As journalists it is our job to seek out information, report on stories that affect the lives of the average person and hold those in power to account by asking them the questions their people want answering. The last thing any journalist wants is to be part of the story; the focus should never be on us, it should be on those who have been deprived a voice, the oppressed and the wronged.
Unfortunately though, my colleagues and I at Al Jazeera have found ourselves at the centre of the current Gulf crisis. The countries currently laying siege to Qatar, have announced that they will only lift the blockade if the Qatari government cuts funding to our network and shuts it down. A demand that is not just outrageous in nature, or preposterous because it’s being made by some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, but also infinitely dangerous for the future of freedom in the Middle East and the world at large.
When Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 it entered a media landscape that was monopolised by state-run television channels that broadcast nothing more than outright propaganda for the Kings and dictators ruling the Arab world. Aljazeera believed that people had a right to information, a right to have their voices heard, a right to hear the opinion and the other opinion.
For the first time ever, news bulletins consisted of reports on the economic struggles of the Arab man, the fight for equality for the Arab woman, the challenges faced by Arab youth suffering under authoritarian rule. For the first time ever, the masses in Cairo, Riyadh, Beirut and Casablanca felt that they were being informed and empowered.
In 2006, when Al Jazeera English was launched, that journey continued. The first ever English language international news network to be based outside the Western world began broadcasting inside millions of homes globally. Rather than parachuting foreign journalists to report on stories in India or Zimbabwe for example, Al Jazeera English invested in local expertise to report from these countries.
The flow of information that was previously dominated from the north to the south was challenged, the global south now had a network of their own. From the 2008 Israeli war on Gaza to the devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015, Al Jazeera competed and often beat the biggest names in news, balancing the once skewed narrative and providing insight into countries that were previously underreported or misunderstood.
Arguably our greatest achievement as a network was our coverage of the protests that spread through the Arab world in 2011. From Tunis to Cairo to Benghazi to Deraa and Sanaa, Al Jazeera was there, reporting on the historic events that captivated the world.
When Egyptian state TV was broadcasting empty streets in a bid to misinform viewers, we broadcast the hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square. When Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi’s military began killing protesters in the streets, we showed the world the truth of what was happening. We did all this while also giving a platform to these regimes – staying true to our mission of showing opinions on both sides of the story.
It is this that the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt fear. They fear freedom of the press because they know that a free press threatens their very existence as undemocratic, authoritarian, oppressive governments. This is why they want to shut Al Jazeera down. This is also why our offices have been closed on numerous occasions in several countries, and it is why some of my colleagues have been killed and others put behind bars.
At Al Jazeera we know that we are not the only journalists fighting for press freedom. We have been extremely encouraged by the support we’ve received from media outlets and human rights groups around the world. But we also know that we are in a unique position, as the vanguard a region beleaguered by wars and conflicts. That is what makes our presence so much more important.
We acknowledge that we don’t always get it right, but I for one know that my colleagues and I try our level best. We invite those who have any criticism of our work to feed that back to us in a constructive and democratic way, because it is only through dialogue that civilisations advance. Censorship and muzzling never works.
That’s why we do not shy away from speaking to all newsmakers, whatever their views. That does include, at times, internationally proscribed terrorists and has previously included the airing of the notorious Osama Bin Laden tapes several years ago. But it’s important to note that we do not give a platform to these people, we dissect their message, bring analysts to sift through the propaganda, and always, always, ensure that there are counter arguments presented so that our audiences can make their own informed decision.
Our view is that this is much more constructive and a lot more beneficial to advancing free societies than if the young and impressionable were simply to hear these messages online without the context and criticism needed.
The siege on Qatar has gone on for more than a month now, and we have remained steadfast and committed to our principles of honesty, integrity and professionalism throughout. We continue to call on all freedom-loving people to stand by us, even if they may not agree with us. Allowing for the closure of Al Jazeera would give the green light to other oppressive countries to demand the closure of other media outlets, thereby setting a very dangerous precedent internationally.
I am confident that we will overcome this challenge the same way we’ve seen through countless others before. And regardless of how the Gulf crisis is resolved, we at Al Jazeera assure dictators and all the other anti-democratic forces around the world that the idea of Al Jazeera can never be shut down. The idea of a free press, the idea of an institution that speaks truth to power, the idea of holding governments to account – that shall live on forever.