For the past eight years, Assaad Taha’s company, Hot Spot, has been making films for the Al-Jazeera TV network. His mission? To uncover and objectively report injustices through Arab eyes, while staying firmly opposed “to the notion of neutrality”. Not an easy task in an increasingly unstable political arena.
From his sleek new offices in the Dubai Media City’s Thuraya Tower, Assaad Taha has a clear view of the Emirate’s gleaming skyscrapers and manicured golf courses. Between bouts of rapid-fire answers, dispatched while striding around his desk, Taha smiles. He’s restless, happy, expansive. Business is booming.
Since 1999 Assaad’s production company, Hot Spot Films, has been working for the fast expanding, often controversial, Al-Jazeera television network. It’s a lucrative relationship. Al-Jazeera’s recent growth spurt has seen new documentary and children’s channels being launched and, last November, the start of the English language service based in London. Hot Spot supplies programming for all these branches of the Doha-based broadcaster. The station is also talking about launching an international newspaper and there are plans for an Urdu service – for which Hot Spot will also be pitching.
Hot Spot has been the most successful prospector in the Arab TV gold-rush. It’s a boom that’s attributable largely to the declining influence of the Middle East’s state-owned media, wider press freedoms and a growing interest in international events. The idea of planting a flag on the global news agenda is also important for a region beset by misunderstanding. That’s why, with the rise of competing Arab satellite TV channels Al- Jazeera and the Saudi-backed MBC and Al-Arabiya, the opportunities for production houses and consultant producers are at an all-time high.
Al-Jazeera outsources over 50 per cent of its programming. Hot Spot, there from the beginning, has made some 300 films and 450 hours of TV for the network and grown its own team to 23 full-timers and over 30 more freelancers.
Hot Spot’s rivals include Third Eye Productions and the Dubai-based O3, that services MBC and Al-Arabiya. They cover the international news agenda but also more contentious topics. A recent Al-Arabiya film, for example, looked at Iranian transsexuals. Although seemingly sensationalist, it investigated the consequences of a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini allowing sex-change operations in Iran. Hot Spot’s course is tacked on a more conservative trade wind.
As a journalist for Al-Jazeera in the 1990s, Taha earned a reputation as a bold, opinionated war correspondent with a flair for the rhetorical; a man on a mission to uncover injustice. He was the first to break the news to the Arab world of the atrocities against Muslim Albanians in Kosovo, and he didn’t flinch from calling on the Muslim world to condemn the killings, making him something of a hero for many in the Arab world.
Taha’s transition from reporter to producer began in 1999 when his frontline career made him aware of the limited documentary output from the Middle East. For every story that he covered, he saw a dozen that lay untold. Taha saw that the world, the Arab world at that, was rarely presented as seen through Arab eyes. “So I proposed my idea to Al- Jazeera,” he says.
In cooperation with the station, Taha would set up an independent company catering exclusively to the network. Al-Jazeera would cover all costs, and in collaboration with Taha, devise programmes that Hot Spot would produce. The first of these was Nukta Sakhna, or “Hot Spot”, the successful show from which the fledgling company would take its name. The films focused on socio-political issues: the Islamist movement in Indonesia, Buddhists in Tibet, crises in Nigeria and Venezuela (the series is now 37 programmes strong and still running).
The rest of the output shares similar concerns. Yahkiyaan (“They Told”) tells humanitarian stories from around the world; Maw’id Fi Al-Mahgar is about Arabs in exile; Wighit Nazar (“Viewpoint”), explores ethnic sub-cultures such as the Druze of Lebanon, the Nubians of Egypt and the Kurds of Spain, while Arshifhum, Wa Tarikhna (“Their Archives, Our History”) takes an Arab viewpoint on key historical events.
When he set up the company in 1999, Taha hired Tamer el-Said, an ambitious, untested Egyptian film-maker to help him scout the region for talent. Through Hot Spot, Al-Jazeera enfranchised a generation of young Arab film-makers and spared them from poorly paid, compromising work on trashy soap operas and television commercials. Film-makers expect to make $4,000 (€3,000) a film, up from just a few hundred Egyptian pounds (a few hundred euros) a month in pre-Hot Spot days. As for Taha, insiders say he has made $22m (€17m) from his passionate political polemics and his sweet deal with Al-Jazeera.
While his support for filmmakers has won praise, Taha’s editorial line has been criticised and reaction to his firebrand status has been mixed. In his 2005 book, The Al-Jazeera Phenomenon, Mohamed Zayani (of the American University in Sharjah) described Taha as “venturing a perspective beyond Al-Jazeera’s motto of ‘the view and the opposite view.’”
Criticised on the grounds that his programmes have a political and ideological slant, Taha – who acknowledges that he was inflammatory in an episode of his documentary Correspondents (devoted to what he calls “the Iraqi resistance”) – makes it clear that he is “against the notion of neutrality”.
For Taha, “there is no such thing as a neutral journalist or neutral media. A journalist can be objective but they cannot be neutral,” although, for Taha, this is really more a matter of semantics than a dismissive attitude to accepted journalistic practice.
The key issue in the Middle-Eastern TV landscape always returns to faithfulness to an Arab perspective, something of a mandate upon which Taha’s success sits. This perspective is no more crucial than in language: its use and politicisation. For a start, “suicide bombers” are not mentioned in Hot Spot films.
“In Arab culture it implies a judgment,” says Mahmoud Abdel Hadi, director of Al-Jazeera’s Media Training Centre in Doha. “In fact, in both Islam and Christianity it has negative connotations, which means that to use it is not objective; but in today’s secular Europe that has been forgotten.”
Al-Jazeera talks of people on “suicide operations”. The elected Palestinian governments of Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are “resistance movements” rather than “terrorists” or “guerillas”. “To use the terminology ‘terrorist’ is to fall into the trap the rest of the world media has – to adopt the agendas of politicians,” says Hadi, referring to President George W Bush’s description of Hamas as a “terrorist group.”
Taha’s status is not simply that of a mono-cultural Arab apologist. In uncovering the region’s injustices, Hot Spot has risked being banned from Syria where one of its documentaries recounted tales of torture, and Morocco, where it told the story of five friends whose nine-year imprisonment has never been explained. But there are still some lines that cannot be crossed.
The detention of an Al-Jazeera reporter at Cairo International Airport last year underscores that. Huweida Taha Metwall had been in the city working on a documentary about torture at Egypt’s police stations. Her tapes were confiscated and she was charged with working on a project that might “damage the reputation of Egyptian authorities”.
The question of how long Hot Spot can retain its Arab integrity and vast share of Al-Jazeera’s contract work is not one that concerns Taha in 2007. He and his team have been hitting the nerve for eight years; “People are trusting me with 52 minutes of their time. They expect a perspective – the Arab one.”
Armed with digital cameras, rudimentary editing software and a number of axes to grind against President Mubarak, a new generation of Egyptian film-makers and satirists are becoming enabled by the democracy of cheap video and the international waters of the web.
Angered by the unemployment, poverty and corruption that afflicts Mubarak’s Egypt and for the political scheming that may ensure the President’s son succeeds his father, film-makers are joining bloggers as a force of growing political dissent.
As with any film, the key to coverage is good distribution. In this case email “forwards” ensure a huge audience. For the most part, a like-minded generation of e-protesters who make, watch and share these films.
This winter, the most popular film was Gamal, Baba, Wi el Erbee’n Haramy (“Gamal, Dad and the Forty Thieves”) a mockumentary using spoof news bulletins to lampoon the leader and his banker-turned-politician son, Gamal.
Although a witty piece, it employs the sort of well-targeted but lightweight caricatures of political figures many Western viewers might see in a party political or electoral broadcast. Blackk Maskk, the producer, director and editor guards his identity with his life, which is roughly what it’s worth.
The government is watching: last November, 22-year-old blogger Abdel Kareen Suleiman was detained in Alexandria on charges including inciting religious hatred and defaming the president. Suleiman joins a growing list.
This technologically-enfranchised dissent started with emails protesting against Mubarak’s seemingly endless presidency. Egypt has been under emergency rule since 1967 – a situation that guarantees censorship, absolute political control and labyrinthine bureaucracy.
Bloggers such as Sawt H’or (“Free Voice”; speaksfreely.net) and |Kitabat (“Writings”; sharkawy.wordpress.com) have to take great care not to reveal their identities.
In its annual list of “internet enemies”, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) added Egypt to its 12-strong hall of shame that includes China and Iran, for “systematically violating online free expression”.