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Capturing the new coffeehouse chatter: An interview with Moeed Ahmad, Head of New Media, Al Jazeera

October 19 2009

Since 1996, the Qatari news organisation Al Jazeera has stood out from within a media landscape largely dominated by politically motivated, state-run institutions as an independent source of news and commentary in the Middle East. Never afraid of controversy, Al Jazeera broke new ground by presenting dissenting views and by enabling and encouraging an open discourse on politics and issues through call-in shows and on-air debates.

Its English language counterpart Al Jazeera English, produced in cooperation with the BBC, has been broadcast since 2006, expanding the reach of the station and its agenda to the rest of the world (albeit with some notable exceptions). This expansion has been taken to new levels with the increasing impact of social media in the news gathering and production process. Moeed Ahmad, Head of New Media for the Al Jazeera Network, is at the forefront of these developments, and has a clear agenda for the future role it can play in fostering an open discussion in the Middle East and beyond.

Al Manakh contributor Rory Hyde spoke to Moeed at the PICNIC ’09 conference in Amsterdam, where Moeed presented his team’s work mapping reports during the Gaza conflicts under the theme The Arab Social Web.

Moeed Ahmad presenting at PICNIC ’09 conference

Rory Hyde: I wanted to start with one of the statements that you made in your presentation yesterday: ‘social media is happening in the Arab world, and it’s happening in a different form.’ How is the way social media is emerging unique to the region?

Moeed Ahmad: Freedom of speech for example, in the West, you have had newspapers and independent press for a long period of time. In the Middle East – particularly within Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region or the Sham area of Jordan, Syria, Egypt and so on – you have not had that luxury for the past 100 years or so. Since these countries have gained independence from whichever European colonists, most of the governments have been dictatorships or monarchies, and freedom of speech is not one of the things that is common.

So when social networking and blogging developed, it took these governments unaware. A lot of the things being discussed on these blogs are very different, because they were sort of living in a vacuum where is no way that people can express anything; from their frustrations, their local culture, or even a developed understanding. So it’s filling those gaps in society in general in these regions. As opposed to North America or Europe – more developed countries – you have had freedom of press for a long time, and there’s no reaction to anything. Blogging is sort of an add-on, and you’ll find a lot of it is ‘what you did today’, ‘what your cat is like’, and so on. But in the Middle East, you’ll find it’s very political.

RH: Because it’s so empowering to have that voice now.

MA: Exactly…to have that voice, to express our lifestyle, and the different social issues that are coming up. Because there are a lot of pressures within these regions, there are a lot of things that are suppressed, so a lot of these things are clashing. There’s a lot of Western influence, there’s a lot of Eastern influence, there is extremism on one side, there is extreme liberalism, secularism and Islamic identity. All of these things are clashing. And there was no means of expression for this except for, say, very dispersed coffeehouse chatter. And now this is becoming a way for people to express it, and not just express it for themselves, but as a window to the West for them to understand it as well.

You also find that a lot of these people who are blogging are also blogging in English. Imagine Iraq where there’s such mystery and total misinformation about the country itself and the way it is projected to the West, and now you can read the blogs that are coming out of there. They can talk about their experiences before and after the events of the last six or seven years, and you can see it in the subject matter being discussed on those blogs.

War on Gaza, Al Jazeera’s experimental effort to track reports from Twitter and mobile devices during the Gaza conflict of January 2009.

RH: What’s the role of Al Jazeera in engaging with this new media then? Do you act as a gathering and ordering channel for this new ‘coffeehouse chatter’ that’s happening online? What is the relationship between this new empowerment and the way Al Jazeera is using new media?

MA: You know, Al Jazeera itself got its strength of mission and defined itself as giving a voice to the voiceless. Before Al Jazeera, all the media was state run. You only heard the government line over and over again, from all different sources of media, be it the newspaper, be it TV or radio. It was the same message that was going to the whole public. The public could not hear what other people felt about it. So the general understanding was that ‘this is the line, this is how everybody feels.’ Ok so I might not feel that way, but only I know that. You can’t communicate this on a mass level at all. The frustrations or thoughts on different topics, the opinions on how the government is shaping internal policy or foreign policy, relations within the Arab world and so on.

So Al Jazeera did that by going to the masses, getting their opinions, broadcasting them over satellite to every household, so that people can get that sense of what is happening in the rest of the world as well from within the Arab world. Be it critical or be it positive. It’s just showing you what’s going on in the street. Now [social media] is the same thing, but just in a different form. On the Internet, everything is read/write as opposed to just read, or just broadcast. So the idea of interaction is built into what Al Jazeera is. On the web, the way we’ve managed it so far is not by saying ‘ok you need to come to and say what you need to say.’ People are already talking; people are already saying it on their blogs. We don’t want to be the channel through which they speak all the time. We want them to have a more informed discussion, a more informed opinion. So we make sure that we’re available on the Internet, that our content is available on You Tube so that they can comment on it, view it and discuss it.

RH: So your role is to encourage and foster this discussion.

MA: Exactly. It’s not about ‘stickiness’ for example, that everything must happen on my site and the eyeballs need to be here. No, it’s more about the content, so you can take it to your community where the discussion is happening and we’ll inform you: ‘this is what we know and this is what we have access to as a news organisation.’ This is what our business is about. But you’re the one who’s going to have the discussion right; so you can have it on Twitter, on Facebook or on You Tube, that’s fine.

The other thing we’ve done – which I mentioned it briefly in my presentation – is to initiate, which is a group of very talented young bloggers who form a worldwide network of citizen journalists. They very enthusiastically report on where they are living, and they say ‘okay, this is what Al Jazeera carried, and this is my opinion on it.’ Whatever the situation may be, these are people who are living there. So it’s not like a transplanted journalist, going to a particular country in North Africa to cover it and then coming back. These are students, most generally, who are living there, doing their day jobs or studying, and they are commenting on the story as it happens. We found that to be maybe an even better mechanism so far to foster discussion.

RH: How does this really ‘open’ approach to distribution of media – releasing everything under Creative Commons with complete transparency – run up against the new investment in other countries? Particularly the UAE and Bahrain who are both setting up their own media organisations. Are those other efforts seen as competition or as part of a healthy ecosystem of media?

MA: Yes, we need to foster media creation within the region. It’s healthy because the more people who are generating content and reporting, the better it is. But Al Jazeera would like to set the standard in reporting in terms of being objective; being thorough; giving better context. We would hope that others that would look up that, and act to that as well. So, competition is never a bad thing really. It’s just who can do a better job, and we’d like to stick to our values and enhance them as we go along.

RH: You mentioned before that there are a lot of bloggers who are writing in English and twittering in English in an attempt to have their voice heard beyond the boundaries of their language. Do you see something particularly interesting in how this software – particularly Twitter – has a flattening effect, simply because it’s a common platform for discussion across the world? I’m thinking of Gaza or the Iranian election as a trending topic on Twitter, which I imagine is largely used by a Western audience. How do you think that changes the understanding of those issues from the Western side, and how do these local bloggers feel about this attention from the rest of the world?

Spike of interest in the disputed Iran election as evidenced on Twitter. Via.

MA: I think they are just seeing this as big distribution avenues where they can start to publish their thoughts to a very large audience. Particularly during the Iranian elections we saw that the world was looking at Twitter very keenly. For us as a news organisation, that’s an opportunity, and it’s also a challenge as well. The challenge is obviously that this information is not verified. Are you using it as a news source? Are you using it as social commentary? Are you using it as opinion? What are you using it for? Many people started reporting as if the things that were coming out of Twitter were facts. In fact there’s no easy way of verifying much of the content there. There are avenues to do so of course, and there are strengths and weaknesses of any method of getting public input.

But I think that these are just services which are becoming part of our daily lives and our consumption. These are just fertile grounds where you can go and make out of it what you need. Because the information is out there, we’re getting better contacts in general. Before it was monopolized, there were only a few organisations which had access to what was going on. And they would translate all this information and they would bring it out, and all of the West would view the story through that ‘prism’. And whatever slant was put on it, they would take it. So now you have multiple voices, but that doesn’t mean they are all right either. You might get propaganda for instance. Recently during the South African election for example, it felt that the opposition was going to win the election if you followed what was happening on Twitter – as the opposition supporters were extremely active. But that’s not what happened in actual fact.

RH: So it’s hard to take a position based on particular people on Twitter, who might have particular views.

MA: Exactly. And we were careful, one of our colleagues is South African, and they had the sense from within South Africa of ‘ok, this is really what the situation is.’ But if a news organisation has no real connection, and they are using only Twitter, they are going to totally miss the boat if they use it as a sample. Because it is not an actual cross-section of the society. So its about understanding how to use that information. These things are just adding more colour to the picture we have.

Screen grab of the Demand Al Jazeera English campaign site, designed to pressure cable channels to broadcast AJE in the United States.

RH: Just to return to what you mentioned earlier, that the West has a free press, freedom of speech and a pluralist media as opposed to a centralized state-run one. What do you think of the issues Al Jazeera has had in finding a cable channel or distributor in the US? I’m referring of course to the ‘Demand Al Jazeera’ campaign. Do you see this as an incredible irony?

MA: (Laughs) Obviously when I say they have had freedom of press, that’s with a lot of caveats. Some of it is obviously political, and some of it is commercial. And it has all sorts of impacts, you realize obviously that much of these news organisations are motivated by economic requirements, constraints, and corporate interests that are sometimes very visible in their reporting…

RH: Surely it has more to do with a broader fear of the Muslim world amongst US audiences?

MA: It is, exactly, but that is not political. For example, whenever we have done town hall meetings – in Vermont for example – they discussed the fact that they wanted the cable channels to carry it, and they got it through because an overwhelming majority of people wanted it. In Canada they recently conducted a referendum to find out whether people wanted Al Jazeera. They had 92% or 98% in favor of carrying it, even though up until now the CRTTC (Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission) had been not letting Al Jazeera through. Not directly, but by effectively saying ‘if you’re going to carry Al Jazeera, as a broadcast company you are liable if anything is controversial.’ That is not the case with any other channel. So no cable company will say, ‘I want to take that liability,’ because if somebody wants to sue them, it’s not their game. So they’re just making it more difficult by adding extra restrictions. So some reasons are political and some are commercial, you have all different levels.

And obviously there’s a lot of fear and mystery around the brand and the general culture at large. But I suspect that is going away with time. With the Internet, what we have done is put everything on YouTube in English and Arabic, so if you think it’s a mystery go check it out. You’ll find out. A lot of people won’t by the way. Even in my presentations I ask how many people have actually seen it, and the majority haven’t even though it’s available on the Internet. Obviously not everybody is going on YouTube and looking for Al Jazeera. They go to the cable channel and they turn it on when they’re having dinner, and they watch whatever is on. Patterns haven’t shifted so drastically that just by being on YouTube, everybody is going to watch you, even if they want to.

I suspect that in the US we are breaking ground and that hopefully in the near future we will have better availability. I suspect that [Al Jazeera will be available in] Canada maybe later this year or earlier next year, and the US as well. Right now we have been given distribution the DC area since July; about two million households. So the Pentagon had it from day one, and for the general public, it’s coming.

RH: It’s incredible that it’s such an issue.

MA: Yes, I think that people need to talk about it…discuss it.

RH: It comes from years of terrorist videos being broadcast on Al Jazeera, right?

MA: Exactly, but I suspect that’s going to change with discussion and when people become more informed. But honestly I feel like the local [US] press covers what’s happened. If there is an allegation made against Al Jazeera they never print our response to it. Donald Rumsfeld said ‘Al Jazeera shows beheadings’ – on national TV, he said we show beheadings! Where, in fact, Al Jazeera has never ever shown a beheading. Not on the Arabic or English channel. There are certain rules that we adhere to. But when he said it, everybody believes it. All the time I speak to people and they say, ‘oh you guys show killings and everything.’

RH: So that’s what stuck.

MA: Yeah that’s what stuck in their minds. But has anybody published a response to it? Can anybody prove that fact? Look through everything that’s documented all the way from 1996 to now, can you show one instance where it was done? No. So this environment has to change. I think with Obama coming in there’s a lot of change. Our Director General, who has never been allowed into the US, was recently allowed in. He went and spoke in DC at the New America Foundation, and I think he had a number of meetings with some American officials as well. So things are opening up and I suspect there’s a positive mood in the air.

Further information on Moeed and Al Jazeera:
Al Jazeera English Homepage
Al Jazeera Labs – Site collecting the new media initiatives of Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera Talk – Public platform for feedback and discussion
Al Jazeera English on YouTube
Moeed Ahmad at Picnic ‘09
Moeed Ahmad’s blog
@moeed on Twitter

Filed under Culture, Interview


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