Al-Jazeera takes a new look at Africa

Kalay Maistry (33) is the newly appointed Southern Africa correspondent for al-Jazeera International (AJI), the new 24-hour English-language news and current affairs channel and sister of al-Jazeera Arabic News Channel. AJI will broadcast worldwide from March this year.

Al-Jazeera, now globally recognised, was launched in Qatar in 1996 with the support of the Emir of Qatar, HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and was the first to broadcast Osama bin Laden’s messages as well as videos of hostages in Iraq.

Maistry worked as a senior reporter at the South African Broadcasting Corporation and Prior to that, she reported for Radio 702, Capital Radio and Radio France International. She answers 10 questions about Africa as the dark continent, hidden agendas and the meaning of AJI.

1. What connections do you have with AJI? What made you decide to go and work there?
I am their Southern Africa correspondent, so that means I get to be the face of the station in Southern Africa.

A friend of mine told me that they were looking for people. And he said to them he knew somebody. They thought, “Oh, well, maybe we should meet with this woman,” and they did. The rest is history, as they say!

I went to meet them just for coffee and that became a full interview. A few weeks later they invited me to a second round of interviews and that’s the end of that. So, in a few weeks’ time I had the job!

I always wanted to do international news. I just thought the timing was perfect; it’s a brand-new company, exciting television and it’s got such amazing plans. And that’s so desperately needed. And I agreed with the way they want to cover Africa, I think that the time of having starving people and child soldiers is just not enough. Yes, they are there, but there is also the fun, the development, the culture, goddammit! [laughs] There’s the exciting stuff as well; I am tired of Africa always being the poor step-cousin to the rest of the world. And they have the same outlook. So, I thought, great, that’s a nice basis to start from.

2. What are the focus areas for you as a Southern African correspondent? What does AJI expect from you?
It’s all of it [Southern Africa], and maybe even travel outside of Southern Africa because we are still pretty small in Africa and we are going to get more bureaux as we go. It will just depend on the story that we are doing and if there’s a need for people in particular areas.

[They expect] everything; I am meant to cover Southern Africa in every way possible, from politics to economics to human-interest stories to every issue that affects Southern Africa and the developing world to the rest of the world. One day I could be doing stories about churches in Africa or Southern Africa and the next, you know, I could be interviewing Robbie Williams, God willing! [laughs]

It’s a full international service; no aspect is to be left out. There are no subjects that are no-go areas. We are going to be a full news service.

You know, I have a great team working with me. I’m also producing my own stuff. So it’s not like I’m just a correspondent sitting and waiting for stories to happen. But keeping an eye on different things and being able to work on several stories at the same time is quite interesting.

[It is only three of us], but it is fine; I mean, we haven’t gone on air yet. We’re already putting stuff together. It’s been a learning curve, but it’s also very interesting.

3. Does AJI have a hidden agenda? How are you going to report on a different side of Africa?
Look, let’s be honest. We are a brand-new channel, so almost every issue has been done previously. The challenge for us is to take the same issue and look at it from a fresh perspective. That could be anything; it could be Aids, but it could be looking at that story from every possible angle, not just the usual, because it’s an issue that has been covered, but it’s finding and giving people a voice that wouldn’t ordinary have a voice.

And, about the hidden agenda, the fact that the Middle East-based station would be pushing our domestic agenda — there is no agenda. We are completely editorially independent of our sister station al-Jazeera Arabic. We have no set agenda in terms of “You may do this, you may not do this.” The goal is really to cover the developing world like it has never been covered before and Africa is part of that developing world.

Nigel Parsons [AJI’s MD] said in an interview that our strength is the fact that we have people in specific areas that are from that area. In a way that does bring a little bit of advantage; it just sort of gives it an edge when you are from the area and you know the issues first-hand. And I think that’s where our strength is going to be.

4. What does your job look like now? What do you do during a normal day? (The channel is expected to start operating from March or April 2006 only.)
My week entails me running around like a crazy woman! [laughs]

We have been busy every day, including our little trip into the bundu in the Free State. So, it’s been very fast-paced, it’s very interesting, lots of hard work and again it is sort of juggling multiple stories at the same time, so I had a brief introduction of how the rest of my time is going to be.

I’m sure I will be able to handle it. It takes some getting used to, because it is different from the kind of work I used to do before and do right now. But it is going to be fun; it’s going to be exciting!

One of the first things I did when I started the job was, we sat down and we decided on a list of stories that we were wanting to cover, and they cover a whole range of issues. And we just started with the top five on that list. We wanted to get at least two stories in the can just before we went on our Christmas break. That’s what we’ve been doing.

It is also an opportunity for the team to get to see each other and seek each other out. We are going to work together and, yes, we might know each other from just being in the media, but it is different when you have to work together. It all combines into an amazing experience.

5. What does al-Jazeera (“the island” or “the [Arabian] peninsula” in Arabic) mean?
Erm, oh my God, no. Oops! [laughs] No clue actually. I’m so bad! What kind of journalist am I? [I give the answer] Oh wait, we have a sign and I didn’t realise it was the wording in the sign. It’s a peninsula, but I call it “the squiggle”. But yes, it is a peninsula, the squiggly thing. Now I know, thank you so much.

6. What does the AJI mean to you personally?
A special opportunity to cover news in a different way and an opportunity basically to sell Southern Africa to the world in a way they have never seen it before, with its ugliness and its beauty and its people, and some of them are nice and some of them are not so nice. It’s everything that we are proud of and not so proud of in a way that hasn’t been seen before.

And of course the opportunity to work with those amazing people who have always been on a TV screen and now they’re colleagues.

7. Are you a Muslim and how do your beliefs effect your work at AJI? If you are not, isn’t AJI a channel predominantly watched by Muslims? How do you deal with that?
No, I’m not a Muslim. The goal for AJI is to reach every English-speaking person on the continent; it’s irrespective of language, irrespective of race, irrespective of religion. They can speak five languages; if one of them is English and they understand it enough to watch a bulletin, that’s our audience. It is not based along any specific ethnic, cultural or religious line.

8. Al-Jazeera Arabic changed the face of news in the Middle East. What do you expect it to do for Africa?
Not just for Africa but I think, more importantly, how the rest of the world sees Africa. You know, we talk about the African renaissance and rebirth, but the outside world has this one-sided perception of what the continent is. This is an opportunity not just for Southern Africa but for Africa as a whole to say, “Catch a wake-up, this is who we are, we have the other stuff but we also have pleasant stuff.” And you know, it’s a platform, it’s a chance to reach out to the rest of the world, a chance to feel more part of the developing world in which we are, to make Africans proud of being in Africa.

I expect it [AJI] to be the number-one source of news for all English-speaking people across the world in five years’ time. [laughs]

It is a huge challenge, of course, but I think it’s possible. I mean, just from the last few weeks when we made the announcement, the level of excitement has been really overwhelming. People are ready for something different, and I think we are ready to give them something different. So, five years, number-one source of news — in the whole world.

9. What will be your ultimate accomplishment? When will you feel as if your work at AJI makes a difference for Africans in the world?
That is a little bit difficult to say because it is not on air yet. But I want to put a part of me in every story that I do. I want all of that to be a fresh perspective, be the best that it can be.

I want to cover Africa as best as I can or cover Southern Africa as best as I can, and live up to what AJI says: that we are going to offer news from another perspective.

We will be part of a general 24-hour news cycle. You can switch the TV on the top of the hour and Africa will be part of that news, so we are not going to be put in a different segment. That will be different to the way how Africa is covered at the moment. You’ll get a full coverage of Africa; it won’t be one little story on Africa, it will be a general news story.

My goal is to be the best Southern Africa correspondent there is.

10. Why would Africans want to watch AJI?
Why wouldn’t they? It’s a brand-new channel, offering a brand-new opportunity, one that hasn’t been offered to Africans before. Africa is part of the global village; people want to know what happens in the rest of the world and how we fit in.

There won’t be big slots with African news, but it will be part of a broader 24[-hour] news channel, so we won’t be treated as a dark little continent somewhere. At the end of the day, once we go on air and people look at the kind of stories we’re doing, they can judge for themselves how appealing it is.

I think it is going to be appealing because Africans are tired of always getting one perspective. There’s this famous shot when you think of Africa: some malnourished child sucking on her mother’s breast, and she is bare-breasted sitting in a bush somewhere. I think Africans are tired of seeing that, Africans living outside the continent are tired of seeing that and it is about time that the rest of the world gets tired of seeing that, because there is more to Africa.

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Elvira Van Noort
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