Ivory Coast? The near 24hr coverage from Egypt and Libya has eclipsed that other major story.

For shame. But hey, at least you're more informative than CNN or even BBC World.

Nii said...

Excellent piece Komwomyn!

psychox said...

You've probably already seen this, but someone at Al Jazeera agrees with you:

http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/02/201122164254698620.html

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly subscribe to the viewer's post. It shows how heterogeneous a continent such as Africa is, and how long the path to embrace its diversity will be.
The OP is most certainly 20 years ahead of his time.

Oh Crap said...

Thanks so much for this post! This rhetoric and mentality is NOT lost on your US bros and sis's with sub-Saharan blood. I, too, am watching these AJ CNN, etc reports, with disgust. More here, if you are interested: http://bit.ly/ftASYx.

Anonymous said...

I think all of you are wide of the mark. While there are small numbers of other mercenaries from Tunisia and what is described as "white" mercenaries, the vast majority are Sub-Saharan Africans.

Yes, I use the term African. So do the U.S. census department.

An African-American for example, refers to someone who is black. It does not apply to say an American say with Egyptian history, who if is not black then would not be called african-american, despite hailing from the african continent.

Common sense

Anonymous said...

A non-story really. When a Libyan says "African", they mean non-Arab people from Africa, who just happen to be mostly black. Maybe you didn't know, but Arabs are from the Middle East, not native to Africa. Nothing to do with racism.

KonWomyn said...

Anonymous 18:38

How do you know the total number of foreign mercenaries in Libya? Do you have a link to source? Please post it.

I think Egyptians in America, refer to to themselves as Egyptian Americans. If they like Sophia who has commented above felt that they have multiple identities they identify with - the US census department cannot stop her from calling herself an Arab African American or Arab American or African American or Egyptian American or Egyptian if she so chooses. Identity is not solely determined by the state. That is common sense.

KonWomyn said...

OhCrap

Thanks for the link, I'll link to yours and others I've received tomorrow in a separate post, unrelated to AJE.


Anonymous 1841

I am assuming you're a different person. What do you mean 'non-Arab people from Africa who just happen to be Black' when people in Chad are Arabs too as I pointed out.

I actually didn't realize that all the people called Arabs in North Africa are all from the Middle East. What does native mean if a group of people arrived in Africa in the 7th century and has been there for generations since. Are they still 'not native to Africa'?

And what about the Maghreb who've lived in that region since the Ice Age but are also included in the broad definition of North African and Arab. Are they foreign too? Are they 'Arabs from the Middle East' as well?

job said...

Aljezeera, you have lost my respect, you have misrepresented black African people with your representation, and for you to include Zimbabwe without any foundation is depressing, why would Zimbabweans who cant stand the desert heat speak the language dare go to Libya, and Zimbabweans have their country running again why would they even bother, it seems you are trying so much to gain acceptance in the western world , that why you just had to throw in Zimbabwe

KonWomyn said...

Job

Please read the comment on Zimbabwe again. It's not Al Jazeera who said that, it was a person from Libya who said so. That part of the letter is addressing some of the rumors that have been spreading. Don't blame Al Jazeera for that.

phx said...

KonWomyn: Yes, good catch. I found this through someone's twitter link, and then I wrote my comment & still didn't notice the 'KonWomyn'.

Thanks for the welcome. This is such a good post - I will certainly be back to see what else you have to say.

EmCee said...

I really appreciate your very thoughtful writing. It feels so rare to find writing about an issue with nuance, where you can show your appreciation for something, while questioning and criticizing, complete with an array of subtleties. I am now very interested in following your blog further. Thanks!

Greetings from Finland/U.S.

Sophia said...

@Anonymous (the second)

Yes - My father (Egyptian) is phenotypically black and I am brown. We represent the vast majority of Egypt, and the vast majority of so-called "North Africa" (which is a completely arbitrary separation).

I am an Egyptian citizen, Arabic is my mother tongue, I identify with Arab culture most closely, my last name is Ethiopian (and we don't know where it comes from but let's not forget about centuries of migration throughout the continent!), and I call myself an Afro-Arab because that most accurately expresses who I am. I am always African and always Arab.

There are a lot of us Afro-Arabs, and there are a lot of dark-skinned (I hate that we even have to justify this with skin tone...) people in "North Africa" who do and do not identify as black just as there are people of African descent all over the planet of all shades who choose whether or not to identify as black.

The reality is many confuse people who call themselves "Arab" as somehow separating themselves from blackness or "Africanness" (forgive me for making up words). Arabic is a language, and communities and culture form around language. They are not homogeneous, just as no other linguistic group is. What we typically consider an "Arab" - whether in Africa or Asia - is just another (usually) mixed-race person living within symbolic borders - symbolic of colonialism, that is - and struggling to negotiate between what identity we have been instructed we are and what identities we actually ascribe to.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more on this. Your letter is brilliant. Actually it should be sent to BBC, CNN, and all these so called "International News channels"broadcasting about Libya. They are all doing the same damn mistake and at times I wonder if these journalist ever took any geography lessons.

RESPECT and thanks again for the letter

Viewer in Germany

KonWomyn said...

Thanks for your kind words everyone. Much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

The reality is that although countries such as Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt are in North Africa, these countries do not consider themselves African- instead they associate the word 'African' with slavery, darkness, wickedness and subhuman. They consider themselves Arab but ironically, Arabs in the Middle East do not consider North Africans Arabs! As for the North African position on being Arab, it is a bit like Italians saying Italy is in Europe but Italians are not Europeans. I think it is time North Africans face reality and accept that they are Africans since their countries are in Africa, regardless of their ancestral origins (which by all accounts includes Black African, Arabian Bedouin, Amazeg and Moors).

Twelfth of March said...

Thanks for writing such an informative post, great comments too.

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Roccoljum said...

Very insightful, you opened up my mind.

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