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2004-09-03

Indymedia and Al Jazeera Reporters Discuss the RNC Stories Ignored by the Corporate U.S. Press

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We talk to Arun Gupta of NYC Indymedia and Abderrahim Foukara, New York correspondent for Al Jazeera. [includes rush transcript]

This election year has brought a number of milestones in US politics. Most visible is the fact that dissent has returned to the mainstream of US culture for the first time in decades. The invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq and the so-called war on terror have spurred many Americans who have never protested to take to the streets. More than 1,700 people were arrested this week protesting at the Republican national Convention. That’s a record at a political convention in this country.

Another milestone is the sheer number of journalists covering the political conventions. In Boston alone, there were some 15,000 journalists. But despite the huge presence of the media, the coverage was hardly comprehensive. In fact the most extensive coverage of the conventions and the protests came not from the US networks, but from hundreds of independent journalists working out of the New York Independent Media Center. We are joined now by one of the organizers of the IMC here in New York.

  • Arun Gupta, former editor of The Guardian, one of the most respected independent newspapers in recent U.S. history. He is currently an editor with the New York City Independent Media Center’s newspaper, The Indypendent.

Their offices were bombed twice in Afghanistan. Their Baghdad correspondent was killed In Iraq. Their reporter was arrested en route to a summit in Crawford. Their New York correspondents were thrown off the floors of the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ.

We’re talking about al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station based in Qatar.

Al Jazeera’s programming has been seen as controversial by some in Washington ever since it began broadcasting seven years ago. The network has since grown into a CNN of the Arabic world reaching up to 55 million viewers.

Now, they’re planning to launch an English-language news channel.

  • Abderrahim Foukara, New York correspondent for Al Jazeera.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, this election year has brought a number of milestones in U.S. politics. Most visible is the fact that dissent has returned to the mainstream of U.S. culture for the first time in decades. The invasion and occupation of Iraq and the so-called war on terror have spurred many Americans who have never protested to take to the streets. More than 1,700 people were arrested this week, protesting at the Republican National Convention. That’s a record at any political convention in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Another milestone is the sheer number of journalists covering the political conventions. In Boston alone, there were some 15,000 journalists. But despite the huge presence of the media, the coverage was far from comprehensive. In fact, the most extensive coverage of the conventions and the protests came not from the U.S. network, but from hundreds of independent journalists working out of the New York Independent Media Center. We’re joined now by one of the organizers of the IMC here in New York, and then we will speak with the New York correspondent for Al Jazeera, but we begin with Arun Gupta, who is former editor of The Guardian, one of the most respected independent newspapers. He’s currently an editor with the New York City Independent Media Center’s newspaper, The Indypendent.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Arun, I wanted to ask you, you know, when this week began, in most of the corporate media, or in my newsroom for instance in the New York Daily News, very few had heard of the New York, of the Independent Media Centers. When I mentioned it to some of my colleagues, they said "What? Where’s that?" and I showed them were to go on the web. By the end of the week virtually all reporters in New York were depending on the IMC to get their information on what was happening, and literally dozens of reporters were checking into the IMC website to find out. And one of them said to me, "Why, this is as good as AP, man, and we get it —- -— it’s even faster." So what’s been the reaction in terms of the corporate media finally paying some attention to the IMC’s work?

ARUN GUPTA: I think it’s good, because the IMC/Indymedia has an ability to put hundreds of reporters onto the street. Because it is a large collaborative network. These are mostly all volunteer reporters. Most of them are very good at what they do, and we have a system in place for evaluating, for coordinating all the reporting and then feeding it through different mediums so we can get it out to the public, whether it’s over web, audio, video, print, and even, telephone. There is a lot of great technological use of mediums to disseminate information.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Arun Gupta of the New York Indymedia Center. Explain the whole origins of Indymedia.

ARUN GUPTA: Indymedia came out of Seattle. The first Indymedia center was organized in Seattle in 1999 before the WTO ministerial that has now become infamous as the Battle of Seattle. And millions of people logged on to the Indymedia websites because they weren’t seeing the real story in the corporate media. And what Indymedia does, it allows people to post directly reports from the streets to the newswire so they can see for themselves. It cuts out the middleman, so to speak, so you don’t have someone spinning the news. You can look at all sorts of evidence being relayed: street reports, audio reports, photos, video. You can judge, really, for yourself what’s going on. And by having this very large network of people providing this information you really do get a very well rounded view of what is happening in the streets at these large demonstrations. Now, it’s developed greatly since then, and the way Indymedia was being used this time, there were three main components on the website. We had a breaking newswire that was operated by a dispatch system. Essentially we had ten phone lines and hotline numbers and we had operators taking calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And what they would do is take in calls from the street. We handed out all these cards with the hotline numbers. People would call in reports about some action going on over here, some protest, "Looks like there’s some arrests," and then this information would be evaluated over an internet relay chat. Internet relay chat is essentially real time text messaging except there are dozens and dozens of people evaluating the information. So at this point the information would be verified or corroborated. Once it was so, then it would be put up on the website on "Breaking News." Really good calls, good information were patched into our 24 hour web stream. Information was also fed to all the various media teams: audio, photo, video, and then they would decide to dispatch reporters to these breaking news events. We also used a text messaging system over cell phone, both internally to coordinate among the reporters, and then to people on the streets. People were able to go to a website, punch in their cell phone number, and then they would get these constant updates, and thousands of people took advantage of that so they could see what exactly was happening on the streets for themselves just by — from the text messaging through their cell phone. And then we had all the different teams doing work. We had a photo team: hundreds of photographers, massive number of pictures that were posted to the website. Hundreds of videographers were out there. They were doing a daily show that was all original content every day, taped, edited, and then broadcast over public access systems. They also performed a very valuable role of gathering evidence for the inevitable legal affairs that are coming out of this, and from what we can tell also, it looks like police targeted videographers for arrest. I wouldn’t be surprised. We’re still trying to sort everything out, get all the information, but we heard reports of numerous people being arrested, while in the act of videoing the police and police activities.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, let me ask you, was it, was it an Indymedia videographer who caught the footage of the detective who drove his — the plainclothes detective who drove his motorcycle into the crowd, the one who was beat, who was later beaten? Because that was really the only major incidence of violence that occurred throughout the entire week, and largely it’s now been debunked in most of the — even the corporate media that this was not an unprovoked attack, that in actuality the detective drove his motorcycle into the crowd.

ARUN GUPTA: I’m not sure actually who captured that evidence, so I don’t want to say that it was definitely an Indymedia person, but you do bring up an important point, that because Indymedia is out there, and there are hundreds of videographers they can capture this information and then show what really did go on, and help to sort the information out. Was this a real incident or was it the police stretching the truth, or even maybe fabricating an incident.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So how many people do you estimate were working at the Indymedia Center this past week?

ARUN GUPTA: We had about 700 people who were registered with us. At any one time, there might have been over 100 people in the large space. We had a 12,000 square foot space with multiple rooms, couple hundred computer terminals, a audio studio, a video studio, the whole dispatch system set up. It was really quite an impressive operation overall, given that it is all volunteer.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s remarkable when you compare the coverage. It’s just remarkable when you compare the coverage between the corporate networks and independent media. We hardly got to watch, um, the corporate networks through the week, but we always try to make a point of getting a sense and having people monitor and tell us. In terms of the historic unprecedented nature of this protest, one of the largest mass arrests in this country’s history, the largest mass arrest in one day in New York City history. On Tuesday more than 1,000 people arrested, on Sunday the largest protest in the history of political conventions in this country. But if you ask most people in this country about this this week, I think they would have no idea that this had taken place, not to mention, well, an international audience might have something different if international journalists covered this differently, but what is your take on that, Arun?

ARUN GUPTA: I think that’s very true that we essentially have a phenomena that the media, I think especially the broadcast media, are addicted to violence. Ted Koppel of ABC News’ "Nightline" admitted as much. Because there wasn’t the Chicago '68 scenes that it almost seemed like the media and many Republicans were rooting for, they declared it, that it wasn't really a story. The irony is —- -—

AMY GOODMAN: So, no violence, no protest.

ARUN GUPTA: Right, exactly. And it — I think there was an enormous story that the media just completely missed, and that is that New York really turned out to repudiate the Bush Administration’s policies. I’ve been observing demonstrations in New York for 15 years now, and I’ve never seen so many onlookers and bystanders cheering, clapping, joining in. New Yorkers like to have this kind of unflappable air about them, and they just tend to ignore protests when they’re going on. Or in more heated moments, say after September 11th, the first protest, there was a protest on the day that the bombing started in Afghanistan, you saw a lot of anger. This time people were really very supportive of the protests, and I think that also had an effect on policing tactics. The policing tactics were pretty, I won’t say severe, but they were designed to suppress dissent. I think if one idea comes out of this, what the police were trying to do was suppress dissent while not having images of police violence overshadow the convention.

AMY GOODMAN: Arun Gupta of the Indymedia Center here in New York. We’re also joined by the correspondent here in New York for Al Jazeera. Their offices were bombed twice in Afghanistan, their Baghdad correspondent was killed in Iraq when the U.S. attacked the Al Jazeera office there, their reporter was arrested en route to the Putin-Bush summit in Crawford, Texas, their New York correspondents thrown off the floors of the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. Yes, we’re talking about Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station that’s based in Qatar.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Al Jazeera’s programming has been seen as controversial by some in Washington ever since it began broadcasting seven years ago. The network has since grown into a CNN of the Arabic world, reaching up to 55 million viewers. Now they’re planning to launch an English language news channel.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Abderrahim Foukara, a correspondent for Al Jazeera. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about your coverage of the convention? The networks — the broadcast networks cut back on their coverage, bring very little per hour. We went up to your skybox; you were broadcasting through the night, perhaps doing more, well, definitely, than any single network in this country, any single broadcast network.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Yeah, we’ve obviously dedicated a lot of airtime to the convention, whether inside or outside the convention, although more on the inside than on the outside. Before I go any further, just a follow up to the point that Arun made about Ted Koppel. I was just reading a story, a interesting story in the New York — in the Financial Times of London, and it’s about an English playwright, Joey Penhall, who’s written a play called "Dumb Show." And "Dumb Show" is basically about the — how culture around the world is becoming increasingly tabloidicated, as the article says. And it’s about two journalists from a tabloid newspaper in the U.K. who corner a comedian on the downward slope, and as they started trying to concoct a story about him as a sleazy comedian, they suddenly decided they wanted to change tack, and they said, "OK, instead let’s depict him as a suffering hero, because that may give him more appeal to the readers." And, you know that that’s happening with almost every instance that we can possibly think of, and almost every part of the world, including, coverage of the convention and what happened outside the convention. Now, if I may just start with Al Jazeera’s coverage of what happened outside the convention. It’s the Arab world, there’s this incredible hunger in the Arab world for the right reasons or possibly for the wrong reasons, in what’s going on in the United States, and that interest has obviously been revved up since 9/11 and then we’ve had the invasion of Iraq. People are watching the protests in the United States from a very special angle. First of all, they’ve heard that there’ve been a lot of protests during the war in Vietnam; that’s actually what led to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. And they’re sort of projecting the Vietnam case on the Iraq case. There’s a lot of hope that goes with a lot of anti-American sentiment in the region at the moment, there’s a lot of hope that these demonstrations, in addition to poking the Bush Administration in the eye, that they may bring a positive outcome, from their point of view to the Iraq case. So that’s one thing. We covered the protests extensively on the first day of the convention, that was obviously the largest mass of protesters. We covered that directly from here as reporters. Later in the week there was some reporting of the various protests happening in different parts of New York City by headquarters using footage from different news organizations, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they used some of your footage, Arun. But this is obviously the — about the RNC and it’s about the re-election or possible re-election of George Bush, so a large chunk of the coverage has actually focused on the RNC itself and what’s going on inside the RNC. Again, as I said earlier, because of who George Bush is, in terms of his policies in the Middle East, there’s a lot of interest in George Bush — there’s a lot of interest in what George Bush may or may not do during his second term. A lot of people are watching to detect whether the policy in Iraq will stay the same, a lot of people are watching to see whether there will be other cases in the Middle East that may go through the same experience as Iraq.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, Al Jazeera has been so effective in its getting out a different message to the Arab world. The United States was forced to create its own Arab news network. What’s been the difference in sort of coverage of perspective —- -— I’m sure you’ve been monitoring your competition now in the Arab world —- -— in terms of how the U.S. backed Arab news agency has covered this convention versus Al Jazeera?

AMY GOODMAN: And we only have about 15 seconds to answer that question?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Okay, I mean, obviously, the difference is in terms of what the audience sometimes wants to see, which is a sad factor in the media scene around the world. You sometimes give people what they want to see. The American media are giving the American public what they think the American public wants to see. And for all the criticism of Al Jazeera, the interesting thing is that Al Jazeera sometimes applies the same principles that the American media apply.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, talking about an issue that doesn’t get very much attention. Abderrahim Foukara, thank you, from Al Jazeera.

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