Al-Jazeera's Foukara discusses media's portrayal of Islam and global journalism


NORTH ADAMS — International journalist Abderrahim Foukara has often encountered the rhetoric that Americans don't care about what's happening in the world outside of the U.S.

"Is that a fact, or has it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I don't know the answer to that question," the visiting lecturer told a group of some 80 Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts students attending a question-and-answer session with him on Thursday afternoon.

Foukara is the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for Al Jazeera, a media network based in the city of Doha, located on the coast of the peninsular Arab country of Qatar. Al Jazeera operates 80 bureaus worldwide, broadcasting global news to 220 million households in more than 100 countries. Foukara has previously worked for the BBC World Service in London and Public Radio International's "The World" at WGBH public radio station in Boston.

Wherever he's traveled in the U.S., the self-identified Muslim Arab-American journalist said, "I've found people well-informed and actually hungry for knowledge about the outside world."

On Thursday evening, as the keynote speaker for the 2016 Hardman Lecture Series at MCLA, which supports journalists as lecturers and in residencies annually at the college, Foukara's talk focused on the "Media Portrayal of Islam." His intention was to take a deep dive in to why portrayals of Muslims and Islamic countries have skewed to a negative light.

"I want people to understand that we must never choose one point and say, this is where it all began," Foukara said, noting that documented skewed portrayals date back to more than a century before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. soil.

"The root of the problem is deep," he told a group of local press members he met with earlier in the day.

During his campus visit, much like in his other travels and in his interviews for his weekly show, "Min Washington," (From Washington), Foukara encountered from students, staff and other visitors questions about why there are disparities in news reporting, particularly among commercialized broadcast news networks.

Network financing, governments and administrations, and how polarized a society is in its views all factor in, he said, citing various examples.

In the U.S., reporting from major television networks is regularly interrupted by commercials, thus distracting viewers from the news itself.

Big media as power brokers have pros and cons. Foukara described Al Jazeera's own growing pains in establishing itself as a major news network. It was born during the time when then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein led an invasion into Kuwait and the Cable News Network (CNN), despite being an American outlet, was the only agency Hussein permitted to cover the war from inside Iraq. "CNN was then able to weave the war narrative of that time," Foukara said.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera began to form with the vision of becoming a homegrown media force that could competitively and thoroughly report on the issues of the Arab, North African and Middle Eastern regions with the same clout as CNN,

noting that the region, however, contains systems of government vastly different and far less democratic than what exists in the United States. "Al Jazeera faced enormous challenges with almost every Arab government in the region, as well as the Israeli government and Iranian government ... but with those challenges come rewards."

The heavily state-funded Al Jazeera did come into its own, helping to put Qatar on the map as a middle power ground for foreign and domestic policy negotiations. When the U.S. set up a command center there to send troops into Iraq and the network tried to bid for an interview with then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the George W. Bush administration, it was regularly ignored, Foukara said. When Rumsfeld finally appeared for an interview with Foukara, he appeared evasive and agitated by the journalist's questions regarding the thousands of deaths of Iraqi civilians during the invasion.

When the Barack Obama administration took office, members of his cabinet frequented Al Jazeera shows to discuss U.S. plans and policies in the region and its relations with the Arab nations.

But with every news outlet comes nuances which, Foukara said, media viewers should be mindful of.

"There is no such thing as 100 percent independence from the party that funds you," he said. "For example, how free is commercial television to do serious investigative work?"

Foukara indicated that depth and breadth of coverage can be limited as journalists choose to tread a line of self-censorship at times for either the protection of a source or themselves.

"You can either be transgressive or know where the red lines are. If you're a journalist who has no sense of red lines, you cannot work in the field or you face a state of conflict and peril," he said. "In the U.S. you might get a jail sentence for a year for refusing to name a source. In other countries ... worse things can happen, journalists can get killed."


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