Posted by: ambika samarthya on Thu, 2011-03-10 11:43


Can it be said that no two countries are unhappy in the same way? With the fall of Tunisia followed by the revolution in Egypt, and then the domino spill over many of the countries in the Middle East, that theory has been challenged.

Not only do these countries have similar cultural demographics and histories, but ultimately they are/were ruled by autocratic leaders, oppressed by police brutality, and embittered by unemployment. Most of all their youth have inspired each other and actively use social media.

I think another strong uniting factor is Al Jazeera. Along with bloggers and the camera phone videos, Al Jazeera has encouraged and supported the overhaul of oppressive leaders in the Middle East. They posed a large enough threat in Egypt that the government suspended their press passes. This did not stop them – rather it drew more attention to their power – and they continued to air live coverage from Egypt using audience uploads of locally produced blogs and videos to inform people of the clashes first hand. At a time when lessons may be learned and the world is watching, those who are afraid have their eyes glued on Al Jazeera.

Many people may not even have heard of Al Jazeera, but it remains one of the most progressive institutions in the Arab world, and has given continuous informative and often controversial coverage to that region. Taking a walk through any Arab community in America, it is likely Al Jazeera that is playing in the gyro shops and in the waiting rooms of local organizations. It has over 50 million viewers in the Middle East and is the primary source of a dissenting voice. While Al Jazeera is committed to voicing another face of politics and creating dialogue in the Arab World, most people would agree that it is a policy maker – it helps shape public dialogue and creates a demand for change.

What if there was an Al Jazeera for the African world? I know that Al Jazeera is built on the foundation of a common language (and Qatar family support), but I believe that an English/ French channel in Africa could indeed create discourse on the similarities of the dysfunctions in the continent: religious and ethnic tensions, issues of public health and HIV, corrupt leaders, and economic challenges. Would there be a private organization or family that could step in to create such a brand? (Ironically, Al Jazeera was a Saudi owned Arabic language TV station but the Saudi government censorship boards grew uncomfortable with their reports and quit the venture.)

I know Africa is a much more disconnected land mass in terms of history, culture, or even language. And it would be hard to find a private company that is unbiased and willing to support such a creation. Bringing up the idea with my Nigerian colleagues, they are skeptical about the idea of Africans collaborating together because of long-seated tribal and religious differences. The foundation of Al Jazeera is language and a shared culture, which Africa doesn’t have and has been the cause of centuries of war and violence.

The catch 22 is that issues of class imbalance and lack of basic resources of electricity and power prevent consistent distribution of television and internet media, so any program that is aimed at alleviating these social problems may not reach the public. Then there is also the issue of state censorship.

But many countries in the Arab world are poor and suffer from inadequate resources, not to mention state ownership of all media. Yet, Al Jazeera was able to arrive in those countries and make a significant impact.

Think of the possibilities of bridging divides between conflicts in Uganda and Nigeria, of using blogs and videos from Kenya to start a conversation in Zimbabwe. A possible domino effect of economic policies and putting leaders in the spotlight would create a level of transparency and accountability that African governments really need.

Happy countries are often happy in the same way.