Al Jazeera 20 years on: 'The Arab world still resists independent, professional journalism', says Mostefa Souag

In two decades, Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network has broken through deep-seated reporting barriers in the Arab world, airing issues and views previously suppressed by those in power. Its coverage has brought it many enemies but in the network’s most open interview yet, acting director-general Mostefa Souag remains steadfast
By Courtney Trenwith
Fri 21 Oct 2016 12:18 AM

"Al Jazeera came to announce the beginning of professional journalism in the Arab world,” the network’s head Mostefa Souag declares. “Unfortunately, there is still a lot of resistance to this approach.”

As the Doha-based Al Jazeera celebrates its twentieth anniversary on November 1, it continues to face heated opposition and claims of bias, on top of fresh concerns over budget cuts and a failed attempt to penetrate the US market.

But while it has detractors, there are plenty of supporters who praise Al Jazeera for its willingness to cover issues other media have ignored. It has brazenly broadcast videoed speeches of deceased Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at the height of the ‘war on terror’, questioned the morality of US troops’ actions in Iraq and paid more attention to the Pope than any other news organisation in the Arab world.

Its prolonged coverage of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East has often been unmatched and Souag boasts the network has brought light to the plight of “farmers, workers, fishermen, beggars on the street, women, children, youth, senior citizens … humans”.

Al Jazeera knew it would attract controversy from the day it launched as a single channel broadcasting a mere six hours of daily news, only in Arabic, in 1996.

“The Arab world at that time needed a media outlet that was actually professional, that did the job as it should be done. Before that, the other stations [were] the mouthpieces of governments, propaganda ... most of the time not respecting the rules of professional journalism,” Souag tells Arabian Business.

By 1999 Al Jazeera was broadcasting 24 hours a day and in 2006 launched a separate English channel. That was followed by dedicated channels in Egypt, Turkey and the Balkans.

Now with 270 million tuned-in households worldwide, Al Jazeera is defying opponents.

“In the Arab world, there is still such a resistance to professionalism in media, that is very clear from the [other] media in the Arab world,” he says. “With very, very few exceptions, all of them [media outlets] work for the government directly or indirectly. Either they are employed by the government or they are supported financially by the government … or it’s owned by people whose interests are with the government, so this is the landscape in the Arab world, unfortunately.”

Al Jazeera is also state funded but Souag vehemently denies the Qatari government influences editorial.

“Al Jazeera was established [by the government] and then Al Jazeera ran its own business. Nobody ever, ever called me from the ministry of interior or the foreign ministry or from the Emir’s diwan; nobody, ever, ever, it’s not their business,” Souag, a veteran journalist who has worked with the Doha-based network for 14 years, says.

“They insist on the independence of Al Jazeera and the professionalism.”

Al Jazeera channel is launched, transmitting 6 hours a day.

Yet Souag concedes Al Jazeera is probably accused of more bias than any other international network, although he says it is precisely the span of that criticism that proves all the critics and conspiracy theorists wrong.

“There are so many allegations, accusations against Al Jazeera, so many of them,” he laments, running through a list including that the network was a Mossad agency, affiliated with the CIA, working for the Muslim Brotherhood and a mouthpiece for militant groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL.

“If one government is unhappy, they would say, ‘oh you are with the opposition’, whatever that opposition is, Islamist, liberal, whatever. And if the opposition is not happy, they would say, ‘oh you’re with the government’, also regardless of what that government is.

“All the accusations contradict each other, which means that Al Jazeera is none of these things.”

As one of the only significant media outlets in the Arab world that thoroughly reported on the dissent among citizens in early 2011, Al Jazeera played a key role in the lead up to and during the so-called Arab Spring. Although Souag says it is “nonsense” to suggest that Al Jazeera started the revolutions, he is the first to claim the network helped to influence the toppling of leaders across North Africa.

“Al Jazeera has influenced this. One reason that Al Jazeera could be included in the causes of the Arab Spring is that for many years since it was established, Al Jazeera has been educating people through giving them knowledge – right knowledge, not the false knowledge - telling them what was going on, bringing people from different political and ideological orientation to discuss things, to debate, teach them or make them aware of their rights, of their liberties,” he says.

“If people know those things then they can make their own decisions. Al Jazeera probably was the most influential source, absolutely.

“When they see how people in many countries go out and protest against the oppression and against the dictatorship, and how they can get their rights people can be more aware, more willing to go out and demand changes in order to get their democratic rights.

“The second element is that because of the new media - Al Jazeera was a pioneer and really strong in using new media - and because of the possibility to broadcast live from the protest area, people were following Al Jazeera and knew what was going on and they were more willing to go and participate because they could see that there were a million people out there at Tahrir [Square in Cairo], and more people would go and turn the million into two or three million.

“It happened also for when the people were protesting against [former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi] and asking for him to be removed. Al Jazeera reported the same thing and probably a lot of people went out because they watched that on Al Jazeera. So we do it as a part of our professional duty not because we want to promote one side or the other.”

It was during the coup d’etat against former Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 that one of the darkest hours of Al Jazeera occurred when four of its English channel journalists and cameramen were arrested by the regime of General Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

They were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail before being later pardoned by El Sisi, who had by then become president and was facing significant international pressure to release them.

Al Jazeera vehemently denies it has ever been bias in its reporting, including during the Arab Spring.

The journalists accused Al Jazeera of failing to protect them. Mohamed Fahmy is suing the network for “epic negligence”, claiming they put him in danger by misinforming him about its legal status in Egypt and airing his reports on its Egyptian channel, Jazeera Mubasher Misr, which had been banned by an Egyptian court for allegedly favouring the Muslim Brotherhood.

Souag claims the experience has been “horrible” to oversee but blamed the “completely illegal, completely irrational, completely illogical” Egyptian political system. He insists Al Jazeera has properly cared for its 3,000 staff.

“Every journalist in Al Jazeera is trained to deal with environments of war, of tension. Everyone is trained to be fully professional, not to take things personally … and where ever they go, if it’s dangerous … we provide bodyguards,” he says.

“And we always tell them one single thing to remember: your life is much more important than any news, so if you feel that you might be in a dangerous environment, that you might be hurt, just go away.

“Probably we provided much more than anybody could have done. I don’t remember in my life - and I’m old enough to remember a lot - any institution has provided for the people working for them the way Al Jazeera provided for those people.

“There are things we cannot talk about because we don’t want to embarrass these people [the journalists]. They have claimed things that are ridiculously wrong and exactly contrary to what Al Jazeera was doing. In some cases those people maybe felt that spending time in jail was really painful, therefore they need to be compensated much more than they were. Or maybe some of them are repeating what the Egyptian government has been saying … and instead of going after the oppressor, that is the government of Egypt, they go after Al Jazeera.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation but we were supporting them 100 percent, probably 200 or 300 percent, until they were out, and when they were out we took good care of the ones who wanted to continue with Al Jazeera and the ones who said ‘I’m not Al Jazeera any more’, we said ‘good luck to you’.”

The comments are unlikely to rest easy with the jailed journalists, but the incident has led to Al Jazeera steering the adoption at the United Nations of the International Declaration on the Protection of Journalists, along with the International Press Institute. The declaration includes an emphasis on the responsibilities of states to guarantee journalist safety.

But failing to protect its staff was not the only accusation levelled at Al Jazeera during its extensive coverage of Egypt’s second revolution. The network was heavily accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, aided by allegations that the Qatari government was syphoning as much as $6bn to Egypt under the Brotherhood’s rule – an allegation Souag categorically denies.

“Al Jazeera is independent and free and doesn’t work for any, any, any political or ideological agenda. We don’t have one,” he insists.

Souag says no accuser has been able to prove that its coverage is unfair.

The network has been first on the scene during multiple wars in the Middle East.

“That’s why, for example, when our reporters were jailed [in Egypt] and they got to the court the court wouldn’t provide anything against them, it’s all talk,” he says.

“They were found guilty, yes, but in a political drama that had nothing to do with the legal system. Yes, it’s a judge who pronounced that but the judge [also] pronounced hundreds and hundreds of death sentences in one hour,” he adds, referring to Judge Saeed Youssef’s internationally criticised death sentences for more than 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in a series of trials in April 2014. Some of the sentences were later commuted to life in prison.

While Arab states have often attempted to silence Al Jazeera’s reporting, the US also has made known its dislike of some of the network’s reporting at times such as during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US bombed Al Jazeera’s offices in both Kabul in 2001 and in Baghdad in 2003, when an Al Jazeera reporter was killed.

“The Americans were unhappy with us when we were reporting from Afghanistan, from Iraq and other areas because we were showing the barbaric effects of their bombing,” Souag says.

Al Jazeera was the only international media in Afghanistan when the US entered in 2003, a situation that astounds Souag.

“Afghanistan was a really important spot; the Taliban were there and Americans were threatening. You shouldn’t be in the media if you don’t know that something serious was going to happen,” he says.

Its lone wolf position helped to cement Al Jazeera’s standing and it soon scored exclusive videos carrying messages from Osama bin Laden. While American network CNN bought the rights to also broadcast the videos, many criticised Al Jazeera for giving Al Qaeda a prominent platform to air what they considered to be propaganda of a militant group.

Souag, who was new to the network at the time, says it was “the right thing to do”.

“[Al Jazeera] didn’t do it to get international attention, it didn’t do it because we want to be talked about; we did it because it was the right thing to do,” he says. “Other media outlets were afraid to do it because they didn’t have the freedom or they didn’t have the independence or they didn’t have the daring, the courage to do it.

“You cannot claim to be educating people, to give people knowledge, when you provide them with one side. If you tell people … what the Americans want to be said about Al Qaeda, then you are providing the American perspective on Al Qaeda; we provide the people with both sides. [Actually] most of the time, the American presence on Al Jazeera was many times more than Al Qaeda. But at least we provide the minimum from what Al Qaeda, or bin Laden, was saying. Then people can listen … and decide for themselves.

Al Jazeera is pushing for international journalist safety standards.

“We always, always made sure that everything that was broadcast was professional and ethically and morally acceptable. We didn’t [broadcast anything] … if they put something like asking people to kill. We always put things that are politically important for people to know and that’s where it stops.”

In 2013, Al Jazeera decided it needed to have a permanent presence in the US to support its international network status. Al Jazeera America launched on a cable network in August, 2013. It survived less than three years.

Souag blames the failed channel on poor advice.

“What the consultants didn’t tell us was that one of the most difficult things [to do] in America is to deal with the cable companies; they are so powerful and they can very easily break you. And they are so expensive,” he says.

“Second, we were not completely aware of the change that was going on in the world, that, is people actually are moving from the big screen [television] into new media, social media.”

To suggest Al Jazeera was unaware of the rapid uptake of digital media over TV in 2013 appears either ignorant or an excuse. The truth is, if Al Jazeera had been more successful on cable it very well would have remained there, but it was unable to attract even a small percentage of the audience that home-built networks could. Reports suggest as few as 30,000 people tuned in on an average evening – a figure Souag dismisses as “ridiculous”.

“We were getting up to 1.2 million in some cases,” he says, while conceding that figure still fell short of the likes of CNN and Fox News, which average 6 million each.

A study commissioned by Al Jazeera to understand why it was struggling to penetrate the US market found that 67 percent of Americans did not know the network had a local channel. But, Souag says, it also revealed that Americans were inclined to follow news driven by their same political allegiance.

“If you don’t take sides, then you cannot be watched that much,” he says.

“People are more interested in watching CBS, for example, if they want to be with Obama and Fox News if they want to be with Republicans, and you have to take that position, you have to show that you are with one side. We didn’t have that luxury because we are professionals and we were there to rebalance the media, not to be part of those extreme positions.”

But at the time he announced Al Jazeera America’s closure in January 2016, the channel’s then-CEO told staff its business model was “not sustainable” “in light of the economic challenges in the US media marketplace”.

Souag says presenting the people’s views is a pillar of the network.

The prolonged oil and gas prices have significantly cut the Qatar government’s revenues, forcing it to re-prioritise spending, while observers have suggested that the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has shown less interest in Al Jazeera since taking over the leadership in 2013 from his father, who established the network.

Souag says budgets are “something we don’t talk about” but concedes they have been cut.

“It’s something that we have been dealing with, I believe, efficiently and hopefully things will be okay. But the budget issue is a worldwide issue, it’s not only Al Jazeera,” he says.

The network confirmed in May it had cut 500 jobs globally, although most at its Doha headquarters. It did not specify if those jobs included its Al Jazeera America workforce, or the tens of employees that were reported to have been notified of their sacking in July last year.

“We reduced 500 employees that we thought were not really needed and [with] the budget restructuring ... we needed to take a look into those things,” Souag says.

“For the moment we don’t have [any more job cuts] planned, but if we need to do that we have to it on the basis of what is needed.”

As the network heads into its third decade, it is narrowing its focus on digital. A dedicated digital department established earlier this year is currently preparing a strategy, while Al Jazeera has brought technology experts in-house to build new smartphone apps and upgrade the website.

Souag says Al Jazeera’s “highly sophisticated and well equipped” journalism training centre also will remain a pivotal element of the company.

“By doing this we are hoping to contribute very highly to improve professionalism [in journalism] in the Arab world and the rest of the world,” he says.

Whether you agree with him or not, Al Jazeera has firmly settled into the international media landscape. Its reporting is bound to continue to stir controversy in varying quarters, but that is almost the point.

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