The injustice of the Greste case should not detract from some hard truths about Al Jazeera

Feb 13, 2015 | Allon Lee

The injustice of the Greste case should not detract from some hard truths about Al Jazeera

The release from an Egyptian prison two weeks ago of Australian cameraman Peter Greste, who served 400 days in jail and was facing a long sentence for what were clearly preposterous allegations, was of course extremely welcome and long overdue.

This is also true of the announcement on Friday that his two Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who have likewise been in jail for more than a year, have now been granted bail.

There is no serious evidence that the three did anything but their jobs as journalists. And jailing journalists for reports that the government does not like is both a gross violation of human rights and a serious threat to the free flow of information which makes the modern world go around.

Yet just because the actions of the Egyptian government and judicial system have been outrageous and indefensible in this case, does not mean we should be lulled into therefore thinking that the employer of Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed, is just an ordinary news organisation like any other.

Owned by the Qatari royal family, the most important state sponsor of the international Muslim Brotherhood franchise, Al Jazeera clearly functions as an arm of the highly authoritarian Qatari monarchy – an exercise in soft power frequently used to further its Islamist agenda.

In fact, to some degree, it appears that Greste and his colleagues were collateral damage, caught in the geopolitical tussle between, on the one hand, Egypt, whose military government had just overthrown a Muslim Brotherhood president and, on the other, Qatar, which was the most important backer of the Muslim Brotherhood – something which was reflected in the tenor of Al Jazeera‘s coverage during the early days of the Arab Spring.

And as AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro wrote last year, just 10 days before Greste was found guilty on June 23, Al Jazeera was reporting wild conspiracy theories that could only have damaged the cameraman’s chances of acquittal:

On June 9, al-Jazeera aired an hour-long “investigative report” titled “Egypt’s Lost Power”, which was described on its website as follows:

Clayton Swisher from al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit explores the corrupt deals that plunged Egypt into an energy crisis and now leave it facing dependency on Israel

It was aired in tandem with a multimedia report which contended that Egypt’s previous gas deals with Israel following Israel’s 1981 withdrawal from the Sinai was damaging to Egypt’s economy and energy security while enriching Israeli businessmen and Egyptian officials.

The al-Jazeera report then went further, contending that the gas mismanagement precipitated the energy crisis which was essential to deposing former president (and Muslim Brotherhood functionary) Mohammed Morsi and allowed Egyptian leader and newly elected president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to enrich his cronies while making Egypt dependent on Israel’s new offshore gas fields.

It has also spawned further articles on the website, such as the documentary’s Director and Executive Producer Phil Rees’ “Egypt-Israel ‘peace dividends’ enrich elite” on June 10.

The response has been predictable. Among the comments on the al-Jazeera website to Rees’ article were “Al-Sisi’s elder brother is PM of Israel and Al-Sisi is all out to protect Israel’s interests in Middle East,” and “Al-Sisi’s mother is a Jew from Morocco”, while on al-Jazeera’s Facebook page, there were comments such as “Sisi sold out by his step father Israel” and “Egypt is a Zionist occupied land. Sisi and his soldiers are Zionist mercenaries.”

Even if one accepts the argument that most news organisations can all too easily be accused of political, economic and social partiality in their coverage, the fact remains that Al Jazeera is in a league of its own. Two recent email leaks offer yet more proof of this contention.

Last month, the National Review Online‘s Brendan Bordelon published a long email from London-based Al Jazeera English editor and executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr to Al Jazeera staff in which he “suggested” what their coverage should be like. He told staff to push the line that the cold blooded murders at the Charlie Hebdo magazine, were not a “civilizational attack on European values”, but rather a “clash of extremist fringes.”

In essence he told Al Jazeera journalists to take the line that the murdered cartoonists and journalists from Charlie Hebdo and the Islamist extremists who murdered them were each as bad as each other, and further urged that the attack should not be presented as an assault on free speech or journalism or “European values”. He even suggested the attack was really about French foreign policy.

Among other things he said were:

This was a targeted attack, not a broad attack on the french population a la Twin towers or 7/7 style. So who was this attack against? The whole of France/EU society? Or specifically this magazine…. attack on french society and values? Only if you consider CH’s racist caricatures to be the best of European intellectual production (total whitewash on that at the moment)

Was this really an attack on “Free speech”? Who is attacking free speech here exactly? Does an attack by 2-3 guys on a controversial magazine equate to a civilizational attack on European values..? Really?”I am Charlie” as an alienating slogan – with us or against us type of statement – one can be anti-CH’s racism and ALSO against murdering people(!) (obvious I know but worth stating)

Also worth stating that we still don’t know much about the motivations of the attackers outside of the few words overheard on the video. Yes, clearly it was a “punishment” for the cartoons, but it didn’t take them 8/9 years to prep this attack (2006 was Danish/CH publication) – this is perhaps a response to something more immediate…French action against ISIL…?

Danger in making this a free speech aka “European Values” under attack binary is that it once again constructs European identity in opposition to Islam (sacred depictions) and cements the notion of a European identity under threat from an Islamic retrograde culture of which the attackers are merely the violent tip of the iceberg (see the seeping of Far Right discourse into french normalcy with Houellebecque’s novel for example)

This is a clash of extremist fringes…It’s unclear what the objectives of the caricatures were other than to offend Muslims-and provoke hysteria among extremists.

Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response-however illegitimate-is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it’s pointlessly all about you.

Defenders of Al Jazeera English have long tried to differentiate between it and Al Jazeera Arabic, which is home to considerable vile antisemitic, anti-Western, terrorist supporting hate-filled drivel, by insisting on the existence of a Chinese wall that quarantines the supposedly responsible and professional English-language network from the Arabic progenitor.

Yet the directive from the network’s London-based Executive Producer to staff to essentially follow a specific political line on Charlie Hebdo reporting, one that sounds remarkably consistent with the approach of the Qatari government, casts serious doubt on claims that the network is really all that different from Al Jazeera Arabic. (For an incisive look at the realities of Al Jazeera Arabic, where numerous insiders have attested they were pushed by editors and managers to follow a specific political line, read Oren Kessler’s article from 2012, here).

As long-time readers know, AIJAC has repeatedly questioned both the ABC and SBS for relying on Al Jazeera English for content, especially on the Middle East where they have a clear conflict of interest.

Last July, Ahron Shapiro highlighted how Al Jazeera English radio reports aired on ABC Radio and SBS during the conflict between Hamas and Israel included wild accusations of war crimes that were totally divorced from reality, failed to alert listeners to basic facts about Gaza and offered “expert” opinion from activists with a long history of anti-Israel extremism.

As he observed, it is no coincidence that Hamas, another Muslim Brotherhood-affiliate organisation, has long included Qatar among its main benefactors.

Yet on Friday January 9, as the siege of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris was unfolding, ABC News24 still broadcast a live feed from Al Jazeera, as has become a common practice when breaking news happens.

A clash of cultures?

Defenders of Al Jazeera English often point out that many of its reporters are in fact veterans hired from bona fide Western news organisations. And some of them did reportedly speak up against Khadr’s attempt to not only dictate a network line on the attack, but one which most Western reporters would be very uncomfortable with – implying as it did that Charlie Hebdo‘s edgy and provocative journalism and satire was, if not worthy of murder, at the very least a racist crime which should equally be condemned. But they were shouted down by colleagues.

The internal responses to Khadr’s missive revealed, Bordelon wrote, “a deep cultural rift at a network at times accused of overt anti-Western bias.”

According to Bordelon:

Hours later, U.S.-based correspondent Tom Ackerman sent an email quoting a paragraph from a January 7 blog post by Ross Douthat. The New York Times’ Douthat (film critic for National Review) argued that cartoons like the ones that drove the radical Islamists to murder must be published “because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.”

Mohamed Vall Salem, who reported for Al Jazeera Arabic before joining Al Jazeera English in 2006 replied:

“I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people chances are one or two of them will kill you..,and I guess if you encourage people to go on insulting 1.5 billion people about their most sacred icons then you just want more killings because as I said in 1.5 billion there will remain some fools who don’t abide by the laws or know about free speech” [sic].

“What Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech it was an abuse of free speech in my opinion, go back to the cartoons and have a look at them!” Salem later wrote. “It’ snot [sic] about what the drawing said, it was about how they said it. I condemn those heinous killings, but I’M NOT CHARLIE.”

This prompted former BBC reporter Jacky Rowland to email a “polite reminder” that “#journalismisnotacrime”. To which correspondent Omar Al Saleh replied, “But I AM NOT CHARLIE…JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME [but] INSULTISM IS NOT JOURNALISM…AND NOT DOING JOURNALISM PROPERLY IS A CRIME.”

Widespread problem

Lest one think this was asymptomatic, on January 27, Brendan Bordelon reported yet another example of Al Jazeera English editors laying down the law, as it were, in a way clearly designed to further a political agenda.

According to Bordelon, executive Carlos van Meek emailed his New York and Washington D.C. newsrooms after a January 27 Islamist attack on a hotel in the Libyan capital and warned against using a list of “key words” such as “terrorist” in describing violent attackers because “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”

That in itself is not completely unprecedented – Reuters made a similarly bone-headed decision after the 9/11 attacks (for a good explanation of why it was silly, see this Ottawa Citizen editorial). But Al Jazeera then went much further – banning a whole series of words in a way which does appear unprecedented among Western media organisations and designed to put the most sympathetic face possible on terrorist groups, especially Islamists.

“Fighters” was the only word authorised to be used for terrorist actors – and not “militants, radicals, insurgents”. On the other hand, “militant” was sometimes acceptable for single individuals only, never for groups: “For example, we can use the term to describe Norwegian mass-killer Andres [sic] Behring Breivik or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. But please note: we will not use it to describe a group of people, as in ‘militants’ or ‘militant groups’ etc.”

Also off limits was “Islamist”, widely accepted as a term for those who cite Islam as the basis for a broader political ideology, as was “Jihad.”

Finally, even the word “extremist” was banned on the grounds that Al Jazeera shouldn’t “characteriz[e] people.”

Instructively, Van Meek’s email shines a light on Al Jazeera‘s culture, stating that the directive on the proscribed terminology is “straight out of our Style Guide.”

A check by Bordelon on Al Jazeera English‘s website found it was a “mixed bag” when applying these standards but its report on the attack in Tripoli had called the Islamic State terrorists responsible “gunmen”.

The response to the leaks in Australia

In Australia, the Charlie Hebdo leak prompted a news story in the Australian (Jan. 12) with federal Labor MP Michael Danby calling for the ABC to reconsider its policy.

According to the Australian‘s Sarah Martin:

An ABC spokeswoman said the broadcaster used the Al Jazeera newsfeed on ABC News 24 to cover the attacks, as well as ­”occasional packages” during the day. “Al Jazeera is an award-winning service with a strong presence in Europe,” she said. “Like other news organisations, the ABC uses a range of agencies to support its own correspondents.”

ABC News 24 broadcast Al Jazeera Newshours twice daily. “The ABC is not aware of any complaints relating to the editorial content during Al Jazeera’s coverage,” the spokeswoman said.

Later that day, the embarrassing leaks story was covered by ABC Radio “World Today” but they chose not to interview Danby. Instead, they opted for former Al Jazeera employee Scott Bridges who wrote up his experiences in a book.

Bridges offered his take on the differences between Al Jazeera Arabic and English, depicting a cosmopolitan organisation where “the culture inside each of the channels is very different, you’ve got a newsroom with hundreds of employees representing over 50 nationalities and so what you have is an enormously diverse range of views and a bunch of people who are very passionate about news and debate those views very passionately within the newsroom.”

Asked by “World Today” host Peter Lloyd what he made of the “senior Arab background reporters and producers saying ‘I am not Charlie'”, Bridges replied “I don’t know what each of those people are trying to say but they were probably having a robust editorial discussion and I mean it’s a very controversial, complicated, nuanced story – the events in Paris and the issues around it – and I suspect that they were just trying to unpack what they thought about those events. And what the email chain, which is very short, it’s only five people I think having a conversation, but even that short email chain reveals very different points of view which are being put very forcefully.”

So, there you have it, the ABC, which uses Al Jazeera‘s feeds, finds an Al Jazeera-friendly former employee to give it a free pass on allegations of improper editorial influence – ignoring the fact that the debate started with an editor telling journalists how to report, and turning it simply into a “conversation” featuring different views.

Unfortunately, Lloyd did not ask if Bridges was told to follow a particular editorial line or even his views on some of the accusations made that Al Jazeera has an Islamist agenda on behalf of the Qatari royal family.

To its credit, on Jan. 13 SBS Radio “World News” did interview Danby on the story. He explained:

“When a news organisation instructs its journalists to behave other than how they would normally behave and when it says to them that it’s the policy of the national broadcaster of Qatar that they represent that one should adopt an attitude of… neutrality between victims and the terrorists, I think it shows the continuing perspective of Al Jazeera in English.”

Danby also suggested that both the ABC and SBS should inform its audiences when using Al Jazeera that, “this is the view of Qatar and this is an organisation backed and financed by the government of Qatar” and that when editors have such strong views, the audience must be informed.

Clearly the leaks should act as a wake up call for Australian public broadcasters SBS and ABC. It is plain from the quote the latter offered to the Australian, it does not agree, doubling down on its continuing outsourcing of much of its coverage to Al Jazeera.

Yet the leaks unquestionably make a compelling case that the ABC and SBS are using a “news network” in Al Jazeera English where the journalism is tailored and shaped to meet the objectives of a non-democratic foreign power whose agenda is very different from Australia’s.

Anger over the completely unjust treatment of Peter Greste by Egypt, and concern about the continuing uncertainty over the fate of his colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, should not detract from these factual realities about the network.

Allon Lee


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