Rageh Omaar: journalism with passion.

BEFORE joining the Witness team at the launch of Al Jazeera English, Somali-born reporter Rageh Omaar worked for the BBC for over 12 years. An international correspondent covering stories from all over the world, he reported on the Kosovo War, and the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. He was named BBC’s Developing World Correspondent and then in 2001, as the BBC’s Africa Correspondent.

After 9/11, the Oxford-trained journalist was the only TV correspondent from a Western media house to report from inside Kabul, Afghanistan during the bombing of the city and Taliban forces.

It was, however, his coverage from Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which brought him worldwide attention.

This year, the forty-three-year old is to front a new series for Al Jazeera called The Rageh Omaar Report, which begins on March 24. In this exclusive interview, Omaar talks about his expectations and hopes for the new programme, and offers advice to upcoming journalists.
What motivated you to start the Rageh Omaar Report?
It really didn’t need much motivating because it was an offer that I think every journalist dreams of, which is to be given your own programme to explore the issues and the stories that you’re passionate about, that are largely ignored by the mainstream western media. I’ve returned to the Balkans, Bosnia to look at how the ethnic war in Bosnia has scarred that region and continues to do today. And also to re-tell the story of how Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader evaded justice from war crimes for so long. I’ve just come back from Zimbabwe, looking at Zimbabwe very differently, not like the one-sided view that’s been done in the Western media quite a lot, but trying to explain Zimbabwe from all sides. We’ve spoken to the opposition and to ZANU-PF. We’ve spoken to indigenous black farmers who’ve benefited from land reform and white farmers who have lost everything, and looking at the land issue in a historical context. So these kind of stories and many more to come is a great personal opportunity and professional opportunity, and as I said it’s the kind of thing all journalists dream of.

What issues do you want to explore in Africa when you start your programme?
The most important thing I want to do, given that how sometimes one dimension and clichéd the coverage of issues in Africa, is not to come with any agenda. I don’t want the Rageh Omaar Report to say, you know, ‘we’re going to do this kind of reporting in Africa or that kind of reporting’. I just want to look at specific issues and countries and deal with them individually because I think one of the problems that I learnt before my years at Al-Jazeera, working in mainstream media, is that often a lot of the West both journalists and even politicians look at Africa as though it is one country and one place. You know Zambia is the same as Nigeria, and Nigeria is the same as Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is the same as Mozambique. Africa is like one place with all the same, similar problems you know, war and hunger and HIV. So I want to do reports on Africa to try and explain individual countries and societies undergoing difficult and sometimes hopeful change, but within their context, so that they’ll be interesting to an African audience. I know that people in Zambia and in Southern Africa are engaged in and are involved in what is happening in Zimbabwe, but that’s not true if you were to talk of viewers in maybe Ghana or Ethiopia or Mauritania. So I’d like people in those countries in Africa to be able to watch it and see hopefully a more intelligent, a more levelheaded but still journalistically strong and brave reporting from Africa. I want to approach the continent in all its complexities, as individual societies and think that there’s one theme to African problems.

Which specific countries are you looking at on your programme? How did you gain the courage to venture into Kabul at the risk of your life to cover the stories?
In terms of the new programme, it’s quite challenging the new programme because we don’t just want to be, it’s not a background story. We want the stories we cover to be relevant and newsworthy. Which is why we’re doing Zimbabwe now and we’ll certainly be looking at my own country Somalia which is a big hot issue, regionally in the continent and internationally. We’ll be looking at many other sorts of issues. I think we really want to explore America and America under Obama, and how it relates with the world, I think that’s very important, how it relates to Africa, the Muslim world. I think especially for a channel like Al-Jazeera, it’s very important to examine and look at America and its role in the world, but how Americans explain their policies and their role in the world and vice versa. So that’s a big topic, I think especially from a non-Western international news organisation’s point of view, like Al-Jazeera, because of course the other big international news channels, BBC, CNN are Western, but to have Al-Jazeera as a way for America to engage and how its engaging with the world is very important, in Africa and elsewhere. So very broad issues really, and timely issues.

In terms of why did I go to Kabul with the Taleban, I was the only news television journalist working for Western news agency, Al-Jazeera Arabic was there. I think, like someone said, it’s like a cat, curiousity. In journalists I think the one element that is indispensable (is) you’ve got to have a natural curiousity: what’s happening there? What’s really going on? Because also as dangerous as it was, because I was Muslim, because I was not white, I think that was an advantage. I was able to engage with the militia leaders and other people, and they saw me differently, and that’s why they decided to take me and only a few other non-Western colleagues into Kabul, and to have the privilege to see the last moments of the fall of Kabul with the Taleban before NATO and its allies took the city.

Will you cover Iraq? How does present-day Iraq compare with the Iraq of 2003?
I think it’s very important. Of course it’s different in some ways, and not different in others. The main thing I think we have to remember is that many, many tens of thousands of Iraqis have died for the country to get to where it is today. We’ve obviously just had elections in Iraq and I read a very interesting headline; it read ‘Iraq condemned to democracy’. And I think that was a very telling headline, you know, because there are elections, but politics is not time democratic. You have militia leaders and a lot of people who have sectarian politics, the insecurity is still there but still it’s not the place it was in 2003, 2004. But Iraq is still very fragile, it’s going to take a very, very long time for you and for me to be able to take a ride in Baghdad and walk around and talk to all Iraqis and see the country differently.

I think it’s been very, very incremental changes, and there have been important developments, there is a thriving press and so forth, but we can’t describe Iraq as a full democracy in a way that someone in the West would understand it.

And also there is a sectarian fault line in Iraq. It’s very different to the kind of Iraq we were all told was going to emerge from the invasion and occupation. If everyone had said in 2003, “by going into Iraq, we’ll have six, seven years of bloodshed and upheaval, but at the end of it, we’ll have relative democracy, but still authoritarian and sectarian division,” would everyone have said, “yes, let’s go in”? I don’t think so.

What do you think are some of the challenges journalists are facing and do you see any countries in Africa where great strides have been made to allow journalists to practice their profession freely?

I think the profession has changed out of all recognition in the last 10 years.

Because, I think especially in electronic media, the ability to get into it has become more accessible. To have television cameras and editing equipment and software and computers is possible now. You’ve got television stations, and really good journalism blogs, and newspapers and production, the standards are out of this world. I just think one has to be much braver because of the political context in a lot of Africa to be able to practice the profession freely. I think journalism succeeds not only because you have the ability to do it, but also because you have the support of society and government to practice it freely. You’ve got to have that. So that’s a big challenge in a lot of different places. There are far too many places in Africa where, look at my own country – journalists who write articles about al-Shabaab which is the militant group in Somalia – they’re often threatened and killed. That’s a real problem. …the profession is doing incredibly well, but it also needs support and help.

Do you think the media has portrayed your country specifically Somalia in a fair light, considering most of the images we see have to do with what you’ve mentioned terrorist groups, pirates, lawlessness…?

I think you’re right. Somalia has become a cliché. You know, everybody talks about Somalia as a failed state, no government for 20 years and then whenever anyone gets interested in Somalia, Western interests or Westerners are involved; you know the piracy. The piracy is a symptom of what’s happening in Somalia and to Somalis. But we have to be honest; this has been done by Somalis to Somalis, there’s no getting away from that, you know. And Somalia is in a catastrophic state, but I think the West needs to realise and is beginning to realise now, especially with the support of the transitional government is that there’s only going to be a Somali solution to this, with help from the outside, with help from countries in the region, from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, many others. But its only going to be Somalis that can effectively…at the end of the day. So of course these things are happening I can’t deny, no Somali can deny, but I think that like the rest of Africa, it’s hard to see in the Western media beyond the cliché.

Looking at where you have come from as a journalist, what advice can you give to upcoming journalist today in Africa?

I think journalism as a profession, whether you go from the UK or wherever, it’s tough, because sometimes it’s a closed shop. You need a lot of persistence. It can seem like it’s hard to get ahead. But the advice I’d give first of all, you’ve got to know what kind of journalism you want to practice.

Don’t have like just pipe dreams and say “Oh, I want to be in the media.” What is it that you’re passionate about? Is it sport? Is it politics? Is it like social commentary? You’ve got to know what is it that you’re passionate about.

Be very direct because you won’t get any editor giving you any advice or a chance, unless you’re very clear about what you’re good at. You’ve also got to develop a tough character because news is fast-paced, you need to be able to write well. But persist. You got to have persistence, I think that’s the main thing because it’s a tough, tough business to break into; it’s not easy to get into. But you’ve got to persist.

Source: Sunday Post Online

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