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.
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.
*'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.
** This is the modified (supposedly better) version of a letter that I have now sent to AJE.