22 September 2008

The Interview: Amira Al Hussaini

This week's Business Lexington features excerpts from an email interview I got with Amira Al Hussaini, the editor of one of my favorite websites, Voices without Votes. She (along with many of her colleagues at Global Voices Online) represents the kind of global citizen and next-generation journalist the Internet has helped create. To me she also represents a sort of global counterpart to Jacki Schechner, the journalist-turned-activist I interviewed a few months back.

Voices without Votes is, to me, one of the most important collaborative projects on the 'net.

As always, the newspaper column format allows for some of my opinions but doesn't really allow for the whole discussion. So I'll let Amira explain her perspective on this outstanding project in her own words. She was very generous with her time.

Q: First, can you explain to my readers the history and mission of Voices without Votes and perhaps some of the numbers behind it? How many bloggers from how many countries? I've listened to the Open Source podcast that features Christopher Lydon, Ethan Zuckerman and Solana Larsen a few times but I'm wondering if there's anything else we should know.

A: Launched on Super Tuesday, Voices without Votes is a Global Voices Online project, commissioned by Reuters, which is a huge Global Voices Online fan and backer. The idea came to life at a time when interest around the world was picking up about the US elections, and as Global Voices Online focuses on non-US material, we decided it was time to set up a separate project, which will enable us to track and report on what the world is saying about US elections and US foreign policy.

Our mission statement is: "Voices without Votes opens a window on what non-Americans are saying in blogs and citizen media about US foreign policy and the 2008 presidential elections."

It continues: "Americans are the only ones who can elect the United States president, but the 2008 election offers a unique opportunity to harvest global commentary on America's politics and foreign policy and how it affects the rest of the world."

Voices Without Votes highlights conversations in non-American blogs and citizen media, with emphasis on the regions covered by Global Voices: Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East.

The site is really the fruit of cooperation between GVO's volunteers and a few interested bloggers from around the world, who continue to monitor the online conversations in their countries, or the countries they cover, and produce features on what they read. We have volunteers working on the site from practically every corner of the world, from Iraq to Madagascar, and Fiji to Canada, as well as translators who are active in bringing us voices in other languages, such as Farsi, Arabic, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese, to name a few. As the countdown to the elections continue, we are discovering new blogs and websites to add to our coverage, and more people are joining our team of volunteers.

For more about our team of volunteers, please check this page: http://voiceswithoutvotes.org/authors/

Q: Second, could you give me a little information about you and your professional background? I know you're the Middle East & North Africa Editor for GVO - how did you get involved in GVO and Voices without Votes?

A: I am a Bahraini journalist and the former news editor of the Gulf Daily News (GDN) in Bahrain. I started work as a trainee reporter in the GDN in 1991, while I was at my first year in university. By the time I graduated with a BA English (Honours), I swear I must have clocked more hours in the newsroom than the classroom. My career goal was set by then, I caught the bug and wanted to be a journalist for life. I continued working at the GDN, where I was promoted first to assistant news editor and then to become the first Bahraini news editor of an English language daily, until I left Bahrain to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, to join my husband who is working towards his PhD, in October 2005. In my career as a journalist, I can claim to have covered every type of story, from business and economics, to human interest and politics. In 1996, I also won the coveted Dag Hammarskjold Scholarship, http://www.unjournalismfellowship.org/node/230, which offered me a three-month fellowship to cover the United Nations in New York. I have since been a frequent visitor to the UN's headquarters, where I covered the General Assembly and Security Council, whenever my travels brought me to the US.

In 2004, I ventured into blogging and embraced online media with the same intensity I fell for mainstream media at a young age. My involvement with GVO started after I came to Canada, as I really needed to maintain my work ethics and continue writing. I consider myself really lucky and have found my match in GVO, as I truly believe in its cause. According to its mission statement:

"Global Voices seeks to aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online - shining light on places and people other media often ignore. We work to develop tools, institutions and relationships that will help all voices, everywhere, to be heard."

At GVO, I am the Middle East and North Africa, Arabic Language Editor and Voices without Votes editor. I am also a Board Member.

Not only am I gaining hands on experience in evolving online citizen journalism, learning skills I wouldn't have grasped had I continued in the newsroom, but I am applying my skills and expertise to help bridge understandings, mend fences, and show that it is a small world - and we are all the same in our hopes, aspirations, fears and dreams for tomorrow.

Q: I'd love to know if you've seen any trends from foreign writers. In the Open Source podcast, Ethan Zuckerman made some interesting general statements (I'm paraphrasing here) like "Jamaicans are upset at how Barack Obama is being treated" and "In Israel they're scared of what an Obama presidency might mean for them." What stands out to you about how people outside the US view this election? Do you feel that one candidate is getting more support than the other? Are there particular attributes being ascribed to one candidate or another?

A: I personally am amused at the way the US elections are closely being monitored by bloggers from all corners of the globe and how passionate people are over its developments, especially that they can't vote. Bloggers are actually commenting on developments as the stories break in the US, with commentary coming out as if in competition with mainstream media - and they are really passionate about it. Remember that those are citizen journalists - and are not paid for what they write. What really stands out though is the Obamamania which has taken the blogosphere by storm - making my job as editor and that of my colleagues a difficult balancing act. While it is easy to find international blogs supporting Obama, I literally have to appeal to my volunteer authors to look closely for and report on McCain stories! All the volunteers working on VwV, understand the nature of the project and are trying to portray all reactions as our goal is to rise above the political divisions, evident in US blogs, and reflect what is being said in a timely manner, without taking sides. Our aim is to bring all voices we have access to under one umbrella - and so far we feel we have had a lot of success, in such a short time - thanks to volunteers who have kept the site updated on a daily basis since its inception and voices we wouldn't have had access to otherwise translated and heard. Also, from my observations, people really are looking up to the US as the beacon of democracy and want to see a change - and a different policy from Washington DC which has succeeded in dividing up the world into those who are with us and those who are against us. People all around the world, like some in the US, are tired of instability, wars, and destruction at this day and age and are really rooting for an administration which will correct what they perceive as the mistakes of the current US administration.

Q: Why is Voices without Votes so important? Why should people in Kentucky pay attention to the opinions of people outside our borders on our internal politics?

A: At this time and juncture in history, I feel that VwV is a witness to history in the making where you can find international reactions to a breaking news story under one roof, offering us an insight to how the world feels, thinks and reacts to the most fascinating race to the White House ever. Why should anyone in Kentucky or the US for that matter care about what the world thinks? My question would be why shouldn't they? The US doesn't exist in a vacuum and as the world's only superpower, decisions taken in Washington DC impact not only the people of Kentucky, but those in South America, the Middle East, Asia and the rest of the world. And why shouldn't we all listen to each other? Why can't we open our ears to what people in the Caribbean, Iraq and the Far East, to name a few, have to say? They are just talking but you will be casting the ballot come November 4. The power is in your hands and the least you can do is listen to what they have to say.

Q: Turning the tables a bit, should people in Kentucky be paying closer attention to elections taking place in, say, Ghana or Morocco? Why or why not?

A: Why shouldn't they? The idea abroad is that the US is insular and cocooned on itself and that is not right or fair - not for a country people travel across the world to study in its institutes of higher education. While almost any student from any Third World country knows the world map and can pinpoint at least which continent any country you throw at him is on it, I can't say that is true of many people in the US - even the officers guarding the country's very own borders. In my travels to the US, I have had officers asking me: "Bahrain? Is that in the Bahamas?" - and Bahrain is only the naval headquarters of their Fifth Fleet. http://www.cusnc.navy.mil/history/index.html

Why should the US be the butt of jokes - when it comes to geography and general information about the rest of the world?

Yes, while I don't expect all Americans to be well versed in every aspect of foreign policy, a little understand and knowledge of the world around us is essential. With access to information being easier than ever, thanks to the Internet, what has anyone of us got to lose?

Q: Has the growth of communications technology, and specifically the growth of the blogosphere, changed the way you think about global politics? If so, how?

A: Of course it has. It is so easy to remain abreast with the latest developments by programming your computer to pull the latest headlines and compile them in a neat basket for you.

We also learn new things everyday, about ourselves and the way we interact with the world and reflect on global politics. The biggest lesson I have personally learned is to listen. Yes, I have my ideas and opinions, but I need to also listen to and understand what others think and feel.

Q: Finally, I'm also very curious about your visit to Kentucky and the Idea Festival. (The 2007 archive for the IF website appears to be down.) What did you speak about? Did you have any time to look around Kentucky or meet anyone from here? Any reactions or thoughts? It's always nice to endear the source to the readers by including a quote that says something nice about the Bluegrass... ;)

A: I was invited to the Idea Festival, in Louisville, Kentucky, last year, where I witnessed the Southern charm and hospitality for the first time in my life. The idea behind the festival itself blew me away - and I was touched by the compassion, understanding and brilliance of everyone involved with IF, starting from organiser Kris Kimel and including all the friendly faces I saw there, whether organisers or panelists or attendees. At IF, I was on two panels - one discussing world peace and the other shedding light on the work we do at Global Voices Online. Being involved in IF was both exciting and enriching to me - both as a journalist and a human being. IF provides a truly stellar line up of speakers and Louisville acts as charming, warm and friendly backdrop to this explosion of ideas. I have made many friends who I am in touch with over the Internet and would have loved to have spent more time exploring the place and interacting more with the people there. Perhaps some other time, when I travel wearing my tourist hat!


Here are some of our photos from the Idea Festival, taken by my colleague Georgia Popplewell, who is the Managing Editor of GVO.


Prometeo said...

I'm one the recent writers for Voices Without Votes and Amira is certainly one the most brilliant persons I have known.

And this is an excellent blog. Had it not been for the interview to Amira I may have never stumbled upon it. Good job.

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