I took the liberty of translating this excellent piece by Akhtham Suliman, Al-Jazeera’s longtime Germany correspondent, in which he details what led to his recent resignation from the station. There are interviews with Suliman circulating in English, but this piece,published in the FAZ, includes a number of a poignant anecdotes and examples, which paint a disturbing picture about Al-Jazeera’s decline.
A farewell to Al Jazeera: Forget what you have seen!
By Aktham Suliman
11.12.2012, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
The news station Al Jazeera was committed to the truth. Now the truth is being twisted. It is about politics, not about journalism. For reporters this means: it’s time to go.
Aleppo, December 2012: An Al Jazeera correspondent had images relating to Syria that didn’t suit the station’s headquarters and which were not broadcast. This is no isolated incident.
“What do you regard as a terrorist attack and what as an act of legitimate resistance?” Nabil Khoury, the Lebanese-born spokesman for the U.S. State Department in Iraq, asked me one autumn day in Baghdad. His gaze was reproachful. At the time, Al Jazeera stood accused of supporting the violence in Iraq under occupation, in the eyes of American politicians and the media. “The matter is simple, Mr. Khoury,” I replied. “Actions that target U.S. military installations are resistance. Killing Iraqi civilians is terrorism.”
“Name an example!” he demanded. “Well yesterday, rockets were fired at the Al-Rashid Hotel, which houses the U.S. joint chief of staffs. That is resistance.” - “Aktham! I was at the hotel. The explosions were so close that I was thrown out of my bed. Some friends and colleagues of mine were injured.”
With all due sympathy for Mr Khoury, I could not change the definition. Resistance to occupation is an internationally recognized right, irrespective of sympathies. It was the time of – at least relative – clarity and self-confidence at Al Jazeera. One felt committed to the truth and principles of independent journalism, no matter what the cost. Criticism of the channel from the outside and especially in front of rolling cameras was seen as confirmation, as welcome promotional material that was spliced together and repeatedly rebroadcast on our station.
The declining station
Arab viewers will certainly recall the juxtaposition of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Said Al-Sahhaaf in one of these episodes. Both delivered the message that Al-Jazeera was not telling the truth. Al Jazeera at the time acted according to the motto: If both parties to the conflict are saying so, then it is confirmation of the accuracy of our reporting. For extended periods, politicians, parties and governments were furious with Al Jazeera; spectators and staff, by contrast, were happy. The decline from 2004 to 2011 was sneaky, subtle and very slow, but with a catastrophic end.
“Ali! It’s me, your colleague from Berlin. Have you seen the alleged e-mail correspondence between you and Rola circulating on the Internet?” I asked Ali Hashem, the Al-Jazeera correspondent in Lebanon, on the phone earlier this year. I had just stumbled upon the alleged email communications between Al Jazeera staff published by the so-called “Syrian Electronic Army”, a Syrian pro-government hacker group. In one of the emails, the correspondent Ali Hashem had told Syrian TV presenter Rola Ibrahim, who was working at the network’s headquarters in Qatar, that he had seen and filmed armed Syrian revolutionaries on the border with Lebanon in 2011.
The channel didn’t broadcast the images because they showed an armed deployment, which did not fit the desired narrative of a peaceful uprising. “My bosses told me: forget what you have seen!” Hashem wrote to Rola, as published. She is said to have replied that she was faring no better. She had been “massively humiliated, just because I embarrassed Zuhair Salem, the spokesman for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, with my questions during a news broadcast. They threatened to exclude me from interviews relating to Syria and to restrict me to presenting the late night news, under the pretext that I was jeopardizing the station’s balance.”
Mistakes become the routine
“Desirable” and less desirable images? Penalties for interviews that are “too critical”? At Al Jazeera? Here it must be said that in the online propaganda war between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, anything is possible, including lies and deception, as the months since the outbreak of the uprising in mid-March 2011 have shown. Regime supporters wanted to show that the rebellion is solely waged by “armed gangs.” Regime opponents wanted to show that the Syrian army is the only [party] committing [acts of] violence.
That’s why I asked Ali Hashem whether the story was true. His answer was devastating: “Yes, it’s true. Those are really my emails with Rola. I do not know what to do now.”
Several days later, he knew the answer. Ali Hashem left.
Leaving is the only option that remains when these mistakes, which are altogether common in the fast-paced news industry, become the routine and are no longer recognized, treated or penalized as mistakes.
“There must be consequences. What do we do if the supervisor who told Ali that he should forget what he had seen, tells us one day: Forget that a hand has five fingers! Does a hand have more or fewer fingers based on the whims and needs of our superiors?” I remarked on Al Jazeera’s Talkback, an internal platform for employees.
No reaction. Internal discussions were no longer fashionable at Al Jazeera.
This process did not remain an isolated case. On the contrary: it became a lesson. It quickly became clear to employees: this is about politics, not about journalism. More precisely: about Qatari foreign policy, which had subtly started to employ Al Jazeera as a tool to praise friends and attack enemies.
A hostage becomes a turncoat
It was not the first incident. When Al Jazeera’s Japan correspondent, Fadi Salameh, came to Doha at the end of 2011 to help out for a month at the channel’s headquarters, colleagues asked him how he – as a Syrian – assessed or felt about their Syria coverage. He responded evasively with something like: So-so. And why was that? He said: well, the issue of accuracy is no longer taken as seriously as it ought to be, and mentioned the story of his cousin, who had been depicted as a deserter from the Syrian military only a few days earlier in a video broadcast on the channel. He was said to have defected to the Free Syrian army in a short recording placed online by the rebels.
But that could well be true, replied a colleague. “Not at all.” Fadi replied. “That was a hostage video. The fear apparent on my cousin’s face, having just been captured by the rebels, was unmistakable.”
Later Fadi went on to say that Al Jazeera now presumes to know better than one’s own family members what is happening to someone in Syria. “Only when I said that my cousin had disappeared two days before his wedding, were some people willing to reconsider,” Fadi said. “Thank God no one got the idea that the groom was trying to escape a forced marriage.” He doesn’t muster a laugh. His cousin never returned and is presumed dead. When the story was leaked to a Lebanese newspaper, this was the response from a person in charge at Al Jazeera: “Oh, those [damn] yellow papers…”
“This is an office of the Muslim Brotherhood”
Al Jazeera has become the mother of invention: Those who have protested to the editorial board or turned their backs on the station are “supporters of the Syrian regime,” as Yaser Al Zaatra, the Jordanian author affiliated with the Islamist camp, wrote this spring in a guest article published on – it almost defies belief – Al Jazeera’s very own website.
The attacks against its employees [waged] on its own website are meant to obscure the fact that Syria is not the core issue in this internal conflict, but rather the station’s lack of professionalism. Cairo’s Al-Jazeera correspondent Samir Omer moved to Sky News earlier this year not because of Syria, but rather, as he told his colleagues: “Because I could not stand it anymore. This is no longer an Al-Jazeera office. This is an office of the Muslim Brotherhood” – in other words, the very group that is supported by Qatar in all Arab countries, and is heralded as the winner of the” Arab Spring.”
Ministers are made into prophets
The Paris bureau chief Ziad Tarrouch was Tunisian, not Syrian. He left in silence last summer, shortly after the presidential elections in France. Unsurprisingly, after weeks of continuous suffering and following repeated subpoenas from the French authorities, because Al Jazeera’s regular guest, Sheikh Yusef Al Qaradawi, had appeared on the station and called for the killing of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. This had invited a lawsuit against the station in France for “incitement to murder.”
”Damn it, I’m a journalist!” Ziad had mumbled to himself during his last days at the station. When the Russia correspondent Mohammad Al Hasan also left later that summer, he replied to media queries from news agencies about his departure by saying that he was expected to deliver incendiary reporting on Russia. In response, the fanciful minds in AJ’s editorial department sought salvation with the claim that Al Hasan was leaving to open a kabab shop in Moscow.
It is difficult to gauge what the now retired former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Said Al-Sahhaaf are up to these days. But Al Jazeera would have granted them cause for belated delight. Both will go down in history as prophets for having declared that “Al Jazeera does not tell the truth.”
Now, almost ten years later, the statement has unfortunately come true.
And so it has finally come to this. Even for me, this means I must bid my farewell. Since October, Al-Jazeera’s Germany correspondent can no longer be found “on the air.”