December 13, 2013
Teresa Bo, Al JazeeraThursday, August 29, 2013
From Buenos Aires to Baghdad
Hometown: Buenos Aires
Education: Bachelor of Arts, International Politics; Master of Arts, International Peace and Conflict Resolution, American University Favourite Book: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by D.H. Lawrence
Hobbies: “I lost them when my daughter was born.”
Daily Digest: Buenos Aires Herald, La Nación, Clarín, Página 12 and Tiempo Argentino
In a Recoleta coffee shop, Teresa Bo recently shared stories about living in the Middle East, reporting on paramilitary groups in Colombia, and breaking news stories across Latin America. In September, she will relocate to Washington, DC to work on Fault Lines, an Al Jazeera series about US foreign policy around the world.
What was it like being a female journalist in Middle Eastern war zones? Did you ever feel at risk because of your gender?
I think being a woman was an asset. Most people would say, “Oh, she’s a woman,” and this and that. But the good thing about it is that people want to open the doors to their homes, women tell you their stories, you get access to things. Sometimes men are perceived as being threatening whereas women are not, and that’s a great advantage to have. You get to see things that many men cannot. I never had a problem in the Middle East. Never. In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, I think it’s more of a humiliating thing for some people to see a woman in action.
I just came back from Colombia, and we went and interviewed guerillas in the jungle. And I don’t think it’s about being a woman or a man, I think it’s about your personality. Either you like it or you don’t. And I love it. That comes with the job, if there is any difficulty, you have to say whatever.
After reading about James Foley, the freelance journalist who was just released in Syria, it’s hard not to imagine feeling uneasy. Have you found yourself in hairy situations that unnerved you anyway?
Yes, lots of them. Eventually it’s just like there are so many of them that you become used to it. I hate when journalists say, “We are war reporters and correspondents,” I’m a journalist, I tell stories, I tell news. I’ve been in danger many many times. I’ve seen friends die, I’ve seen very very difficult things, but I do believe we’re doing a job. I do believe we are informing people. We have to tell a story and I think we’re doing that.
I was in Iraq three years so I covered the invasion of Fallujah — our hotel was attacked in Baghdad. Then I covered it from another angle because I was kicked out of Iraq. So, of course you’re in danger, you know? I take it as part of the job. You have to be responsible. You’re going to a war zone. You find a person that will show you around. You don’t go anywhere after curfew. You analyze things and decide whether it’s worth the risk or not. You don’t go and say, “Yes, shoot me.” It’s going there and knowing how to move and I think that’s the way to do it.
Do you think you’ll go back?
I’m very open to it, my only limitation now is time. I try not to leave my daughter for more than a week. But she has travelled with me these past two years. She’s been to Colombia, to Cuba, to Venezuela when Chávez died. Now that I’m moving to this new show, we’ll do documentaries in the US, in Colombia probably, in Cuba probably, and there might be the chance to go to Libya and to other countries. But I’ll analyze it at the time to decide whether it’s right or not. My worry is time more than danger.
There are stages. Rather than being home and doing something that I don’t like, I would rather pay the price by leaving her behind a very little bit. But it’s difficult to do this job when you have a family. I think it’s the biggest challenge of them all. I’ve met journalists, males even, that are in Iraq for a month and they say, “I’m more afraid of my wife than being here.” Because the partner that stays has all the responsibility.
What are some of the major differences between reporting from Argentina and reporting from the Middle East?
In Baghdad your editors call you ten times a day. When I moved from the Middle East a friend of mine told me, “No one is going to call you because nobody cares about what happens in Latin America,” and it has been the complete opposite. My conclusion about being in Argentina and being Argentine is that there are things that are huge and changing and interesting to report. But when you measure it with the seriousness of things happening everywhere else, you come back to Argentina and just wonder, “How can it be so difficult to make it work?” It should be so much easier. I came back from Colombia yesterday and come on, they’ve got guerillas and drug traffickers and 40 percent of the country is extremely poor. We don’t have that much poverty. There are things that with a small twist you should be able to fix.
And Al Jazeera itself? What do you think the network adds to coverage of the region?
There is a huge difference between Al Jazeera’s coverage of news in Latin America. I mean, we spend so much time out there. We go to Bolivia to Peru to Colombia, to Venezuela, to the jungles of Brazil. People think, “Who cares about that in the mainstream media?” But we’re covering it. We’re going live with it. I think it’s great, and that’s why I’ve loved Al Jazeera all these years. We do the craziest stories. Like I say, “I’m going to meet this indigenous group in Colombia,” and they say, “Yes, go and do it!”
Do you think that it’s the network’s financial resources that have enabled it to expand drastically and brand itself so efficiently in such a short amount of time?
Definitely. Someone told me that Al Jazeera is the economic stimulus package for journalism. It has a lot to do with that. While others are suffering, Al Jazeera is telling us to go here here and here. They’ve got money and I think that a great thing to have as a journalist is to be able to go places and see things and have a company invest in you. They’re discussing Al Jazeera London, Al Jazeera Spanish. I think as long as there are people wanting to report and to bring money into the business and do great documentaries and hire great people, it’s great. I think it’s great to break the Anglo Saxon view of the newsroom. It always has to be CNN when it’s US-UK related. I think Al Jazeera brings a bit of fresh air to what is interesting.
And now Al Jazeera America...
Al Jazeera America, the launch is a big challenge. It’s a big challenge to get Americans to want to watch a daily news channel like Al Jazeera. I do think that people from Texas are going to be like, “I’m not watching this.” Its going to send them itching. But I do think there’s a large public who is hoping to watch something new. It’s going to have less advertising, less entertainment, more serious news, more documentaries, more analysis. We’ll see how it goes. I’m very positive. Reviews were pretty good. Kate O’Brian from ABC and many people from BBC and CNN are coming over and I think it’s going be a great network. It depends on what you’re looking for. If you want to watch Britney Spears dancing, you’re probably not going to find it there.
Some of it’s obvious challenges will be that it’s run by the Qatari government. Does the fact that it’s state-owned ever affect the way things are reported?
I think that there is a big difference between Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English. I cannot say anything about Al Jazeera America because I haven’t been able to watch it. But at Al Jazeera English, we have never ever had anyone telling us what to do, how to say something, what to cover. Al Jazeera Arabic is for an Arabic public. The type of news they report is for people who live in a part of the world that is exposed to many things that we wouldn’t stand to watch for one minute on television.
Is there censorship on the Arabic side of things?
I cannot say specifically because I am not involved. Nobody would ever dare tell me what to say. I can be critical and I cannot be critical and it depends on the way that I see things. There’s a lot of hypocrisy around the world about how we judge things. A lot of people say Al Jazeera is from the Qatari government. Well the BBC is from the British government. The British helped the US invade Iraq. Things happen everywhere. I’m not worried about people putting the pressure on Al Jazeera just because it’s from 0Qatar. I think it’s a great network. The only thing I can tell you is that I have a lot of integrity and I’m going to report the news as I see it. Of course, the Qatari government is going to have an interest in certain things, but I don’t think that changes the amount of credibility that many of the journalists who are working on things have.
We need to bring the same level of integrity and scrutiny to everything. I’m guessing that there are differences between journalists and their bosses. I think that it has happened in some form or another in Al Jazeera Arabic. But I also know that it has happened at Clarín here.