Journalism and a world in transition: Wadah Khanfar's James Cameron memorial lecture
Friday the 11th of February was almost past when I drove my car shortly before midnight from the al-Jazeera offices to my home along the Corniche Road in Doha. I was exhausted. The past 16 days had been some of the most exciting and tense days in my life and in the lives of millions of the region's inhabitants. The Egyptian revolution kept the eyes of the Arab masses glued to al-Jazeera on their TV screens day and night. Inside the newsroom, we followed developments inside moment by moment as news reports arrived from our sources in Tahrir Square, as well as in other Egyptian cities.
The Egyptian regime decided to close down the al-Jazeera offices and to ban its reporters and crews from working, thinking perhaps, that by banning al-Jazeera the truth about what the country had been going through could be obscured. That was not the first time an office of ours had been closed down in the region. On that same day, we sent out a message to our viewers in Egypt telling them: "If the authorities have banned our reporters from working, then every single one of you is an al-Jazeera reporter."
Hundreds of activists responded immediately by supplying us electronically with a stream of news and video clips via social network sites. We dedicated a team of our editors to the task of receiving and documenting these contributions and then relaying newsworthy items to the newsroom. We succeeded in breaking the siege imposed by the Egyptian security apparatuses, thanks to the faith our viewers had in our mission and to our faith in their capabilities. We set up an entire network of volunteers and activists who supplied us electronically with news. In the meantime, our own crews spread out within Cairo, within Alexandria and within other Egyptian cities doing their job secretly. technicians succeeded in providing live coverage from Tahrir Square by means of small satellite transmitters, which Egyptian security could not locate.
The al-Jazeera newsroom worked flat out during those days; leave was cancelled, working hours were stretched and our editorial teams worked nonstop. Although food and drink is customarily banned inside the newsroom, during those breathtaking days we resorted to providing journalists with meals as they sat working at their desks. On several occasions I had to intervene personally to oblige some colleagues to go home and have a few hours of rest. Those were the days when al-Jazeera, both in body and soul, was in a state of unison with its viewers and cohesiveness in its coverage.
It was transformed into a lofty edifice, charging forward unabatedly and tirelessly. Realising that it had failed to hinder al-Jazeera coverage, the Egyptian regime adopted what turned out to be the most serious measure ever taken against the channel since its birth. The Egyptian authorities managed to switch off al-Jazeera transmission via the most popular satellite in the Middle East region, Nilesat. In the meantime, the Libyan regime ordered the jamming of the channel's transmission on the other satellites. They succeeded in obscuring the channel from its viewers across the Arab world.
During those tough hours I had the feeling that we were transmitting only to ourselves in Doha. Our screen, which had become the hope of the revolutionaries in Egypt and the conduit of their voice to the world, ceased to be. Our engineers managed to find new frequencies on alternative satellites. Yet, we still could not reach our viewers quickly enough via those new frequencies. Then we were contacted by a small-size satellite TV channel asking for permission to relay the al-Jazeera transmission via its own frequency. I immediately granted permission and instructed my colleagues to announce that we would grant permission to whoever wished to relay our transmission.
Within less than two hours, al-Jazeera was being transmitted via 14 different satellite channels, which chose to suspend their programmes in favour of al-Jazeera. We succeeded in thwarting the biggest attempt to obscure our screen thanks to the initiatives undertaken by a number of different channels. That was a great role for which we remain hugely indebted, a role that restored our zeal and determination to pursue our mission to the end.
On the evening of Friday the 11 February it was announced in Cairo that the Egyptian president decided to step down. We were stunned; feelings of happiness swept across the Arab world from the Atlantic ocean to the Gulf. Spontaneous demonstrations were staged in various Arab capitals. The masses celebrated the victory of the revolution. Our screens were pinned on Tahrir Square transmitting to the world without comment the singing of the victorious songs. That was a watershed moment in the history of the region, as well as in the history of al-Jazeera. Undoubtedly, that was a moment in my life I would never forget. I laboured to restrain myself and maintain calmness.
Yet, my colleagues inside the newsroom erupted in excitement embracing each other; some even could not withhold their tears of joy. As I watched attentively the coverage of the events, and eagerly monitored world reaction, guards at the outside gate of al-Jazeera compound phoned to inform us that people had been assembling outside the gate asking for permission to be allowed inside to thank al-Jazeera for its coverage. I received a delegation, listened to their honest and candid expressions of gratitude, thanked them for their feelings, told them that we had only been doing our job, and returned to the newsroom.
Just before midnight, exhaustion had overwhelmed me. I drove my car back home looking forward to a few hours of deep and enjoyable sleep. The Corniche road was packed with thousands who came out to celebrate. I ended up stuck in the traffic jam. Some people recognised me, got out of their cars and came rushing to hug and kiss me. I could not help but let my tears flow. It was a profoundly emotional moment.
I learned from my experience as a reporter and then as director of a media institution an important basic fact: that we should always posit people at the centre of our editorial policy. I don't say this simply to reiterate a beautiful slogan with which we decorate our literature or market our institutions. I truly believe this to be a moral commitment, a scientific approach and an essential interest.
To begin with, we should acknowledge that in the media we shoulder a mission, which journalists should remain aware of as they perform. This mission is about serving the public interest without bias for one particular opinion or party or current or ideology. Without such a noble mission, our profession could easily become a commodity on sale. Without it, journalists would never qualify to speak for the public interest and the people would never trust us. They simply need to see us favour them when it comes to power and authority. In fact, people of power and influence would pay no attention to a media that is not brave and straightforward.
At the practical level, a journalist cannot comprehend the political reality and predict where things are likely to go without learning the history of nations and their accumulative experience. Many major world media institutions failed to predict certain seminal historic events during the first decade of this century starting with 9/11 through to the consequences of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and the world economic crisis all the way to Arab spring. All of these were pivotal events that the media could not foretell. Worse still, when these events unfolded, the world media could not comprehend them, preferring at times to reiterate ready-made claims and packaged analyses that were seriously lacking in depth and expertise.
What has led the media to lose its ability to predict events?
The answer to this question might be derived from an analysis of a number of problems that befell the world media. The consequence has been a weakening of the attachment of the media to a fixed point of reference centred around the people and their collective conscience and overall interest.
The first problem is that the media began to adopt the attitude of the elite by looking down upon the masses. The masses are perceived by many political and intellectual elites as barbaric demagogues and commoners, an irrational body that is driven here and there under the influence of instantaneous reactions deemed irrelevant and therefore unworthy of investigating their motivations or foretelling their repercussions. The masses, especially in the Arab world, have suffered decades of disinterest, marginalisation and humiliation. The official media never hesitated to lie and employ the services of sultanic columnists in order to falsify and fabricate.
Those in power and those in charge of their media firmly believed that the people had no will and lacked the ability to think or understand. The experience of the past decade has proven beyond doubt that the popular will has a much greater impact on events than the planning of the authorities or the thinking of the elites. Nations have a collective mind that is the product of intellectual, religious and social interactions and that is consolidated by centuries long historical experiences.
Such a collective mind becomes an internal inherent compass that is resistant to influences aimed at forcing it to change direction. It becomes the means through which nations receive guidance to comprehend reality and pursue major pathways and upon which they rely during turbulent times in order to sketch future hopes and pave the way ahead for future generations to accomplish their dreams. This collective mind is stronger than powerful armies and more formidable than media propaganda and all types of authority. One cannot hope to influence the movements of nations and peoples without comprehending the way this collective mind operates.
Similarly, we cannot hope to predict the future of these nations without paying attention to the internal compass inherent in the accumulative memory. I arrived in Kabul toward the end of 2001 in the aftermath of the fall of the Afghan capital into the hands of the coalition troops. I was eager to observe the features of the Afghan collective mind. The Afghans are a unique nation with a deep-rooted historic experience. They are proud of their heritage and history. They are famously generous and sanctify gallantry.
I accompanied my cameraman to a cafe close to Kabul Intercontinental hotel. The cafe and the hotel are nothing but rundown structures devastated by decades of continuous war. We sat around an old disjointed wooden table waiting for the unsweetened green tea served by a wooden-legged 50 year old, Haji Goll. Nearby, two Pashtun-turbaned Afghan young men sat.
Seemingly, our Arabic conversation attracted their attention, so they approached us and spoke to us in clear Arabic, expressing their happiness to see us in their midst. We learned that they were from Kandahar and that they came to Kabul on foot searching for relatives in the capital but failed to find any. They hoped that their relatives had already fled to Pakistan before the war and had not perished in the fighting. We had a conversation about the war, the Taliban and Kandahar. They returned to their table and before I left the cafe I settled the bill for both tables. It was nothing, no more than a couple of dollars.
A few minutes after we departed the place the two young men came running behind us calling on us to wait for them. When they caught up with us they said they were very sorry I had paid for their two cups of tea and insisted on paying their bill and ours since we were guests in their country and should not be paying. I refused, thinking that the two exhausted young men with their old garments and seeming poverty might accept my hospitality. I was so shocked that one of them, with his eyes full of tears, insisted on me to take the money from him. "You are our guests," he repeated many times. Only then had I realised that I had no option but to take the money. This taught me that attending to the guest was a principal value in Pashtun culture. After all, Mullah Omar preferred to see his emirate collapse than hand over his guest, Osama bin Laden.
I still remember my meeting with the commander of the American ground troops in Baghdad in the wake of its occupation in 2003. I was at the time head of the al-Jazeera bureau in the Iraqi capital. The American general was puzzled about the attacks carried by the Iraqi resistance on coalition troops. He asked: "Why do they hate us while we are the ones who brought down the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein? We even brought them $18bn to rebuild Iraq." I explained to the general that the Iraqi people, who are aware of their esteemed historic status in this region, do not accept the occupation. Baghdad, which led the world for five centuries during the reign of the Abbasid empire, regarded the occupation an insult to their historic dignity and national pride. The American commander looked at me with puzzled eyes and said: "I do not understand what you are saying."
The Americans, together with much of the world media, did not realise that the occupation of Iraq was not simply a question of bringing down a dictatorial regime. They were wrong to think that the Iraqis were going to receive them with roses. It was amazing how superficial the view of the coalition troops of Iraqi society was. They could not see the profound deep-rooted plurality in Iraq's long historical experience. They did not know that the Iraqi collective psyche would simply reject the occupation and would compare it to the 1258 tragic Hulagu-led Mongolian .
The media relationship with the centres of power and influence
It is only natural for states to seek to serve their best interests and for armies to endeavour to win their battles. The same might apply to corporations. But it is unacceptable for the media to become mere tools of governments or states; to the extent of failing to rely on their vision and analysis of events and approach where the people remain the frame of reference and point of departure. Most of the coverage provided by many world media of the events of the last decade reveals that there had been a defect prevalent in the role and self-perception of the media. Or else, what turned the media from an authority whose role is to keep an eye on the other authorities into a power centre that is congruent with the other political and economic power centres, united with them in objectives and purposes?
The media was described as the fourth estate because the profession's founding fathers established strict rules and values that became the journalist's constitution. We can see this was always present in the works and reports of great journalists such as and . They realised right at the outset of the birth of the mass media that the power of the media lies in representing the public interest before the three other estates. The media simply have no power without the people.
In order for the media to be able to represent the people before these three centres of power, a journalist should speak the truth in the face of might, should question the authorities, should resist becoming an unaccountable centre of power and should draw clear lines in dealing with government, corporations and various other parties. He or she should never dissipate into any of these and should not compete in the service of interests that contradict honest and credible representation of the masses.
It would seem that putting the commercial view ahead of professionalism has given priority to profiteering, and turned media institutions into commercial enterprises that are highly connected to centres of power and influence, and at many times even woven into them, in pursuit of maximal profits even if at the expense of the profession's code of ethics. When this happened, a schism emerged between the media's moral values and the utilitarian quest for profit-making. Hence, the media lost its spiritual link with the masses in favour of immediate material gains.
The transformation of the media into a centre of power and influence, instead of remaining a means of checking the activities of the centres of power and influence has changed the nature of the media role. Centres of power and influence are erratic by nature; they act to serve their own interests and they do so not in accordance with a fixed set professional rules. Pursuing changing interests has been at the expense of people's confidence in the media, which is often in partnership with the centres of power promoting what they stand for and proving to be too associated with their objectives, priorities and slogans.
Thus, it is of paramount importance that the media should adhere to a well-established epistemological frame of reference that does not vary in accordance with political whims or commercial interests. In our search for a fixed pivotal point around which our editorial mission is centred we find nothing better than the people with their collective mind and their instinctive opposition to oppression, arbitrariness and corruption.
The media and changing world centres of influence
For many decades, the west dominated the economic, political and media life of the world. Yet, the last decade has seen a shift in the economic centres of influence from the west to the east. The communication and information technological revolution has provided unprecedented global plurality. Today, our world is multipolar and the western media is no longer the only point of reference. Global media institutions have been launched in the south and in the east. We've also seen the emergence of citizen media or social network media, which has contributed to the plurality. Yet, western media institutions have not changed at the same pace as the rest of the world. Realising the changing global reality quickly enough is an important challenge facing western media institutions.
Take for instance news headlines. These are still focused on local western concerns while major events in the south and the east are neglected. Additionally, much of the coverage is instantaneous reporting of latest news without historical or political contextualisation of events. The fine details we bombard our viewers with do not provide them with profound knowledge about the event and its significance; a news bulletin is, thus, turned into a puzzle board. Analysts, or those known as experts, who appear on TV screens, often provide repetitive stereotypical analyses of world events.
Our institutions are in urgent need of competent world reporters who would dedicate their effort and enough time so as to comprehend the characteristics of societies and peoples and inform themselves about their historical and social backgrounds. Only then would they be able to present in-depth media worthy material; they would then be in a position to envision reality with an expert eye and be able to predict the future with a much higher level of accuracy.
The best people to provide valuable information about any society are the children of that society who belong to its culture and are part of its collective conscience. So would those who dedicate a long time and much effort in comprehending the essence of these people while exhibiting genuine respect for cultural, religious and social diversity. Only then would their vision emanate from within those societies rather than performing simply as explorers or tourists content with having collected some general information to be reproduced in the form of a superficial journalistic discourse.
Journalism of Depth
What I like to call "journalism of depth" is the media that regards the collective conscience of the masses to be its point of departure. It is the media that believes, as a matter of principle, in the potential capabilities of the people and respects their choices. Experience has proven that the masses as a whole are more aware than the political and intellectual elite; they are shrewd, highly politicised and possess an instinctive insight that enables them to discern good from bad. When politicians belittle popular awareness they doom themselves to exclusion and failure.
For instance, drawing on the experience of the Arab spring we've found Arab despotic regimes behave in the same pattern. Initially, they denied the existence of a problem blaming the media instead and accusing it of exaggerating trivial incidents. Then they resorted to blaming outside forces and showering all kinds of labels on the protest movement. Protesters were at times called lackeys, at times children, and at other times microbes and parasites. Gaddafi described his opponents as intoxicated rats. Such terms were heard from all the Arab regimes in description of the people they confronted. All these regimes agreed among themselves on one thing: to belittle the people and ridicule their conscience, their will, and determination to insist on their rights.
At times some journalists see nothing in the people apart from an opportunity to make material gain. They see them as consumers whom we sell commodities at huge profits that keep our bank accounts growing. In either case, the people are not the centre of action. Nor are they an appreciated point of reference. They are simply a tool with no intrinsic value.
The journalism of depth is one that considers the people to be the centre of its editorial policy; it seeks to give the masses a voice and a platform. It should be courageous and be prepared to withstand so much pressure by disaffected centres of power. The moment it maintains its position and insists on its policy, the people will rally around it. Then and only then, the people will restore confidence in the media and offer it their support, appreciation and respect.
I spent the last week of my work as al-Jazeera director general visiting Tripoli and Misrata. As I was touring the old marketplace in the Libyan capital I was struck by the reception accorded to us by the Libyans who were so thankful and appreciative. The presence of al-Jazeera crew in any square or park would lead to a traffic jam.
The warmth, love and spontaneous gestures of gratitude by the people, who surrounded us and asked to be photographed with us, was truly overwhelming. In Misrata, and while taking a stroll along its war-torn streets, I stopped before a simple exhibition set up by the inhabitants displaying the weapons and ammunition used by regime against their besieged city. A banner bearing the name of al-Jazeera cameraman , who was assassinated by Gaddafi's security men in Benghazi, was raised in front of the exhibition.
Al-Jabir's photo brought the memory of the day he was assassinated back to me. I had received a phone call from the newsroom breaking the sad news to me. I returned to the channel and appeared on TV to offer my condolences. I promised our viewers that al-Jazeera would never be forced to retreat and that its coverage would continue no matter what. That was a very sad night in the newsroom but it was also a night of pride especially upon the assembly of tens of thousands of Libyans spontaneously in the centres of different towns to offer prayers for the martyr. They continued to gather and shout slogans up to the early hours of the morning. That day, I called all our crews in the field and told them they had the choice of remaining there covering events or returning to Doha, stressing that we would understand their decision to return. They all insisted on continuing despite the direct threats on their lives. The Libyans reserved a special place in their hearts for al-Jazeera.
This is the sentiment I felt wherever I travelled inside . I recalled the story told to me by our colleague cameraman Ammar Hamdan, who was detained together with three of his colleagues as they covered the brutal attack launched on Zawiyah by Gaddafi's troops.
He and his colleagues spent nearly two months in the colonel's prisons. Following his release, Ammar Hamdan narrated to me how the prison warden took him aside before his release and told him with tears filling his eyes: "I'm truly sorry for what we did to you. We had no choice but to detain you and I swear that had it not been for concern about the safety of my family I would have fled and joined the revolutionaries."
He then handed an apple to Ammar and said: "I have only this apple, which I picked from my own garden, to give you as a gift. Please deliver it to the al-Jazeera director general when you return and tell him that the Libyans are dying to be delivered from this tyrannical regime. Please do not let us down; continue your coverage. May Allah keep you safe and bless you." Ammar told me the story handing the apple to me. Our eyes were filled with tears.
At the practical level, the coverage in the field is the most authentic expression of the journalism of depth. It is more sincere, more spontaneous and closer to the people and their concerns. Because I was once a reporter I've always felt a sense of estrangement inside the newsroom. The field is alive and interactive while the newsroom is quiet and stereotypical.
The field is an excited spirit while the newsroom is a mind whose role is to organise and balance. It is true that the role of the editor sitting in front of the computer screen inside the newsroom is essential in order to fine-tune the news and determine priorities. Yet, I have always been closer to the field; this is the spirit I regained last month when I visit the on the Kenyan-Somali borders.
I spent the Eid day with those who fled the hell of famine. I felt their suffering, pitied their poverty and need. But I also witnessed in the faces of their children how life triumphs over death. The kids received us with their tender smiles and hopeful eyes. Despite their weakness and hunger, those were people who loved dignity and looked forward to a better future.
Our media institutions today hesitate to dispatch their reporters to the field. The recent economic crisis forced these institutions to reduce expenditure on external assignments. Reporters have been compensated for with reports prepared inside the newsroom. Undoubtedly, such reports are of less value and lower impact compared to those arriving from the theatre of action.
Field reporting has retreated because of the economic crisis and so has investigative journalism and in-depth reporting, which are at the heart of journalism of depth. These are the real tools for questioning those in power and authority and without them what is shown on the screen would seem rather superficial, indulging mostly in narration.
Such journalism is less costly but it is also of less value. Without field coverage and investigative journalism our screens would lose the best forms of journalism. Managers of media institutions should therefore be cautious. Saving money should not involve incurring an essential loss on our viewers and readers.
Despite the negative aspects associated with news reporting during the past decade, a new positive spirit has recently emerged within the media sector. The spread of what is known as the new media, what I would rather call the peoples' media, has opened new broad horizons for people to express themselves. It has brought an unprecedented climate of media democratisation. Had it not been for electronic activists, who supplied us with news and pictures during the revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, we would never have been able to defeat the persistent endeavour by the security agencies to obstruct our professional crews.
It is true that some professional editors are still doubting the feasibility of media reporting via the social networks because of the difficulty in verifying the authenticity of these pictures. However, practical experience has proven to us that we are able to develop tools for verifying news and authenticating pictures. I may add that editorial teams responsible for monitoring these websites have developed important expertise that enable us to identify authentic sources from non-authentic ones.
It is true that we have made some mistakes because of the enormous quantity of material arriving via the internet. It is true too that the quality of pictures are well below those caught by the lenses of professional cameramen. However, the mistakes have always been very few and the pictures taken by activists have defeated the official media blackout.
Furthermore, activists themselves have been improving their means. The repetitive doubting, for instance by the Syrian authorities, of what al-Jazeera transmits of news and pictures received via Facebook, Twitter or YouTube and the accusations levelled against us that we fabricate such material, all of this inspired activists to come up with new ideas including a better documentation and authentication of demonstrations.
This they do by means of including in their footage the names of streets or images of landmarks or well-known public squares in the various cities; as well as including the date of each clip using a newspaper front page where the date of issue is clearly printed. The peoples' media is youthful and smart; it grows and develops and in doing so it gains more expertise. In contrast, the official media disinformation campaigns appear naive, pathetic and laughable. Once again, the people have proven to be smarter than the ageing self-isolating political elite.
The world of the internet, peoples media, social network sites, Wikileaks and others has undermined the ability of the centres of power to monopolise what is presented to public opinion. Our media institutions should warmly welcome these means and should encourage them. We should set up integrated interactive news rooms of which these means would be fundamental components. We should train our reporters and editors to benefit from them and deal with them in accordance with the known professional standards.
On the other side, a growing number of media institutions have begun to interact positively with the challenges imposed on the media. This year, we've seen a marked improvement in the field reporting of the Arab spring. We have also seen some excellent examples of in-depth investigative journalism such as the joint coverage by al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper of the .
We are in a desperate need for the formation of a coalition that would bring together journalists, media institutions, human rights organisations and internet activists in order to break the wall of silence that certain governments and centres of influence are endeavouring to impose on the sources of information.
We must monitor legislation and official measures and lobby for essential reforms that will open the horizons before journalists to learn all aspects of the truth. Without transparency and access to accurate and full information, the media will remain hostage to what the centres of influences choose to leak in the service of their own narrow interests and in distortion of the full picture.
The world is going through a period of major transformation particularly in the aftermath of the revolutions that swept across the Arab world and the successive economic crises. Despite the major challenges facing our media institutions, there are bright spots that need to be developed further.
Such a task requires full determination to rectify the media compass so as to be centred around the people. Collaboration among the various media institutions, including the sharing of resources and the exchange of expertise, will undoubtedly help us regain the initiative and revive respect for the media in the eyes of the public. The idea is to remain always loyal to the esteemed mission for which the late James Cameron and his colleagues of various languages, races and nations worked.
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