MESSA 2018: Uncertainty Stability and Cohesion a Transforming Middle East

– Your excellency, Sheikh
Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, distinguished guests,
ladies and gentlemen. (foreign language), and good evening. As president of the Middle Eastern Studies Student Association,
known as MESSA, in short, it is my pleasure to welcome you to Georgetown University in Qatar, for the opening of our seventh annual Undergraduate Research Conference. MESSA is one of Georgetown’s
student-led initiatives that provides a platform
for undergraduates to showcase their work,
recognizes their academic efforts, and encourages ongoing
research in the region. This year’s selection includes undergraduate student projects that demonstrate a strong
academic research potential in the fields of economics,
politics, and social affairs. They will be sharing their
work with the wider community all throughout tomorrow’s proceedings. Please join us during their
respective presentation sessions to support their efforts and
provide them with feedback. But, before going any further, I’d like to take this moment
to say a few thank-yous. I’d like to thank our faculty advisor, Dean Kai-Henrik Barth, for his constant encouragement and support. I’d also like to thank Haya
Al Thani And Yara AlKahala, this year’s vice-presidents,
as well as all members for this year’s MESSA team for
their consistent dedication and commitment towards the organization of this conference and its vision. This year, our focus is on uncertainty, stability, and cohesion,
elements through which we attempt to track and understand the continued transformation
of the Middle East. One of the most influential
mediums that aims to capture this transformation
is, indeed, media. Thus, we are honored to have with us today a panel of highly-esteemed media experts that have been investigating, documenting, and reporting on the
region for many years. We look forward to hearing their insights on the undoubtedly prominent role media has played in the Middle East. Without further ado, I’d
now like to welcome the dean of Georgetown University in Qatar, Doctor Ahmad Dallal, to
introduce our panelists and give his opening remarks.
(audience applauding) – Your excellency Sheikh
Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, dear guests, colleagues, and students. It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the seventh MESSA Research Conference at Georgetown University in Qatar. Founded in 2012, the
Middle Eastern Studies Student Association, MESSA, is a GUQ, Georgetown University
in Qatar, student body which aims to provide a dynamic platform that allows students to present their work on Middle Eastern economics,
social and political issues. Every year, MESSA organizes
an annual undergraduate conference on Middle Eastern affairs, where students from around the globe present their undergraduate
research on the Middle East. MESSA also publishes a
flagship, peer-reviewed undergraduate journal on
Middle Eastern studies, the Journal of Georgetown University Qatar Middle Eastern Studies
Student Association. The journal presents
undergraduate research concerning the Middle East
through conference papers and independently solicited essays. Through these activities, MESSA serves as Georgetown’s flagship
undergraduate research platform, connecting thoughtful undergraduates with leaders from academia
as well as the private, public, and non-profit sectors within and beyond the Middle East. The theme of this year’s conference is uncertainty, stability, and cohesion in transforming the Middle East. All day tomorrow,
students from universities in Qatar and the United
States will present their research on various
topics related to this theme, and I encourage you to participate
in this important event to the extent that you can. But before I introduce
tonight’s panelists, who will open this conference, I would like to thank the
organizers of this event and conference, including
our event department, Amanda, and all the event department, but above all, our inspired
and inspiring students, who organized and will
participate in this event, especially this year’s MESSA
core committee members, Wessam and Yara and Haya. Wessam is majoring in
international economics, and Yara is majoring
international economics, as well, and Haya in international politics, with a certificate in
Arab and Regional Studies. Now, it’s my privilege to welcome the distinguished participants
in tonight’s opening panel: Al Jazeera’s Role in the
Transforming Middle East. The first participant is Clayton Swisher, who’s a journalist and
author currently working as the manager of investigative journalism for the Al Jazeera Media Network in Doha. He is the author of two nonfiction books on the Arab-Israeli
conflict and is the head of the Al Jazeera investigative unit and has done some very interesting work. This is our first speaker. The second speaker is Jamal Elshayyal, a senior correspondent
for Al Jazeera English, who joined in 2006 as its
first Middle East editor. He covered a number of major stories, including the 2010 Gaza Flotilla, and the 2011 Arab Spring. His exclusive reports include uncovering secret documents from inside Gaddafi’s intelligence headquarters
and uncovering torture and human rights abuse
inside Egyptian prisons. So please welcome him. (audience applause) Our third speaker is Folly Bah Thibault, am I saying the name correctly? Oh, yes, okay. Who is a broadcast journalist
for Al Jazeera English, where she is the senior presenter of the flagship program News Hour. Prior to joining Al Jazeera, she worked for France 24 (foreign language), where she served both as
anchor and correspondent. She hosted the segment
entitled The Week in Africa. So please welcome Folly. (audience applause) And moderating the event
tonight is Dr. Banu Akdenizli, is that properly pronounced,
Akdenizli, right? Associate professor of communication at Northwestern University at Quatar. (audience applause) She previously worked as a methodologist and analyst for the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project in Washington, D.C. She is a research fellow at the University of Southern California and their
Center on Public Diplomacy. So without further ado, I now turn the floor to the panelists. (audience applause) – Thank you, Dean. It’s a privilege to be here. It’s a privilege to be with such distinguished journalists and reporters. Before I actually turn it over to Folly, I would like to briefly provide a context to tonight’s sort of discussion. As we know, the Middle East
has been a particular focus of global crisis reporting. International coverage of these conflicts has historically been presented through a very Western perspective. The absence of Arab voices
in the global public sphere has created a discursive gap between the Middle East and the rest of the world, and the arrival of Al Jazeera English initially was regarded as an attempt to bridge this gap by
broadcasting discourses from and about the Arab world. So as tonight, in your
initial opening remarks, I know you all have very
distinctive backgrounds in what you have been doing
throughout these years. Would you please, as you’re
talking about your experiences, also talk about where you
feel Al Jazeera English stands in terms of the journalism
practice at large. I mean, you are in the big leagues now, with CNN and Deutsche Welle, so what are you bringing to the table now? – Thank you very much, Professor Banu. Thank you, Dean Dallal, your excellency, distinguished guests, and thank you MESSA and the faculty and students at Georgetown and Northwestern for welcoming us here. It’s an honor and
privilege to be with you. Revolutionary, audacious, resilient, those are the words that come to mind when I think of Al Jazeera. Revolutionary because
change was Al Jazeera’s raison d’etre when it
was launched in 1996. Al Jazeera Arabic first, and
later Al Jazeera English, and change is what Al Jazerra brought to the Arab media landscape. Before Al Jazeera,
media in the Middle East was one perspective, government-controlled television channels that
preferred soap operas to news. Al Jazeera’s launch created,
opened the Arab world, and launched the Arab world
into the global media landscape. Until then, Western media
had controlled the narrative. Western media had told Arab
viewers about their stories, their issues, and their region. The launch of Al Jazeera changed that, and in the 21 years
now, more than 21 years since the channel was
launched, we’ve seen a number of television channels
flourish in the region. We’ve seen the Emirati and
Saudi answer to Al Jazeera, and even more recently,
we’ve seen the Israeli answer to Al Jazeera with i24NEWS. Revolutionary also, because Al Jazeera was one of the very, very
first news organizations to embrace social media as a platform, a new platform for news
gathering and storytelling. And we first saw the
power of social media, the power of Facebook and Twitter during the 2008-2009 Gaza War. Not only was Al Jazeera
the only organization to have correspondents on
the ground within Gaza, it was also the very first
news channel in the world to live tweet the war minute by minute with the handle, I think, it was AJGAZA on Twitter at the time. And of course, as the
Arab Spring unfolded, social media played an even bigger role in Al Jazeera’s coverage of the event, because it had direct access to the people and it helped amplify voices that often were not heard in this region. Now I want to make an important point here about the words
revolutionary and revolution. Al Jazeera’s mission is not
to transform political systems or transform this region. That is not our mission. We are journalists; we’re not activists. The people are who change,
are who lead the revolutions. We are just the medium that they use to make their voices heard. I think it’s a very
important point to make, because there’s been a lot of debate about Al Jazeera’s role
in the transformation of political systems, and I
think all my colleagues here would agree that, as
journalists, our mission really is not, we’re not in the work of transforming political systems. Now, the term audacious. Audacious because Al Jazeera has dared to go where no other television
channel in this region has dared to go. Al Jazeera has aired voices in this region that have historically been censored. In the early days of Al Jazeera Arabic, I think they shocked a lot of
viewers in this region locally by presenting Israelis speaking
Hebrew on Arabic television for the very first time. And also, on the other side, in the West, Al Jazeera was criticized,
not just in the West, in fact, even by countries, some
countries in this region for airing audio and video
messages from Osama bin Laden. Let me tell you that in journalism, when both sides are
critical of your coverage, then it means you’re
doing something right. That’s the highest distinction for us, when both sides are not
happy with what you say or what you air, then you
must be doing something right. Resilient because no
other television network has come under more scrutiny
and under more attack than Al Jazeera in these past
21 years for Al Jazeera Arabic and more than 11 for Al Jazeera English. Our bureaus overseas have been ransacked or even bombed like in Iraq in
2003 and Afghanistan in 2000. Our journalists have been
killed while doing their jobs. They have been arrested, intimidated, but yet we continue to tell the story because it’s our duty as journalists to continue telling the story. My colleague Jamal here,
you mentioned the Flotilla, was on board the Mavi Marmara
when it came under attack in 2010 by Israeli Security Forces. He was on the top deck, broadcasting live, and continued to do so
throughout the raid, and only stopped when
communications were cut and he was arrested by the Israeli forces. That’s an example of
courageous journalism. You tell the story until you
are physically not able to. Now, in this region, of course, there’s been a lot of
criticism of our work. You know, several bureaus in the region were not able to broadcast
from several countries, from Egypt, from Yemen, from Syria, but we continue to do the job as fairly and impartially as we can. It’s not always easy, especially when the other side won’t speak to you, but as journalists, it’s
our role to give all sides a share of our airtime,
and we try to do that, we continue to do that
as best as we can today, even in the circumstances sometimes that we find ourselves in. And I was talking about resilience, right? So I just wanna tell you
a bit about my experience with Al Jazeera, just a little bit to give you a background, really. I began my career with Al
Jazeera in the summer of 2010 when the network’s experience
and its solid reputation was already established, so for me, coming from a region of the world where Western media had
always told us our story, this was really a dream opportunity. And it was even more
humbling to join Al Jazeera on the eve of the first
Arab Spring protests. I remember vividly being
in the presenter’s chair in January of 2011 when
Ben Ali stepped down as Tunisia’s president. It was really a defining
moment for this region, and what followed for us was months of a whirlwind coverage of the events from the streets of Tunisia
to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the battlefields of Yemen, Libya, and of course, the
continuing crisis in Syria. Being in the newsroom at that time was one of the most exciting experiences I think for us as journalists, because you came in, and
you never wanted to leave, especially on Fridays after prayers, because that’s when people would take to the streets to protest, and that’s when people wanted
to have their voices heard. And we gave them that platform. People who, in the past, weren’t able to have their voices
heard on Arab television or on Arab media in general. So it was really a
humbling experience for me working with people like Jamal who were on the ground in
the thick of the action, but also for us, I mean,
you would sit there for hours on end, very
often with little script, speaking to the correspondents
and the guests on the ground, but you kept going because we
knew that we were witnessing something very, very
important for this region. Whether or not it was successful is another debate, of course. And so I just wanna
tell you a bit more then about the benefits and what
I find the most enriching, where we do things
differently at Al Jazeera, where Al Jazeera has been revolutionary, and even not just in this region, in fact. I think, when you look at
the global media landscape, Al Jazeera is one of the
very few organizations that covers regions of the world, remote regions of the world
where other global news giants like the BBC or CNN won’t venture to, because there’s no interest
among their audiences. Our mission is to give a
voice to the voiceless, so we will go to the most
remote parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and beyond. And what I find the most
enriching is that even after the euphoria over a
particular story dies down, and the focus shifts to
something else, we stay. We stay to continue telling the story, we have a network of correspondents
from different countries who speak different languages who live and breathe the stories they cover. They are there, they
know the complexities, the intricacies, and understand
that they’re not just flown in and out, and
that’s really important when you’re covering a story, to have someone on the ground who knows, who has experienced,
who’s lived the story. And those are the people, I think, that I have learned from the most in my now almost eight years at Al Jazeera. Now, of course, everything is not rosy. You will know that. As you know, Al Jazeera has emerged as a central player in the current crisis that’s unfolding in the Gulf. And the closing of the network
was one of the 13 demands made by the blockading countries. Now, no respectable journalist, I think, wants to be at the center
of a story they’re covering. It’s impossible, it’s very hard. A lot of people have asked us, how do you stay objective
when you’re covering stories that are critical of Al Jazeera, when your very existence is under threat. Well, because we’re journalists, we try to stay objective
as much as we can. And it’s not easy, it’s not always easy, but we have to do our job in a fair way, as impartially as we can
and continue to do it to this day, even though
it’s not always easy. So we are determined to continue this courageous journalism, I think, and at the end of the day, as
we say we are not the enemy, we are not committing a crime, we strongly believe that we
are the voice of the people, really, and our job, our role, is to empower them with knowledge. And I think Al Jazeera has
done that in the last 21 years. Thank you. (audience applause) – Is this hot?
Okay. I thank you Folly. I really concur and
agree with your remarks, and thank you, professor,
for moderating this, and Jamal, and it’s very honor, I’m honored to be on
this panel with you guys. And Dean Dallal, thank you again for organizing this along with Haya and all the other students who are here for the MESSA conference. I was remarking before this began that I’m a 2003 graduate
of Georgetown from D.C., and I used to attend, it was called MESA, not with two S’s, Middle
East Students Association, and I remember very
vigorous debates on campus in 2002 and three, post-9/11,
in the run up to the Iraq War. And I learned a lot from teach-ins and from lectures and conferences
that Georgetown had then when Dean Dallal saw me
as a broke grad student, so I’m very humbled and honored to see this tradition continue in Doha, and flattered that I would be included in tonight’s discussion. So I’ve been asked to talk about how Al Jazeera has transformed this region and I remarked to Folly that
I’m mildly uncomfortable with that because I feel
like if you’re the chef and the soup-taster it’s kinda unfair, and I think it’s probably best that other people criticize our work and I just get on with making it. But I definitely can
talk about how Al Jazeera has transformed me and
how some of our projects and some of the spaces that
Al Jazeera has allowed us boldly to move into has
transformed journalism. So, I started out working
for Al Jazeera in 2006 when I was in D.C. I was at a Middle East
Institute think tank, and I began as a part-time analyst. And a year later, I got the bug, and I said I wanna learn how to make TV. I wanna do it and they kept saying, well you gotta go to Doha and learn how, everything’s done out of Doha. And a year later, that’s what I did. I packed up my things and I moved here and I, just before my 30th birthday, became a TV producer, and I
would come into the newsroom and the meetings were as
diverse as this panel. Egyptian Brit, an American
of mixed European descent from the Rust Belt of America, a French citizens by way of Guinea, I mean, that was our newsroom, it’s like the United Nations. But we have 50 nationalities,
hundreds of voices, and we would thrash out in
our morning editorial meeting what’s the most important thing that our audience needs to know about in our upcoming news hour
and then we’d crack on and we’d make the news. I definitely, through that process, starting out at the
producer/reporter phase of my career, learned how to tell stories
that are broad enough that around the world people
will find meaning in it, no matter where they’re from or what socioeconomic status they have. I definitely appreciated the
distinction of Al Jazeera, that we covered things
like Somalia, Yemen, Gaza, which aren’t sponsored by Rolex, and which most American
networks don’t care about and don’t deploy correspondents to. In deploying to war zones, I experienced the way that we tell the story of war, not as cheerleading on
behalf of the Pentagon or whoever the parties are,
but on who are the people that are victims of this war. And the process and the
experience humbled me. And around 2010, I was part of a project that saw the seeds planted
for an investigative unit. I’m gonna talk about
that experience briefly, but I want to talk about the
importance of editorial space. And it was editorial space
that Al Jazeera gave myself and a group of journalists
that no other Arab broadcaster until now has had. And I think that that’s a shame. I think that there could be a lot of room for investigative
journalism in the Arab world that doesn’t exist, and
I commend Al Jazeera for taking us in that direction. The editorial space that
I’m going to refer to were three projects a few years apart under three different leaders. So we’ve had, when I joined the network, the director general was a
gentleman named Wadah Khanfar, and he was editorial day and night. His left eye was on Al Jazeera English and his right eye was
on Al Jazeera Arabic. And he was a thrilling boss to have and one time I was coming
back from a trip to Palestine and I’d, a source
provided me with a laptop that had a lot more than his
family vacation photos on it. It had an entire archive of
all the secret negotiating meeting minutes between
Israelis and Palestinians from 2000 to 2010. And when I brought it to Doha and I started to go through it, I remember it was August and
it was the first few nights of Ramadan, and I couldn’t
sleep, day or night, I was reading this laptop, I was mining through the documents, and weighing what it was that
I had been entrusted with. And in any newsroom,
particular when you’re not reporting the news
but you’re breaking it, and you’re presenting things
that no one else possesses, people are gonna clam up. They’re scared, what is this? This could get us into trouble, ya know. Are these documents made up? These are all legit editorial
questions obviously. I had found it problematic
to get it taken seriously, but in Al Jazeera, not unlike Georgetown, or any other place where
free debate and argument is allowed, eventually if you crack on, and you make your
argument to enough people, someone will listen. And I found Wadah Khanfar
at a men’s clothing store near Al Jaidah Flyover. I have no idea if he was shopping there, but that’s where he was, and he told me come and bring this laptop. And so there in a parking lot in front of the supermarket and
Kentucky Fried Chicken, I opened up my laptop and I’m like, do you see what I’m talking about? And he said to me, from tomorrow,
you work out of my office. I will take care of the rest. You work out of my office. What that came to mean was, you work out of a townhouse here in Doha, and we had set up shop in
this obscure place in Dafna. We built a team of experts, of journalists to mine through these documents, which included the secret concessions that the Palestinian
Authority was prepared to make on Jerusalem, refugees, border security, remarkably candid, inside the room. They read like FBI wire taps. And while the team that we assembled was going through this, I
was going around the world meeting other people,
corroborating the data, getting other laptops,
getting other thumb drives, cross-checking to make sure, and I was getting more
information in the process. This was a territory that the
network wasn’t used to doing, but there’s a first for everything. We didn’t have a budget, we
didn’t have a cost center, all these internal bureaucratic things, we were just figuring it out on the fly. And when we released the
Palestine Papers in January 2011, four days of coverage
along with The Guardian, it disrupted the news cycle. It brought all these secret
discussions to the fore. It resulted in a very serious debate amongst Palestinians over the fate of their national
movement, and what leaders were willing to do behind their backs. There’s a big gap between what
they were saying publicly, what they were negotiating privately. We had put every document online. This is not something
in the Arab Wikileaks. Al Jazeera, we hadn’t partaken in that up until that point. And this was, I gotta say,
one of the most exciting, incredible experiences,
’cause it was a first. It augured well for a second experience under a different D.G. This was Sheik Ahmed bin Jassim, who came at the end of 2011, and he was not a journalist,
but my god, he had instincts. And when he saw a story,
he would latch onto it like a junkyard dog and encourage us to pursue it, pursue it, pursue it. And such was the case when, after a series of meetings with Suha
Arafat, she had provided the late Yasser Arafat’s
medical files to us, and there was some in the network who wanted to just publish
it and be over with it. And there was, again, editorial space, strategic patience that
Sheik Ahmed had and he said, Clayton, you build your team. You guys go off and you work on this. That’s exactly what we did. We went and we consulted
experts who were French doctors ’cause these were files in French. We then, I must have gone
to Malta five, six times, and to a point where Mrs. Arafat agreed to give me the bag of Yasser
Arafat’s last belongings that accompanied him to a
hospital in France where he died. And inside that bag was his clothes that he wore when he
expired and his medicines, a variety of things
that he had taken to him prior to being in hospital. And at that moment, his hat, his glasses, his medicines, the idea
registered that we should find someone with a forensic
background to go through this because the French doctors
in this secret medical report clearly don’t know what killed him. They did test for some poisons. But this isn’t the stuff
that you can just, you know, ring up someone off of the yellow pages and say hey, have a look at this. It required someone with
a specific discipline. So I spent a lot of time
going around the world researching who are the best forensic cold case investigators, both for toxicology perspective, but also the various
disciplines that were included in his medical file. We found a laboratory in Switzerland, used by the United Nations, in Lausanne, delivered all of the effects
and files to those scientists, and I’m sure some of them regretted it because they agreed to do it for free. They were very expensive tests. In the end, they didn’t find
any conventional poisons, but when they shared it with
their radiological colleagues, they found polonium 210. And they found polonium 210
in a urine and blood stain from Arafat’s underwear and his hat, which was on his head, a bloodstain, about three-quarter of an inch diameter, which had reactor-made polonium. So that was big news in the summer of 2012 when it aired, and it coulda ended there. But Sheik Ahmed said to me, Clayton, no guts, no glory. We continued this story. Suha Arafat went to a French prosecutor, they got a court order to
exhume Yasser Arafat’s body, and I confess, I was, pins and needles, what happens if Yasser Arafat gets dug up and they find nothing. Polonium decays by 50% every 138 days. That was a possibility. Eight years had passed between
his death and the exhumation. And the Swiss found in
his skeletal remains between 18 and 36 times
the amount of polonium ever measured in a human
being on planet Earth and they’ve been measuring
human carcasses since the 1960s. Yet there were some that
said he’s not poisoned, this was the French position,
this was the Russian position, but the Swiss don’t lie. This is the calibrating
laboratory in Europe that they calibrate
the nuclear instruments used by other laboratories
who test such things. These controversies, the Palestine Papers, people were burning
effigies of Qatar’s emir, security goons ransacked
our Ramallah bureau. They thought that the Arafat investigation was done to benefit Hamas
and stir up controversy between Israel and
disrupt the peace process. Everyone assigns a motive when
you do these controversies, and for some who are
politically, okay, nervous, it’s just easier not to do ’em. But this is an important,
both of these were important pieces of Middle East history. Yasser Arafat being a
transformative figure, love him or hate him, he was the leader of the Palestinian cause, and he died a very suspicious death. And for the Arab media
to have been involved in breaking this story,
and putting resources behind investigations, I think, was a great credit upon Al Jazeera. We did a similar expose in 2015. It was called the Spy Cables. I had received a digital leak
of intelligence documents from South Africa, that
included intelligence cables from Britain’s MI-6, America’s CIA, the Russian SVR GRU, these
were all liaison cables sent from various spy agencies
to the South Africans, and it was a mix and a mash. We had to do the same thing. We had to assemble a team. We had to verify the documents. And these weren’t just any documents. One of them went viral around the world. If you remember Benjamin
Netanyahu went to Washington, D.C. to speak before the Congress
and the United Nations, and declare that Iran was
this close to a nuclear bomb and he had this chart,
it was very cartoon-like, it made a hundred memes on the internet. And here we had a Mossad top secret cable drafted just two weeks before that trip saying Mossad’s assessment is that Iran is nowhere near enrichment, and they’re not even
trying to make a bomb. So there’s a big consonance
between Netanyahu scare-mongering for the
entire United States on the floor of the House and the floor of the United Nations, and his own intelligence service saying, relax, nothin’ to worry about here. When this, these were 17 news
packages we put together, and they were, like I said, a hodgepodge, a variety of different issues. And we screened them for
the acting director general Mostefa Souag, and the
implication was clear. We’re gonna upset quite a
lot of intelligence services by docs-ing them and
putting these cables out. And he didn’t bat an eye. He said, do it, I like
it, good, good luck. So this editorial space
to take these risks has allowed Al Jazeera
and allowed the space of what I’ve been involved in, which is investigations,
to diversify the genre of what our journalists are known for. For sure we’ve changed the landscape with our breaking news
being there in Kabul and in Iraq and on the Mavi Marmara when special forces are fast-roping down, we do the live like no one
else in this part of the world. But to tell stories that
people would otherwise not like to see the light of day is only possible because of the space that our leadership has given us. With that, I’ll leave it to Jamal and thank you again, everyone,
for coming here tonight to listen to us. (audience applause) – (foreign language)
Good evening, everyone. Thank you for making me have to follow up on double-oh seven here.
(audience laughter) It’s not an easy one. I do, I’m going to touch a
bit on my personal experience with Al Jazeera, but also the role I think I want to talk about a
bit more specifically in what I view our role
and, more importantly, what our duty is. I joined Al Jazeera in 2006
as one of the launch team for the English channel. I was born in Scotland, grew up in London, never in my life did I ever
want to be a journalist. It was never something
that I aspired towards. I stumbled across this job, actually. And growing up in London as somebody from immigrant parents,
my family originally are from Egypt, Al Jazeera
for me was a source of my identity, Al Jazeera Arabic, so we grew up watching Al Jazeera Arabic. It was how we connected with our homeland. How we connected with the
ideas that were circulating in societies, knowing what was going on, just so we were aware
of what was happening. And it was also something that I had to do so I can learn Arabic. Otherwise my parents would get very upset. So for me, when the idea
came for an English channel to be launched, and I was approached to, initially I was approached
to speak Al Jazeera, there’s an annual forum, so in 2006, I was asked to give a presentation there, and then after the presentation, I guess, what I said, some of it
might have made sense, so they said, well, why don’t you come and help us with this
launch of this channel. I was more interested about
serving the idea of Al Jazeera as an idea without realizing
the role specifically in terms of journalism,
if that makes sense. But in reality, it became
one and the same for me, and this is it. Ultimately, and I’m sure you will know and agree with me here more than anybody or any other audience, knowledge is power. You cannot have a society which is able to decide its own destiny,
which is able to go on and continue, which is
able to be productive in any which way, be it economic, social, cultural, without knowledge. And I think this is
what we aspire towards, and to touch upon what both
Folly and Clayton spoke about, this is for me the most important thing. So when we talk about transforming, yes, Al Jazeera was never
set out to ensure that a specific political party
existed or didn’t exist, it didn’t set out as a vision to ensure that you had a monarchy or
a republic in any country. The idea behind it was
to serve in providing one of the most basic
tenets of human rights which is the right to be
informed, the right to know. And I think as maybe abstract or basic as that may sound, depending
on how you look at it, it is the most important thing
that we need to understand when we either assess Al
Jazeera or assess the idea of free press, specifically
in this day and age. Now, it’s no secret, especially
from my country of origin, Egypt, and the Arab world generally, unfortunately, our societies
are not the most educated. And be it in terms of literacy levels or even those who
graduate and have degrees and so forth, in terms
of actual intelligence. In Egypt, a lot of my relatives, they have their equivalent
of GCSEs or A-levels for those from the UK. I don’t know in the US what
you have prior to university. But they would get like 99.9% and 100%, and how on earth is that possible? You can barely cross the
road without getting hit, and it’s because they would just like revise everything you study, but you actually ask them
about genuine issues, it wasn’t there. So when Al Jazeera Arabic first launched, you suddenly had a
provision, or a platform, for people to be informed
about women’s rights, for example, in Saudi Arabia. Or for people to be informed about why there is high level
of unemployment in places. Or why there was corruption
in certain countries. And then they would start questioning. So why is it that I’m told as an Arab that I have to accept this
ideal of stability and security in order to survive, when other countries don’t settle for that, other
societies actually aspire to have their voices
heard, to ask questions, to ask why is it that a 30-year-old doctor who’s graduated has to work
as a taxi driver at night to make ends meet? To talk about some of the experiences, for me two of the most
life-changing experiences for me, one was my first maybe
say big story that I did, which was on board the Turkish aid ship that was going to Gaza. But one that was a lot closer to home was reporting on the Arab Spring, or what I like to call the Arab Uprising that took place in Egypt. I landed in Egypt on January 26th. January 25th I was in Doha,
and I remember watching what was happening in the evening. The day before was actually
the Palestine Papers that were released, and we were still kind of on a high on that. January 26th I walked into the newsroom and I told the guys
that I’m going to Egypt. Very simple. They said, well, we’ve got teams. I said, either I go or I go, you know, there’s
something major going on, I wanna be a part of it. Thankfully, I went that evening. When I got to Cairo, obviously
everybody was focusing on Cairo as the capital,
but one of the things that helped us, because
of the local knowledge, my idea in the beginning was to go to Egypt’s third city, which is the Suez. There were the first two
people who were killed, and for me I thought it
was a lot more important to start off there to get the stories of why are these people willing
to sacrifice their lives. I spent a few days there. January 28th was what was
called the Friday of Rage. Essentially the police were run over, or some of them withdrew. And suddenly the day
after, you’re in a street where it’s like one of these
Armageddon films, you know. There’s people looting in
the streets, there’s chaos, and so forth, and we’re
wondering what’s going on, and then you hear the
army rolling and stuff, and I remember we were standing there, and I suddenly saw
outside, if you can call it a hotel that we were staying at, the place where we were sleeping, a van was driving around
and it had on it bed sheets on the back of it and was written on it, whoever speaks to Al Jazeera,
we will cut off their tongue. Now, of course that’s worrying, ’cause everyone wanted to
have their tongue intact, but also because it was
interesting in the sense that, okay, why Al Jazeera? We never, there was no promo on Al Jazeera before January 25th saying, hey, Egyptians, get to the streets. There was no program that was entrusted to try to mobilize
Egyptians to go and protest, but what there was for
consistent years before that, there was coverage of the things that the Egyptian government
didn’t want people to see. So people started becoming informed. They started having that knowledge, which began to empower them. Interestingly enough here,
and this is to come back to all the criticism that we get. And I, for me, people think
I’m a bit over-defensive, but I have no qualms about this. During the Arab Spring,
during, specifically in Egypt, the amount of people within the police or the army or the
National Democratic Party, which was ironically
called Mubarak’s party, that I called personally to
try and get their opinion on it was non-stop. We would try and guest
everybody, every side. They would either refuse
or not answer or so forth. That was their prerogative. But even despite the fact
that we had Mubarak thugs going after us, and
essentially trying to kill us, threatening our lives,
we would still hold true to the ideals that Folly spoke about, or to the principles that
Al Jazeera was founded on, of getting the opinion
and the other opinion. And that was our job. Fast-forward now to another
important development in what is an uncertain,
what are we saying, uncertainty and stability and cohesion. We’ve seen the uncertainty in
the Middle East by the way. We still haven’t seen the other two. You come to the GCC now, the
GCC crisis of what’s going on. Now we are, or we have been
at the center of the story. And, yes, we are not happy about being at the center of the story
because we’d much rather actually focus on reporting it. The question is what
happens a lot of the times, and in the very beginning I had friends from The Guardian and Sky News in the UK, not the one in Abu Dhabi, and others asking us, you know, so what’s your response to this? And I would always find it very peculiar, because I would say, did
you guys ever stop and think why are they asking to
shut down Al Jazeera? Like really why, forget about the whole, kind of spiel of sponsoring
terrorism or whatever, ’cause they know, these
are fellow journalists that would be in press
conferences with us, that would see us on the
ground reporting and so forth, why is it that Al Jazeera’s such an issue? And in that question lies the answer to the importance, I would
say, degree before sacred role that journalists play in terms of ensuring that right of information
and the empowering of people. Similar to, if you don’t mind, I know you’ve all studied
for years to get your PhDs, and my parents are academics and my mother would literally hit me
if she heard me say this, similar to university professors
who try and educate people. That you, the idea is to
try and give them the tools to know what’s going
on, to be able to make that informed decision. So when you have a crisis
that is now the GCC crisis, you have entire countries,
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, devoting hundreds of
thousands, if not millions, of dollars to PR campaigns
to essentially set up channels that are made just to trash us. Then you start questioning why, since when was Saudi Arabia
a beacon of democracy or freedom to judge what Al Jazeera’s editorial standard of integrity is? And here again, this is
something that’s important, because then people
will start questioning, then that means you are
taking a side in this. My only side is to be
able to report freely, whether that is something
you like or you don’t like, so long as I’m doing it accurately. Incidentally, and again
we always mention this, I personally have reported on many of the justly critical
practices that occur here in terms of migrant workers. And never have I had an issue. I sat down with the Minister
of Labor, I remember, a few years ago, when the first kind of, which turned out to be a
sponsored campaign against Qatar, but nonetheless, there was
still merit in the story, I sat down with the Minister of Labor. There was nobody who said you
can’t ask questions about it. Nobody who said they don’t want, now, this is something
again that’s important. Obviously, and I’m not
naive in to thinking that there aren’t political, let’s say, accompaniments to institutions
or to other things, that is the case from the
BBC to CNN to anybody. They exist and it’s natural that anybody who’s going to invest in something, while they may have a general
goal that I agree with, and I adhere to, will have other benefits or considerations to take into account. Anybody who doesn’t realize
that is fooling themselves before anything. But the important question
is what role do we play? What role should we play? And how do we preserve that role and ensure that we perform it
to the best possible standard? As I mentioned for me, I
believe the role is to allow for information to travel from A to B. From where something happens to the people who should, or want to know about it. How we do that, thankfully, I think there is a practical element to this, to go off just a little bit on the, I think one of the other things which people fail to talk
about in terms of Al Jazeera is what we’ve invested,
again Folly mentioned this, and even Clayton, in terms
of setting up investigation and the investigative
unit, but also in terms of being at the forefront in
terms of the digital platform, social media platforms, and so forth. We did a lot before anybody else, in terms of Facebook
Lives, in terms of Twitter, in terms of the Snapchat channels, we have other things that are coming out that really were at the cutting edge to ensure that it was provided to people. And I, again, some of that
was out of innovation, and some of it was out of necessity in that we had countries,
again militaries, like in Egypt, using military equipment, rather than to intercept possible rockets that would be landing on their ground, to try and jam our satellite networks. So we had to start
thinking out of the box, how do we ensure that people will be able to receive that information and so forth. So in summation, I think the idea of, people, sometimes they cower, or maybe they get a bit nervous
when you hear these ideas, putting in the same sentence
journalists and transformation. But I don’t think there is
anything to shy away from that. I think it’s very important
just to be confident about what it is you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and to be very clear. Of course, by the way,
when I say all of this, we’ve got things wrong in the past. Everybody does, but there’s a difference between you making a
mistake, owning up to it, and making sure you don’t repeat it, to other channels that purposefully invest and spend time and money
to actually spread things intentionally wrong, in order
to either mislead people or disinform them. And this is why my response always is, people can criticize Al Jazeera
for many different things, but what they cannot criticize
them for is the intention we have when we come to do things, the integrity that we try and apply, and we do our utmost to it, and the fearlessness
that is instilled on us the moment we walk through
that door until we leave. Bear in mind, from George Bush, who wanted to bomb us, to
the Egyptian prison cells that I’ve gone through and
others, my colleagues have, to Israeli cells, and to everything else. So I think our role is something that is extremely important. I wish that there were other institutions that would do the same. I’m sure there are in terms
of independent journalists that do that and maybe
other smaller networks, but hopefully, if we
want to get to the bit of stability and cohesion
that we all aspire to have this region in, it needs
more access to information, it needs protection of journalists, and it needs more freedom. – Before turning it over to the audience, I have one more question,
one last question from me as the moderator. And as a media scholar, I
have to ask this, of course. Which kind of brings me to the whole, that was one common theme in all of your introduction
speeches which was related to the social media aspect of it. At Northwestern, we have
yearly studies that we do. It’s a very big study, the Middle East, Media Use in the Middle East Studies. And we’ve been tracking
media use in the region since 2013 and we always
find good actually data on Al Jazeera, as well,
so good news for you guys. You are one of the leading networks here in terms of people, where
people go to get their news, both online and both for AJ
English and AJ Arabic as well. Both for young people and
for the older generation. But one thing, of course, what we’ve see is that in terms of social
media, there was a big increase in terms of use, and people
are going there increasingly for their news. But with the GCC crisis, what we’ve seen, and this has been not only
for here in this area, but universally as well, this was an issue with the 2016 U.S. elections as well, the issue of fake news and bots. So as an institution, how are
you dealing with this issue? – I wanna tell you about bots, because I don’t know if
anybody saw a few days ago, I was in London, reporting on the visit of the crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman. I asked him a question
online, it went a bit viral. I suddenly had literally,
I was just telling them, 4,000 tweets at me in a few minutes, or a few hours, rather, a couple of hours. Out of those 4,000, like
99% were just insults. But you could tell that half
of them were fake accounts that were created, the
Saudis, and some other, even in Egypt and some
countries are actually investing in people to
set up these fake accounts in order so you can get
certain hashtags trending and so it can appear that
people are questioning, and that generates interest. So it is something that
is very much existent, and it is a dangerous thing. Because aside from trying
to verify whether something is correct or not in terms of information, sometimes something appears
bigger than it really is, because you suddenly have
like a million tweets about something, but really, firstly, they’re not a million people, and secondly, okay, what’s
at the source of this? We have obviously our online division, which deals with just the
basic, the standard website, rather, and then also the
social media accounts, but we also have an incubation unit which looks in terms of trying to advance the latest cutting edge
technology and so forth. I don’t think anybody until now, from news channels or
even from governments, have been able to figure out a way to disseminate clearly and to ensure that when fake news is out it
doesn’t spread like wildfire. Because the easiest thing very simply, one of the interesting things actually, to show you I’m in amongst the other side, I received a video a couple of days ago from a friend of mine
claiming that a Saudi prince had committed suicide
in an airport in London, and it showed this guy
jumping off a balcony. The airport was in the U.S., the video was two weeks
before, and it was all fake. But the easiest thing, is that, you get these things, it
all looks pretty cool, you either like it or
retweet it or forward it and what’s happened, because
no one wants to verify, because if it’s entitled
in a way it becomes catchy and so forth and I think
there is a journalist lying in everybody and everybody
wants to be the person who breaks the news, right? Even if you’re working in another field, you want to be the person who said that. So I think that is something dangerous. But I guess with everything,
nothing is perfect. So there is also very, very positive sides to these digital platforms in that they are the alternative when
countries and governments try and switch off
transmission satellites, when journalists are locked up and therefore you have
these citizen journalists. A big part of it, just very quickly, would be to, also, there
is a responsibility, and I don’t mean to kind
of pass the buck a bit, but there is a
responsibility to the public to verify, so when you read something, double-check, see where it’s coming from, see if you can verify. Obviously from a journalistic perspective, we should be doing our best to ensure that we have those credible
sources and so forth. But I think people should
be reasonable enough for us to look for. – (speaking without
mic on) on social media when it comes to breaking
news stories, of course. Because that’s where the
story actually comes up first. And you have to verify, double-check, and even the pictures they send you. If there’s an earthquake
or a bombing somewhere. We have a team, we have a
big social media department at Al Jazeera that checks these pictures before we put them to air, you know. Sometimes it’ll say oh, we have the photos of that bombing or video of that bombing from Iraq that’s just happened now. But we have to be very careful. We can’t just put it up there. We have a responsibility as Jamal says to our audience, and it’s a very, sometimes, sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we have put pictures up or video up that turned out
to be from a different country or a different time,
and when that happens, you have to admit to
your mistakes, of course. It’s a very difficult balancing act, there’s no doubt about it. But I wanna talk about the social, another aspect of all this is that we increasingly have more
audience engagement now through social media. I present a show called the News Grid, which is an interactive show
where viewers have the chance to directly comment or ask questions, and I think this is a
very important thing, because a couple of years
ago, viewers, even if they had a certain comment or reaction to a story, they wouldn’t be able to
communicate it right away. And I think social media has helped us in this way to diversify
also the way we broadcast and the way we create programming. And it’s, we’re increasingly
using it on Al Jazeera. – I would just, I would actually even, I switched it off? There we go, hello? Hello?
– Now it’s on. – Testing, okay. I would actually throw that
question back to academia. And I say that because only recently, I feel like we’re still contemplating the effects of, let’s just
take Twitter, for example. One friend said to me, this is
like weaponized hate speech. Unrestrained, instant,
people seeking things to revalidate their own
opinion rather than fact. In fact I read yesterday
that as much as 70% of things that are retweeted
and liked tend to be fake. And it’s a way of people
scratching that itch and feeling good about
it and being in their own insular circle of people that
also have that worldview. And I think, frankly,
when the first amendment was put together by the framers, and the Constitution of the United States I’m talking about,
allowed for free speech, it protected anonymous speech, right? So the ability of someone who has a beef with the government but
doesn’t want to be persecuted to post a document in the town square and sign it John Doe, or
submit it into a newspaper, I don’t think the framers contemplated that someone, to borrow from Donald Trump, could be in their grandmother’s basement in Eastern Europe and make an algorithm on a super computer that could create one million such
anonymous speech vehicles. So that we would have that echo chamber that Jamal’s referring
to of, so for example, if it’s antisemitic
views, which we saw during the 2016 election, and
all these green frog faces on Twitter and all these
make America great again hashtags being reinforced from outside, so everyone thought that
this speech is cool, everyone’s doing it, it’s trending, and look how many, and these
have, they have American names. It says Joe Smith from Oklahoma and he’s got the flag and he’s got his gun and his pickup truck. It’s all bots created off Google. And so people that aren’t as informed sit at home and say, okay, all right, these views are coming back into vogue, they, like pigeons
following a bread crumb, they follow a trail and they
continue in this direction, unquestioning the origins of the source. I feel like anonymous
speech has to be rethought. And I’m not, ya know, not
to attack our Constitution, but it wasn’t envisaged back then that a Cray computer in some
room could make you a million bots that could
all of a sudden deploy and alter a debate on short notice, no one knows the origin or the control of that propaganda being put out, and yeah, it’s normalized. We know that one of the intentions, according to Mueller’s
indictment of the 13 people from Russia, St.
Petersburg, who he alleges were interfering in the 2016 election, that they were trying to turn
Americans against blacks, Americans against Muslims, and to say that if Hillary Clinton won, the security of the United States would be imperiled. I’m not a Hillary Clinton fan, but I feel, ya know, I feel offended at this intrusion and no doubt the United States has tried to do this to other people, and probably, they got outwitted at their own game. But I think that there
should be a discussion, a set of norms. I know that Europe has looked at, well forget Europe, even
in the United States, there has been cases to prosecute people for impersonating people on Twitter. New laws are being contemplated. Some sort of regulation. Europe, I think Italy was
looking at passing a law to outlaw bots, the creation of bots. And so I think we need to go
back to the drawing board. We’re, as journalists,
in the middle of it, and as Jamal said, we’re bombarded by it. It’s a necessary evil we all use, we all rely on, but it’s deeply flawed, and it’s deeply troubling
the way it is now in my view. – Well, thank you, that
was a very powerful moment I think.
(audience applause) Well certainly, Al Jazeera has done a lot in transforming the media landscape in this part of the world and at large, and as an academic we see Al Jazeera the biggest soft power for Qatar. That’s one of the points
that I would like to make. And thank you for a wonderful panel. For invigorating discussion,
for a wonderful dialogue with our guests tonight. And I would like to think
Georgetown for inviting me again. And I think our conversation is going to continue in the room next door. – Thank you. (audience applause)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *