Reporter’s Notebook: Witnessing history first hand

Al Jazeera celebrates its 25th anniversary on November 1. To mark the occasion, we have asked many of our senior correspondents to reflect on what it means to them to work for the Arab world’s first independent media network.

AJE news room
James Bays began his career at Al Jazeera English in 2005, as its studios were under construction [File: Reuters]

August 2005. My career at Al Jazeera did not start in a TV studio, but instead in the bedroom of a sprawling Doha villa, converted into a temporary office. It was roughly a 10-minute walk to the main Al Jazeera compound, where construction of the Al Jazeera English studios had just gotten under way.

The decision to join Al Jazeera had not been a difficult one. A new channel with a blank canvas, but building on the bold and pioneering work of Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel.

They were heady days: forming a new news channel, recruiting a global team, creating a new news-gathering system and finding a voice and tone for Al Jazeera in English.

Our management team had identified the best places to locate a network of bureaus to cover news across the globe. It soon occurred to me, however, that they had made one important omission.

When the initial planning for the new network was completed in 2004, Afghanistan no longer seemed to be much of a story. Hamid Karzai had won the presidency a year earlier in a largely peaceful election. But by the middle of 2005, it was becoming clear that the Taliban was once again making inroads in the south of the country.

I persuaded the bosses to let me take a team to do a test trip. We came back with exclusive stories and compelling footage – persuading the management to commit to a permanent bureau for Al Jazeera English in Kabul. I was asked to set it up and recruit the team, some of whom still work for Al Jazeera.

We embedded with US and NATO forces, as well as with the Taliban – trying to cover the real picture around the country, not just the goings-on in Kabul.

I remember Western military commanders gently scolding me at the time. They felt that our coverage was too negative. The Taliban would soon be defeated, I was told, and we were overemphasising the scale of corruption by government officials.

My time at Al Jazeera has taken me to conflict zones around the world. Correspondents working for the channel get the chance to cover stories up close and in-depth. The year 2011 was particularly spectacular and tragic. I travelled to Tunisia, and then Bahrain. I arrived in Egypt two days before Hosni Mubarak was toppled.

From March, I spent most of the rest of the year in Libya. We travelled with rebel fighters as they captured areas in the east of the country. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces pushed back, and from the rooftop of our hotel in Benghazi, we could see his tanks approaching the edge of the city.

It was a tense night – but it was also a busy one for diplomacy on the other side of the world. The United Nations Security Council – later to become the centre of my reporting beat – had authorised Resolution 1973 while we slept, and French Mirage jets pulverised the entire column of regime tanks.

Later in the year, I travelled from village to village as rebel forces took control of the Nafusa Mountains. I returned to Tripoli just after Gaddafi fled. I was there on the day the dictator was finally captured and brutally killed, and queued with Libyans in Misrata as they inspected his body.

In Libya – as in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – I experienced acts of kindness and hospitality from people with so little to give. So many people yearning for freedom and a better life – goals that for most are tragically still elusive.

The world of media has changed radically since 2005. The internet means reporters are no longer tethered to satellite trucks on hotel rooftops. Social media and smartphones allow instant communication. When I first started out as a reporter in the 1980s, filing a story meant booking an international phone line hours in advance. Now, the news cycle is nonstop. But of course, this is dangerous too.

I hate the phrase “fake news”. News is produced by trained reporters, backed by experienced editors in reputable news organisations. What is fake is not news. That is why the need for impartial, professional reporters is greater than ever.

In this job, I have met presidents, prime ministers, generals, campaigners, protesters, rioters, and people from all walks of life. I have been shot at, arrested, taken hostage and have contracted serious illnesses. But I have also witnessed history first hand. There cannot be many better jobs.

Source: Al Jazeera