Opening Address: Wadah Khanfar

The Director General of the Al Jazeera Network welcomes guests to the third Al Jazeera Forum in Doha.


Wadah Khanfar

The opening address by Wadah Khanfar, Director General of the Al Jazeera Network:

Our region, the Middle East, has become home to some of the most significant hotspots and conflicts in the world. 

The complexity of the situation is a result of international and regional politics compounded by the social and cultural dynamics of societies in the region.

To unravel this complexity, we have to “stop and stare” – we need a moment of deep contemplation and reflection.

Since we, the media community, are entrusted with the mission of bearing witness to history, it is incumbent upon us to understand the reality we are supposed to deal with, to fathom its idiosyncrasies, to explain the hidden dimensions behind the news and to decode its symbols.

It is also part of our responsibility to rethink our trajectories, and to re-examine our methods of dealing with this reality and of reporting its events.

We often hear that journalism is the fourth estate. If we concede that this is true, then the type of power it represents is a soft power, often coerced by other powers that don’t refrain from infringing upon its space and repeatedly trying to use it to serve their political and economic interests.

It’s obvious for us here that one of the consequences of September 11th is the serious emerging challenges that face the media in their attempt to cover conflicts and wars, especially those relating to the Middle-East, the War against terrorism, and the relation between Islam and the West. 

There is also the growing worldwide debate concerning the ethics of journalism, the partiality of journalists and the extent of their commitment to, or disengagement from, the political agendas of their countries and governments. 

The last few years have witnessed a dangerous setback concerning the freedom of journalism in many countries across the world.

A number of laws were passed to target free speech – hundreds of journalists lost their lives while others were abducted and abused.

This is why, on my behalf and on behalf of my colleagues all over the world, I ask for the immediate release of all imprisoned and abducted journalists and media people: Sami Al-Haj, Tayseer Alouni, BBC’s correspondent in Gaza, Alan Johnston, and many others.

In addition to these challenges, there are some dangerous ones that face our profession from the inside.

We are, dear colleagues, badly in need of a frank and sincere overhaul of the current state of affairs of our profession.  If not then we risk losing the credibility of journalism and the genuine significance of free words. 

One of our urgent priorities is to seek methods to outgrow the superficiality of the “media of immediacy” that is characterized by aspects of carelessness, an inclination to reductionism, forgone conclusions, unfair biases, and an incessant quest for insignificant out-of-context information.

We need a “media of depth”, capable of catering for man’s craving for liberty, endowed with the ability and the skill to consider the collective mind of peoples and regions, and to interpret the news in a wider cultural, sociological and historical context of the events and experiences being dealt with.

This requires a physical presence in zones of conflict and an ability to dive below the surface of news into the roots of social and cultural identities.

We have to learn to go beyond the abstract types of analyses and high-brow attitudes that lead to nothing but forgone conclusions.

The role of media does not at all consist in collecting information to reaffirm preconceived notions. Hence, we need to go beyond merely reporting information divorced from its social, cultural, and human context.   

No doubt, modern technology has provided us with extraordinary means of live coverage.  It is now possible to render events as they happen.

Yet, however sophisticated the means, forms and shapes of modern technology, and the overwhelming flood of details and of information ensuing from them, they can be detrimental to our critical mind, our capacity of analysis, our skills of understanding, and our wisdom and common-sense.

Indeed, most media institutions have become prone to set more value on the form than on the content. Accordingly, our mediascape is filled with more and more glistening images that betray a growing disinterest in the news and its analysis.

In dealing with the coverage of the Middle East, we cannot escape dealing with the dialectics of media and politics.

Despite the number of inquisitive media people probing into the daily decisions, attitudes, and deeds of governments, only a few of them concentrate on the big picture of power and influence.

While hunting for more news and information, they become progressively dependant on official sources, and hence–consciously or unconsciously—they become subservient to specific political agendas.

We have witnessed during the last decade how politicians have succeeded in exploiting journalists in the implementation of their own agendas.

This is how an emerging media culture consisting of “deliberate leakage” of information has flourished.

Ever since then, images have invaded the screens as weapons of disinformation and disorientation.

On top of it all, there is what is known since the war on Iraq as “embedded journalism”, a new form of journalism that confounds the shooting of the camera with the shooting of the gun – hence they start sharing the same perspective, proceeding from the same vantage point.

With the era of embedded journalism, the other side has no arena to give voice to their own reality. Thus the audience has an incomplete picture getting only a one-sided reading.

All news agencies have had the opportunity to show images of warplanes as they take off from warships and the flick of buttons as bombs are dropped with the same feeling as watching a video-game.

Yet, seldom have we had the occasion to witness the destruction of bombed targets or to hear the crying of the human beings impacted by those bombs.

The onset of detailed news has yielded short memories, both for journalists and viewers. Today, it has become easy for politicians to recant their words or disengage from their commitments without running the risk of being held accountable.

One wonders if it is not a mere exaggerated compliment to say that the media constitute the fourth estate.

In this day and age isn’t it perhaps more accurate to say that media institutions have become heavily dependent on political and economic powers? 

When the media are anxious for their own safety; when they uncritically believe what comes out of politicians’ mouths; when they find no harm in propagating further clichés about other nations and peoples without investing in enough in-depth analysis; when they focus on meetings, conferences and gatherings that float on the surface; when they ignore the social, cultural and historical interactions taking place underneath; when they are biased towards the centre and neglectful of the periphery; when they celebrate influential political stars and create distance between them and people; then they become a dissociated elite.

This is how the media loses its credibility, and why viewers have started searching for more balanced and independent alternatives.

On the contrary, when media put the human being at the centre of the editorial policy defending the right of the public to know and their freedom of expression; when they consider the social, cultural, and historical dynamics of societies; when they dive below the surface of headlines opening themselves to human diversity; only then can they be qualified to testify to history; only then will the media have the necessary assets to create bridges of understanding and dialogue.

But there is a recognition by more and more journalists of the dilemmas which currently face our profession and there have always been journalists who have dedicated their lives to free and fair media that deal with man as a dignified creature and not as an abstract news substance.

Our forum provides us with a great opportunity to discuss these issues and to launch a serious dialogue about the fundamental role of our profession.

Dear guests, I thank you and welcome you to our Forum.