Press Freedom in the Arab World
By Khaled Dawoud | March 10, 2010
DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart from the Carnegie Council. Welcome to another excellent innovative program of the Carnegie New Leaders.
I'm going to turn it over to Robin van Puyenbroeck. Robin is one of our leading Carnegie New Leaders. He is on the newly formed steering committee. Robin really took the initiative, like some others have—and I encourage you to do the same—and put this all together for us today. So I'm going to turn it over to Robin.
Please think of this when you are thinking of programs to follow up, programs that you can put together like Robin has today. So, Robin, thanks so much and welcome.
ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: Thank you, Devin. Good evening, everybody. It's my distinct pleasure to introduce Khaled Dawoud. Khaled is the correspondent of Al Jazeera in New York covering the United Nations and any other significant events going on in the United States.
He will talk for about 20 minutes, half an hour, about Al Jazeera— its history, what is it like to work at Al Jazeera as a journalist, who are the constituents of Al Jazeera, who is the audience, and how does the Arabic world views of Al Jazeera see the current events of today.
Interestingly, the topic "Freedom of the Press in the Arab World" I found very touching, because we all seem to know somehow the brand Al Jazeera, but we cannot watch it in the United States. It's not on cable at least. It is available online— the English edition— but it is for various reasons not yet available on cable.
So I'll pass on to Khaled, and then we will open it up for questions.
KHALED DAWOUD: Thank you very much, Robin, for this introduction. It is a great pleasure to see you again. Actually, I met Robin at one of these lectures before. I feel sorry that he may hear the same stuff all over again.
Anyway, as Robin explained, I came here to the United States eight years ago basically as a correspondent for an Egyptian newspaper, called Al-Ahram, which is the largest newspaper we have in Egypt, and it's the oldest as well, and then four years later I came here to New York to work for Al Jazeera, the Arabic one, not the English one— the one that you cannot see here in the United States.
Mainly I cover the United Nations. Our office is inside the United Nations. So that basically makes us cover a lot of the UN—that's in case the UN is doing a lot, but sometimes it's not—and also New York itself, mainly related stories, like political stories; economic stories recently of course were a major important issue.
I'm always asked about Al Jazeera. There are lots of stereotypes about Al Jazeera, especially here in the United States—it's different—and more in New York actually than even compared to Washington, D.C.
I always start these kinds of talks about Al Jazeera by stating definitely that I don't know where bin Laden is, that I have no relation to him, and that I am just a reporter basically, and I now happen to be working for Al Jazeera. I take it as a professional job more than anything else. That's really the claim that we all make as reporters who work for Al Jazeera, that we don’t have that much of a political agenda, as some people, particularly in the United States, think to be the case.
I actually chose the issue of the freedom of the press and Al Jazeera's contribution to it because that's really how I see Al Jazeera personally as a reporter.
I have been working as a reporter for slightly over 20 years right now. I come from Egypt, as I stated, I witnessed the years of the introduction of Al Jazeera as a new channel in the Arab world, and why it was important and how it did affect our political reality—our media reality. A lot of things changed in the Arab world with the introduction of Al Jazeera, even more than what happened later, after 9/11 and what happened in Afghanistan.
Originally, as a reporter myself, the main reason why Al Jazeera was important is the context in which it came out from—I assume I don't need to go through a lot of history.
In the Arab world—most of the Arab world—we were under occupation, whether French occupation or British occupation in Egypt's case. In the 1950s and the 1960s of the past century, we started having these nationalist movements, gaining our independence.
It just happened that in many of the Arab countries, whether in Egypt or in Syria or in Iraq or in Algeria even later, it always happened that it was the army which led the process of change or the process of independence or whatever you want to call it. Of course, in the case of Egypt and in many other Arab countries, when the army takes over, it becomes an experience that was repeated and done similarly in several other Arab countries.
One of the first things that happened is that, for example, in the case of Egypt, a few years after the late President Nasser did his revolt, was that basically he nationalized the press. So all the newspapers, all the media, all the radio, all the television became basically government property.
It's important to consider that because it affects, of course, the nature of the relation between the media in our countries and our audience, which are the people that we reach, when they know that we're mainly government spokesmen or basically reproducing what the government wants us to say.
So that was the reality that existed in almost all Arab countries: that you had a very strong authoritarian government, which basically sees the press as a tool to tell the people what the government wants the people to know, rather than the case here. For example, in the United States, with all the limitations, or in Europe, the media or the press is a watchdog, someone to watch what the government is doing and report it and create issues and investigate matters. You know, all these concepts did not really exist in our case in Egypt and in the Arab world when the press started and when it was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and at the later stage.
More important than even the press itself, such as print media, like newspapers and magazines, was television, of course. In all Arab countries the illiteracy rates are very high, ranging from 50 percent in some places to up to 80 percent in some other Arab countries. So with this illiteracy rate, television becomes the most important means of communication. If you want to control what the people see and watch and hear, you have to control television. So the television is government-owned, the radio is government-owned, the newspapers are government-owned.
It is not a means of communication in that case, or one way in which we inform people of the situation, how it is, or how the reality is. But we have a little bit, not dissimilar to the culture of the former Soviet Union and this kind of controlled media whereby the news has a certain order: we have to start with the news of the president, followed by the news of the prime minister, followed by the news of the other ministers. Usually, the picture is very rosy, "everything is fine, we have no problems, everybody is happy." You know, that's the kind of general atmosphere.
As I say, even for people who are experts on our part of the world, it even becomes a sign if you want to know how the government is doing. I mean is the president appearing on TV four or five times a week? If he is not, if he disappears for a couple of weeks, is he sick, is there something, is there a coup? So because there is really little information that is available, you become accustomed to a certain reading between the lines.
I remember very well growing up and reading the official newspapers that came out in Egypt. Sometimes you would see a very small news item made up of maybe 30-40 words, like you would never see anywhere else, about a certain government decision that was taken about someone you don't know. But then it is in the newspaper, and then that becomes the beginning of the story—how did it happen, who died, where did it come from? But nothing is really said that is a real reflection of what our reality is, or what our problems are in the region, or what are our needs, which are no different from the needs of any other country.
People in my part of the world, of course, they want a government that is not corrupt, they want a government that respects their basic rights and freedoms—all these issues. But of course, these were taboo, things that were not to be spoken about.
And of course, it's not only the government issues that I want to really make an issue about. It's also even our own social problems. Because of the controlled nature of the media, even problems in every country—like, say, for example, in Egypt we have a Christian minority, and we know that there are problems beneath the beautiful surface; the president receives the patriarch and they shake hands and supposedly that's the sign that everything is good. But then you know that there are problems, but you are not really talking about them in the official media because that goes against the general rosy picture that you are supposed to have in general.
Or like, say, in Jordan, for example, where there are ruling Jordanian people from the country itself and then there are Palestinians. There are always questions. Everybody talks about it in the streets—like what is the relation between the Palestinians and the Jordanians, what are the problems that are existing—but nobody really writes about them or speaks about them in the media because, again, that's a taboo.
And you can mention many other things—the status of women, the issues of human rights. I mean all these topics were not issues that we were able to discuss openly until maybe the mid-1980s, early 1990s, when we started a little bit of opening here and there. Like in Egypt, for example, after many years of having government-controlled press, you start having the government—because the president felt like it, because former president Sadat wanted to have a good relation with the United States, so he said, "Okay, now I will have three opposition parties with three opposition newspapers."
And then the experiment goes on. Besides the government papers, you have the three opposition papers. But then, when the opposition papers go so far, he closes them down in one night, arrests 1,000 people, and the experience is over. So that was the nature of the thing.
And being Al Jazeera, being TV—I think of even CNN as a kind of a new form of media, where you follow live news and going out—the classic form of news that we have had for many years only came out, again, I think, maybe in the early 1980s, or around that time.
So we have never had something like that in the Arab world. We have never had live news coverage, talk shows where people discuss their topics openly and debate them and all these kinds of things.
The BBC Arabic Service has had a very long history in the Arab world. Bearing in mind all I told you about the government-controlled media and attempts to limit what we listened to, I remember growing up that my main source for outside media information, even about my own country, was from the BBC. So everybody would have a radio at home, and you would really try hard with your shortwave, turning left and turning right, until you got a little bit, to know that there was a demonstration in Cairo, the same city that you are living in, or in Jordan, and that maybe ten of your friends were arrested or something. But you really don't get to know it from your own local media, you get to know it from these sources of information.
The BBC had this long tradition of being one of the sources of information which a lot of people really trusted—I think maybe relatively until today. But they had a good name, and they did offer this kind of alternative source of information. But they decided to do TV. They said, after maybe 60 years or 55 years at that time of doing radio in Arabic, "We want to do TV in Arabic too."
But of course, as you guys know, TV is an expensive business, really very expensive. It's different from having a newspaper. The technology is very expensive. Maybe now it's becoming a little bit cheaper, but originally it was a very expensive operation, with the logistics, the travel, many things.
So the BBC, as far as the story at that time went, had to have a partner, they had to have someone to pay for that project basically, and that came through the Saudi government. Maybe I didn't mention Saudi, because I'm mentioning the Arab countries that are non-oil-rich nations, but the situation in even the oil countries as well is not any different from the rest of the Arab world. The media's job is to cover the government, the government always has the high priority, and don't talk about the bad issues that make the government look negative, or something like that.
So the Saudis decided to put some money with the BBC and to have BBC television in Arabic. At that time, all those who were working in the media had the basic question "Is this experiment going to succeed?" because we all knew the Saudi limitations and the BBC's claim or desire to maintain a certain level of objectivity. The question was: What will happen when some negative news comes out about Saudi Arabia; how will the BBC cover this story? That was what everybody was waiting for.
You know what basically happened is that this day came. The BBC—because everybody was saying, "Oh, okay, you're over-covering Saudi, you're not covering Saudi"—and then they did a one-hour documentary, I think, about human rights in Saudi Arabia or something like that.
Unfortunately, the experiment was very short-lived and the BBC Arabic TV didn't last more than a year, a year and a half, and they pulled out. Then, suddenly, you had 100, or over 100, very good journalists, very well trained, who were basically jobless.
At that time comes Qatar, Doha. There was a change in government there. The ruler of Qatar was Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, and then came the political changes there with his son; he took over the power from his father.
A lot of people asked the question about "Why Qatar?" [Al Jazeera's headquarters are in Qatar.] I mean Qatar is such a small country in the Gulf region.
But, I guess, people are entitled to think of ways to make their name known, to put their fingerprint on regional politics and world politics. It seems that the Emir of Qatar at that time, the present ruler, he thought that one of the contributions that he can make and make his country known through is to have a channel like Al Jazeera in Qatar itself presenting this alternative media instead of the government-controlled television channels.
So he basically decided to take all the guys who worked for the BBC Arabic Service, this new television project, and told them: "Okay, guys, you all come to Doha and do the project that you were presumably supposed to do but do it from Qatar itself." That's basically how Al Jazeera started.
One of the first slogans or mottos, whatever you want to call them, of Al Jazeera was "the opinion and the counter-opinion". That is one of the concepts that might seem like an ipso facto, like something easy for you to take—of course, each story has two sides —but it was not always the case for us in the Arab world, as I tried to explain, and that's why it was an important motto, to have an opinion and to have a counter-opinion.
Al Jazeera came in with that perspective—on the one hand, that this is a channel that has reasonable funding, funding from a relatively oil-rich Gulf country; and at the same time, they have the experience and they have a message, which is that "we are not going to be like the official government-owned TV, whether in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq, or in Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, and we are going to try to present something different."
Another thing that's really a contribution for Al Jazeera, for us, besides having this live news coverage and keeping people informed about what's happening in the world and setting the agenda of what people would expect to see in the news—I mean if there is something important for us, we don't have to start with the government news if there is something more important than the government news. So that was the most important thing: try to know who your audience is and try to think, like they do in old news rooms, about what are going to be the most important issues that your readers or audience want to listen to today.
And then the talk shows; that was another important contribution that Al Jazeera made to the media scene in the Arab world. Again, I use Egypt always because that's where I come from, but for the first time for us Egyptians—or Iraqis or Algerians or Jordanians—you would see a government official sitting with an opposition figure. First of all, we would not see opposition figures on our TVs—that was out of the question—for many, many, many years.
So you have like: Oh my God, this government guy sitting with the opposition guy, and the opposition guy telling the government guy openly, "You are torturing people in prison, you are oppressing this, you are not allowing us freedom of expression," and bringing the taboos—the unspoken—to the surface. Now we are talking about them—the treatment of women; is it like oppressive societies—many things, many things, but in each and every Arab country.
And of course, the result was that most Arab governments basically were not very happy with Al Jazeera. But that's where it started from.
It's a very strange twist actually, because when Al Jazeera became a big name in the first early years, I think that the reaction in Washington and the United States was a very positive one. It was like "Oh, this is the new media that we want to encourage, Al Jazeera is really good," if you go back to the years of 1997–1998, until 9/11 happened. So at that time it was seen as something positive.
Then another change again puts Al Jazeera in a very peculiar position. I don't want to jump to the post-9/11 era. But, of course, right now we are seen as the channel that supports Palestinian radicalism, this is the channel that backs fundamentalists, blah, blah, blah, all that kind of stuff.
But then, in the Arab world, strangely enough, a lot of people see Al Jazeera as being the first channel that introduced Israeli speakers to Arab households. Again, with all the Arab TV stations, with all the Arab-Israeli conflict business that we were in for the past 60 years in our part of the world—but for us, the Arab audience, when I watched my Egypt TV, Iraq IV, Algeria TV, Saudi TV, I would never see an Israeli official. I would never hear from them about what they say, how they think, what their arguments are. Al Jazeera broke this taboo. This was a real taboo, to have an interview with an Israeli foreign minister, to have an interview with Sharon; they had an interview with Peres—many interviews with Peres actually because he has been around for so many years as well.
But this was again another thing that made a lot of people think, "Oh, you are an American tool because you are introducing Israelis to our households and you are making us get to know what the enemy wants to hear" and stuff like that.
So on one hand, you have here in the United States all this reputation about "you're being pro-radical and pro all those kind of things," and in the Arab world you would be very strange. I mean I would be very, very amazed coming from here in the States to Cairo streets.
I would go in a cab and the driver would tell me, "Oh, you work for a Zionist channel."
I said, "What? I work for a Zionist channel?"
He would say, "Yes, because I see all the Israelis on your TV."
But that kind of makes me mad, because here it's like "you are supporters" and "where is Osama bin Laden?" and there it's like "you're a Zionist," whatever. So it kind of makes you feel, "Okay, maybe I'm okay. Like everybody's so mad, so maybe.…"
But that was how Al Jazeera first started and how it caused a lot of controversy back in the Arab world in the late 1980s. They started in 1996 exactly, so that's 14 years ago. So it's not too old, but a reasonable number of years to be around.
And then, of course, I switch to the 9/11 period, because, of course, that changed a lot of things about how Al Jazeera is seen and how Al Jazeera is perceived, especially here in the United States and in the West. That was a different story.
Because 9/11 occurred, this terrorist attack, it shook the lives of everybody all over the world. Still today, personally, as an Arab and a Muslim, I am bearing the consequences. This subject did not disappear, even though it's eight or nine years later.
So 9/11 came, and came the so-called bin Laden tapes issue, which is again another very strange situation that we found ourselves in. After bin Laden did the 1998 bombing of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, almost every single American channel did interviews with bin Laden. That was the hit of ABC, CBS, CNN—you name it. Everybody did bin Laden interviews. They would go for him, really. There was no question about this.
And then 9/11 occurred, and this man, this group, is claiming responsibility. You are a news channel, you are one of the most widely watched—in the Arab world at least, and actually became all over the world—because people know that you present a different kind of news and a different view about the Arab world that people don't usually see, so you receive a tape from bin Laden and he's claiming certain things after 9/11. So the question becomes: Are you going to air this tape or are you not going to air this tape?
My background originally was working for news agencies like Reuters and AP. That's where I worked after I graduated from the American University in Cairo. I would always find myself in this situation. I was working in the office in Cairo in the period of 1995-1998, where there were almost daily terror attacks in Egypt, and you would receive statements from terrorist groups and all this kind of stuff. We used to report them. We used to report what these guys were saying and we used to report what the government was saying. That's part of what we see, what I was told by my American professors, the two sides of the story.
The issue is: what would any other agency do about this issue—such a hot topic, such a big event—and you have this guy providing you with tapes and saying "This is what we did and this is what's happening and this and this and this?"
But it just happened that way, because that became—at least, again, here now I'm speaking on the basis of my experience of living here in this country—it became this association, that "this is Al Jazeera that runs the bin Laden tapes."
So when I first arrived here and moved to New York, I go to Crate and Barrel to buy some stuff, and I meet this nice young lady there, 19 years old. She does not know how to spell my name, Khalid Halid Khaled. So I give my card and it has Al Jazeera on it. She turns blue and she says, "You're the bin Laden channel." I said, "Oh my God, even here."
This is maybe part of the topic: how is my job here, how is my work here in the United States, working for Al Jazeera?
So it's an issue we can always debate really. I mean how are you going to handle this kind of thing? We debated. We debated within Al Jazeera, we debated among ourselves, as journalists, how you handle this kind of material, information, coming from groups that are charged and accused and involved in terrorist acts; how are you going to handle these kinds of things?
But I don't really think—like in Arabic we say those who convey the heresy or the bad news are not necessarily the ones who made the bad news. I’m just reporting the bad news, so I shouldn't be really blamed for that.
VOICE: Don't shoot the messenger.
KHALED DAWOUD: Exactly, don't shoot the messenger. Maybe that's a better way to put it.
That's really my point of view about it. But again, we have to be real in my opinion, you have to put things into context, as we say, which is that we were also dealing with an administration, the former Bush Administration, that basically also didn't like controversy. It was one of the main criticisms that was directed against President Bush when I was reporting on the White House almost on a daily basis, that he only listened to people who agreed with him.
Even in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when this was a very important decision, who was the person he was meeting with all the time? Mr. Blair, 90 times. But is he meeting with any other world leaders who have a different point of view? Is he meeting with the French? Is he meeting with the Germans? So that was another thing with the previous administration, again, being a reporter at the White House myself, how difficult it was; any reporter who's kind of guaranteed that he's going to ask a positive question was given a question.
Even in former President Bush interviews, and again of course with Mr. Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense, and Mr. Cheney, coming out all the time, "Al Jazeera did this, Al Jazeera does that." Of course, this doesn't really help in creating a positive image about the place that you work for. And again, really not on the basis of real charges.
I don't think that—again, when we report what's happening—and this is really part of my job as a reporter, and I think I owe it to the people who watch and read our material. When the United States is launching a war against Afghanistan or launching a war against Iraq—I mean okay, fine, this is war. I see there are some reporters who are here attending with us, and they can tell you as well. I mean covering war is not an easy issue, sacrificing your own life. When you have a war, you have to be one way or the other definitely embedded. But you have to be embedded with both sides; you can't be embedded with one side only. That's the problem that was faced, whether the Afghanistan war or the Iraq war.
I mean it was seen in the aftermath of 9/11 as nationalist feelings, "let's take revenge." I think even here in the American press, after the Iraq war in particular, they did a lot of self-criticism about how we didn't really do our job as reporters, because it was becoming non-national behavior or anti-American behavior to question anything at that time about President Bush's policies— about his decision to go to war in Afghanistan or his decision to go, more important later, to war in Iraq.
That is, again, really my interpretation of why. Of course, during the Bush years it wasn't easy for us, even Al Jazeera, here in America. In the Arab world, as I was explaining in the beginning, it's more about lack of information, the blackout on behalf of the government, not letting you get to know anything. But here in America there is a lot of information, but there is also access. Access is very important.
So if you are on bad terms with the administration, the George Bush Administration, you don't get access. You don't get interviews with the White House people, you don't get interviews with the State Department people, of course no interviews with Pentagon people under Mr. Rumsfeld. That was out of the question. So of course, that doesn't help you do your job.
In the Afghanistan war, we were the only channel that was present on the ground in Afghanistan because the former Taliban regime only allowed Al Jazeera to be there at that time. You know what I mean? So when the war started, we were the only crew there, and it just happened that we showed at that time the effect of the war.
I was on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at that time as a reporter myself. You could see the airplanes bombing and hitting here and hitting there and doing all this stuff. But then nobody's really showing where these bombs are falling. Were they falling on civilian houses? Were they falling on military targets? Someone has to report this. That's what I mean by "we owe it to the audience to give them a full picture."
In war, like anything else, there are two sides in the war. Whether you think there is one right side and one wrong side, but it's a war. At the end of the day—that's the way I see it personally—it's human beings who pay the price for the war, and we should not show it as something easy, that it's like a cakewalk, that an occupier is going to be received as a liberator with flowers and stuff like that.
If you take part in this, if I take part in this, I'm not doing my job and I'm deceiving the people. My job is—you know, again, after all of these years of working in the business, we can all talk about objectivity. But if I achieve like 60–70 percent objectivity, I think I’ll be happy and I will feel satisfied relatively, because it’s impossible to be 100 percent objective.
That is why we are privileged these days, in this time and age that we are living in, that we have this diversity in all these media. So you have Al Jazeera, but you have others, you have CNN, you have CNBC, you have Fox.
So it is also your job, as people who are receiving news, to try to form a balanced picture out of all these little things here and there. But there has to be something or someone that reports the two sides of the story.
As much as Al Jazeera was accused of supporting a certain radical antiwar point of view, we were also the channel that gave a lot of space for the American officials during the peak of the Iraq war to speak on our channel all the time. But the problem is that that administration, it just reminded me sometimes of the governments back home, which is that they only want to listen to their point of view, and if you get someone else to have a different point of view, they consider this to be like crossing the lines.
So in the Afghanistan war when you show civilians getting killed, that's like you're a bad boy. And then in the Iraq war, when you're not embedded and you also try to show how the war is affecting negatively, how the war is basically destroying the lives of the Iraqis there, you’re not on good terms of course.
I don't know. But it just surprises me, let us put it this way, that at the end of the Afghanistan war the last act of the war was the bombing of the Al Jazeera office in Afghanistan.
And then came the Iraq war. In the Iraq war—and I know this from my bosses and people who worked at that time—they were very specific in going to the U.S. Army and saying, "This is our position, this is our location, we are airing from here, this is our satellite position, please don't bomb us." That was very clear.
And then the war ends. April 9th, the last day of war, the Al Jazeera headquarters get bombed in Baghdad and a colleague of mine gets killed, Tarek Ayoub. They say it's a mistake. But again, that is all that I can say, because nobody has evidence about that. But it raises questions, let's put it this way, to be objective, to try to be.
There is another thing that I'd like to note. It's not out of the creativity of my imagination. This story that emerged about one of the aides of Mr. Tony Blair who leaked a memo, basically a transcript of one of the meetings between former President Bush and former Prime Minister Blair, in which the president openly—he was very mad at Al Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq war, especially during the Fallujah days—he discussed openly bombing of Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha. This civil servant who leaked that memo is out of jail by now, but he got a jail term for about a year.
So that's another side of the story that maybe a lot of people don't really get to know about, that it's not only words, there is action as well.
And then, of course, there is my colleague who has only been recently released. His name is Sami al-Haj. He's a Sudanese guy. He's a cameraman for Al Jazeera. He was there in Afghanistan. Basically, it was charged that he filmed one of the interviews with bin Laden. He spent more than six years in Guantanamo. He was released, like many others who were released, from that place.
So that's the background. Unfortunately, as I said, on one hand, our governments were not happy at all with Al Jazeera. We got our offices closed in many countries. Let me try to think. Some Arab countries either closed us totally or open-and-close, or sometimes taking a reporter to prison for a while and then releasing him. So it's a variety of different degrees of treatment.
And of course, some countries banned us from working immediately—Iraq, for example, we were banned from covering there immediately after the liberation of Iraq or the overthrowing of the regime. It's a very difficult job.
It's really a very difficult job, especially within the goals that you're really trying to work. It's impossible to make everybody happy, but it just happens. For many years we were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia at all, and only recently they allowed us to go cover the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage. I think our office was being closed in Algeria for a while, on and off. In Tunis we are not allowed to operate. In Morocco we used to air for about an hour a day live from there, but then Al Jazeera heard a report about some demonstration that took place in Morocco, and the government wasn't happy, so they closed the operation.
I'm just saying that we work in a very tough environment. We are trying to do our best. We are working in an environment in which we are still even trying to find our steps as you might say, because 13–14 years of a new tradition, of a new experiment, I think is not really that long.
As I said, even on issues like the bin Laden tapes, for example, we made a lot of reviews. We even thought about them. It's like when some people in the previous U.S. administration said, "These might be some coded passages. Maybe he's sending orders to federal terrorists to do certain things by putting words in a certain order." Well, it makes sense. So then there is that kind of cooperation that occurred. Okay, fine, get the speech and listen to it and see if it's coded or not coded, and then we pick out the parts that we are going to air.
After that, this entire tape business basically came to an end in my opinion, with the Internet posting thing, the bin Laden and company, and Zarqawi, and I don't know what, and all these big names that we all know about. They don't need us anymore, they don't need the TV channels, because basically now you can record yourself with a webcam and post it on the Internet on some of these websites and everybody has it basically.
But, unfortunately, it really kind of annoys me sometimes that when people want to speak about bin Laden on any American channel they use the pictures of 2001–2002 with the Al Jazeera logo on it. So it's like something that never goes away.
But it changes, even on the practical level it changes, and we are trying to change as well.
I don't want to take a lot of your time, but Robin asked me quickly to speak—maybe we met a few months ago when the Obama Administration had just taken office, and also because I spoke a lot about the former Bush Administration and our experience with it, which was not a very positive one. But again, I assure you, it was not only us.
At the time I was covering the Obama election, I was in Virginia, which is of course a very Republican state, as those of you who follow the news know. Even as journalists, at that time a lot of questions would come: "Which one would you support? Would you support McCain or would you support Obama?"
Of course, being Al Jazeera, I had to do a very shy behavior of hiding my feelings and truth. Of course I said, "I don't know. I have no opinion. What are your feelings?"
If you say, "I like Obama, I want Obama to win," this becomes "Al Jazeera reporter supports Obama." So Obama is gone because an Al Jazeera reporter did this or did that.
So I have to think about it in those terms. It's like that day when the spokesman for Hamas said, "Well, maybe we think if Obama wins it will become a positive development." Of course the next day there were all the ads, the anti-Obama things. So I could just envision myself in such a situation, and I decided to shut up.
But, of course, I'm just saying this because I assume it's no surprise for you that the outside world at least—I'm not going to talk about America, because maybe, after living here for eight years—Americans can be self-critical of themselves, but when it comes from an outsider it's a different story.
So let's speak about the rest of the world. The rest of the world loves us, I think, whether in Europe or—and that's another thing, that really I think you know me a lot as a person, as an Arab and Muslim, which is this business that during the Bush years about "the Arabs and the Muslims hate us, they hate our lifestyle, they hate us because they don’t like democracy"—all these kinds of big slogans that were basically making things worse in my opinion, not even helping at all in any way in making things better, even after this terrible terrorist attack that took place on 9/11.
But anyway, when Obama came there was this feeling of relief in a lot of parts of the world, because during the Bush years those who opposed the Iraq war were not only the Arabs and Muslims. This was one fact which the U.S. media always used to kind of ignore in this regard, that it was not only the Arabs and Muslims who were against the war, but I think people in Latin America were against the war, people in Europe were against the war, people in Asia were against the war. But of course it helped ideologically at that time to put it that way.
So there were a lot of positive feelings, a lot of hopes, that when President Obama comes things will change. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. This is an open-minded person, he has travelled, he is intellectual, he listens, he doesn't depend on his guts, he doesn't look someone in the eyes and see whether he likes him or not, and that becomes the basis of taking decisions. It's like a totally different story.
Maybe now comes the problem, which is that he made a lot of promises, and now, maybe one year later—again, I was personally very reserved about expressing any opinions. Of course, people back in Egypt, back in Palestine, where a very bad situation exists on the ground, whether in Gaza or on the West Bank and Jerusalem, the occupied East Jerusalem—but nevertheless there was a lot of hope that when he comes, things could relatively change, so let's give him time.
But people were impatient. Of course, already eight years of the former administration, a lot of war, a lot of people getting killed, threats of new wars all the time, very tough language—"smoke them out" and "you're either with us or against us."
I think everybody wanted to calm down relatively at the international level. And even here in America itself, I think people were starting to recognize that the picture is not as rosy as it was supposed to be. I'm not going to speak about no weapons of mass destruction, but also a lot of the rest that came with that.
So I was very reserved about expressing any opinions. But then a year has gone by and people maybe are entitled to start to raise questions.
Of course, President Obama, when he first came, one of the first things was he appointed Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. That was a very good move. A lot of people have a lot of respect for Senator Mitchell worldwide because of his role in mediating the peace agreement in Ireland. He's an honest guy. More important than the character of Senator Mitchell himself, how immediately this came, that it was one of the things that he did right away, which was a sign of concern, that he wants things to change.
But now a lot of time has passed and a lot of the promises that the President has made seem to be not coming true. Even worse, there seems to be a kind of a retreat from those original promises, which makes people a little bit worried.
But it's my role as a reporter here, like throughout all media, to present to people back home how complicated the situation is here in the United States and how a lot of domestic challenges face the President and how he also made a lot of promises on the domestic level as well.
What I'm trying to say is that President Obama raised a lot of high expectations, and that's my worry right now, that when you raise so many expectations—that you're going to work on ending the Iraq war and you're going to find a solution for Iran and you are going to finish the Afghanistan war and you are going to make peace between Arabs and Israelis. So a lot of topics on the agenda within a very difficult environment.
So we are still waiting and seeing, but I am seeing signs here and there of people saying, "When is this change really coming?"
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Because you were mentioning at the beginning that we don't really have access to the broadcast media that comes out of Al Jazeera here, this is literally just a question that I’d like you to comment on, not coming from anything that I have seen.
I saw a documentary a few years ago, called Control Room, that's main point was that in Al Jazeera's attempt to show the opinion and counter-opinion there's a lot of sensationalism involved.
The reason I prefaced my question the way I did was because I don't think the American media does things any better. But I was just wondering if you could comment on a little bit if you thought that Al Jazeera was more or less sensationalist, if that’s necessarily a bad thing, and just your general views on that.
KHALED DAWOUD: It's in the eye of the beholder what's sensational. That's the issue. Al Jazeera has a lot of interest, for example, in covering the Palestinian-Israeli topic because the Palestinian-Israeli topic is very popular back home. I mean some people would say, "Oh, this is a lot of sensationalism. You show a lot of pictures of children that are getting killed or people who are dying." But someone has to show this. You know what I mean?
But again, everybody makes mistakes sometimes. Maybe in certain incidents we went through the sensational line. People always like to satisfy their viewers. You always think about "What does my audience want to see?" Maybe we fall into these mistakes sometimes. But you always try to—
Personally, I don't think we are like that, of course, I don't think we're sensational. I think we are, first of all, presenting a picture that nobody else wants to show, again like when you have a war going on in Somalia. We also try to take care of cases that nobody is talking about, places like in Sudan, like in Somalia, like in Yemen, even in other areas that nobody covers. We also want to show some problems that are happening in certain places that nobody speaks about, not even here in the American media. I think that the international audience deserves that.
I think even the American audience actually deserves much better than they are getting right now in terms of international news. I watch CNN local here or I watch Fox local or any of the locals. As an international journalist or someone, I feel like, "Oh my God, I can never get information out of this if I have to spend my entire day watching seven or eight days of continuous coverage of Michael Jackson, as if nothing else existed in the world, or Anna Nicole Smith, or the kid in the balloon, or all that stuff."
Is this sensational? What is this? I don’t know. So I cover political news. I show tough stuff. I show some bad pictures that nobody else wants to see. But others I don't think are doing a good job for their audience by setting a different agenda for reasons that are also very political in my view.
QUESTION: You said that you were a journalist at the White House during the previous administration.
KHALED DAWOUD: Yes.
QUESTIONER: Are you still there with this new administration; or, if not, what have you heard from your colleague about how has it changed? What’s the mood? Does the president feel more accessible, and in what way? So it's more than one question.
ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: You work for Fox?
QUESTIONER: No, I work for Bloomberg.
KHALED DAWOUD: He's my neighbor at the UN, so we're on good terms. Actually, I moved to New York four years ago. I stopped covering the White House four years ago. The situation now is much better. Even I can feel it here at the United Nations. I get interviews with the UN ambassador, Ambassador Susan Rice. She gives me interviews. Actually they approach us.
My bureau chief, who is in Washington—our main office is in Washington—got an interview maybe twice with Hillary Clinton. He got an interview with Defense Secretary Gates. So of course we are having better access.
We didn't get the White House yet. We didn't get Mr. Obama. He gave it to al-Arabiya, which is our main competition, when he first took office. Maybe soon, hopefully. It's like a little bit too much maybe, like taking office and three days later giving an interview to Al Jazeera.
QUESTION: In Washington have you seen any noticeable impact on how other channels cover the Middle East or the region based on Al Jazeera’s approach—and maybe not just the big ones, like CNN and BBC, but maybe the influence that Al Jazeera may have in other less covered regions, like Latin America or South Asia?
KHALED DAWOUD: Yes. If you talk about Latin America and South Asia, that falls more into the Al Jazeera English influence, because Al Jazeera [inaudible] before speaking. Al Jazeera English does cover very well, I think, those parts of the world, Latin America and Asia.
But for us in the Arab world, if I can just mention the effect of Al Jazeera, when it first came out in 1996, maybe there were two or three satellite channels like Al Jazeera. Right now there are about 200–300 satellite channels and each country wants to have its own satellite channels. So it has basically opened the door to an entire new market of people trying to present various points of views.
I think this is also one of the main important, positive effects of Al Jazeera itself, in my opinion, in terms of its effect on other media. It means opening the debate and opening, as I said, different models for people to see and to judge and to have different sources of information and reach their own conclusions.
ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: Thank you, on behalf of Carnegie, for joining us tonight. Khaled is flying off home for Egypt tomorrow, so we just got him right in time. It shows again how important it is to understand how other people in the world see the world we live in. So thank you again.
KHALED DAWOUD: Thank you.
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