When I accepted a job as Cairo bureau chief for the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera English television news channel in September 2013, I demanded and was assured that my team would remain independent from the network’s Arabic channels.
Those assurances went out the window as management breached its contract, dubbing our English material into Arabic reports behind our backs and rebroadcasting them on the network’s Arabic Mubasher – a channel that an Egyptian court had shut for its “national security threat and bias to the Muslim Brotherhood,” a group once banned as a terrorist organisation.
Unknown to our team at the time, Qatar – the tiny Arab state backed by the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves – also later breached the secret Riyadh Agreement, which required that Qatar stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
That accord was reached two months after our team started working out of the Al Jazeera English makeshift office at the Cairo Marriott Hotel.
According to the recent CNN exclusive release of the unpublished handwritten accords, Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim Al Thani joined the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – the same nations that since June 5 have spearheaded a boycott of his country – in vowing not to support the Brotherhood terrorist franchise in the region and “antagonistic media.” The latter is a clear reference to Al Jazeera, which was accused during the negotiations on the Riyadh Agreement of becoming a voice for the Brotherhood and radicals such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian preacher convicted of terrorism while residing in Qatar – a man who encouraged suicide bombings and the slaying of Jews and Christians on his weekly show on Al Jazeera, once watched by 60 million people.
Al Jazeera chairman Hamad Al Thani, a cousin of Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, knew about those restrictions in the accords. Yet he failed to warn my colleagues and me even though Egyptian authorities were indiscriminately going after anyone even slightly suspected of sympathising with the Brotherhood.
Huddled in the Cairo Marriott, we – a proven team of journalists who did not conspire with Brotherhood terrorists – were arrested in December 2013 and referred to court in a case dubbed the “Marriott Cell.”
Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and I spent more than 400 days incarcerated and maintained our innocence during an excruciating trial.
We three journalists committed no crime – Al Jazeera did.
In Egypt’s prisons I interviewed Brotherhood members and non-journalists of the opposition who told me Al Jazeera had supplied them with transmission equipment, cameras and money, a technique I later learned the network applied in conflict zones such as Syria, Libya and Iraq. In a recent interview, Adel Iskandar, an assistant professor of global communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, described to me Al Jazeera’s unethical and illegal newsgathering tactics including the distribution of technical equipment that would allow for satellite uplinks for distribution of footage:
“This gave Al Jazeera an advantage over their competitors as they were essentially recruiting protesters and fighters to become journalists and information gatherers for their news programming. And since the Syrian opposition (particularly those aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups) was ideologically harmonised with the Qatari policy in the Levantine country, the coverage often went straight to air without verification, clarification, or corroboration.
“If citizen journalism was meant to help the Davids triumph against the Goliaths of pro-government media, Al Jazeera’s all-out investment in the Islamic output brought back a Goliath on steroids.”
A year into the Syrian revolt, Al Jazeera’s Beirut correspondent Ali Hashem quit and told Russia Today that Al Jazeera smuggled US$50,000 worth of satellite communication tools to Syrian rebels (considered terrorists by some) – information he verified to me.
I believe Al Jazeera’s irresponsible approach to newsgathering contributed to the killing and jailing of the network’s journalists by repressive governments and extremist groups.
Farag Fathi, the Al Jazeera lawyer defending my two colleagues, quit in court a month before the verdict in 2014 and objected to what he called the network’s treachery. He later shared an eye-opening email sent from Al Jazeera’s legal counsel in Qatar who shamelessly asked Fathi to defend Gamal Nassar, a Brotherhood spokesman who was being tried in absentia by the same judge presiding over our case but in a separate terrorism trial.
The email also noted that Al Jazeera had just hired Nassar – a wanted terrorist.
Egypt should free journalists like Ismael Iskandarani, photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as Shawkan, among others unjustly jailed. Qatar’s Al Jazeera, now banned in numerous nations, can survive calls for its closure only by giving a voice to voiceless Qataris yearning for democracy and refraining from conspiring with groups designated as terrorists such as Hamas, the Brotherhood and the Al Nusra Front, the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Mohamed Fahmy is an award winning journalist and war correspondent. He is the author of The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom. © Jerusalem Post, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.