The Al Jazeera spirit

Wadah Khanfar, the network director-general, reflects on a decade of ground-breaking journalism and the values that continue to inform Al Jazeera’s work as it expands into the future.

The Moroccan city Assila was the first place I visited immediately after the end of the war on Lebanon. It is a small city basking on the Atlantic shore in the farthest west of the Maghreb; its markets, streets and beautiful buildings convey to the visitor the sense of being in the Andalusian era, lulled into relaxation by the waves of the sea and the mellifluous sounds of bygone Andalusian songs.

Life in this ancient city hints at anything but the concerns of politics and the concomitant attachment to news, headlines, and the gruelling coverage of the war. Yet, during my stay in Assila – away from the rest of the world – I was amazed to see how attached people were to Al Jazeera. I was surprised that the channel, its programmes, presenters and the whole body of its journalists had become part of people’s daily lives occupying a privileged status in their hearts and minds.

Assila is not an exception. Wherever you go in the Arab world, you discover that Al Jazeera is present in the hearts and minds of people – its presence has prevailed even beyond the Arab region. In less than 10 years, it has become par excellence a potent symbol epitomising freedom of the media, swerving with its audiences through the roaring sea of politics, helping them understand the fields of battles surrounding them, and opening for them a genuine cultural, political and social space.

Yet, Al Jazeera is far from pleasing politicians and decision-makers in the Arab world, which explains the series of innuendos to which the channel has been subjected. At times, it is portrayed as being a “product of Zionism”, an “American conspiracy”, “the voice of terrorism”, “Saddam’s Baath ally”. It is even sometimes suggested that Al Jazeera “conspires to tearing apart the Arab ranks”.

Internationally, Al Jazeera has been attacked by certain figures in the American administration and some representatives of Western governments. For some of them, Al Jazeera is “vicious”, “inaccurate and inexcusable”, and “outrageous nonsense” that incites violence. No wonder then that Al Jazeera’s offices in both Kabul and Baghdad were bombed and that some of its correspondents were either killed or jailed.

No other media channel has triggered the same amount of debate and excited researchers’ scrutiny as Al Jazeera has done during the last decade. A considerable number of writers and researchers devoted themselves to study the Al Jazeera phenomenon in depth, coming to a range of conclusions from different academic, cultural and political backgrounds. These debates have contributed to strengthening the ties that bind Al Jazeera to its viewers. The channel has now become of critical importance for understanding and interacting with the realities of the Arab world.

Al Jazeera’s tenth anniversary is a significant occasion for reflection and contemplating the elements that constitute the Al Jazeera spirit. I deliberately use the word “spirit” to differentiate it from other terms commonly used in similar circumstances, such as method, system, style, etc. By “spirit” I mean something beyond methods; it is rather a “philosophy” of work, yet somewhat livelier than a philosophy in the sense that it takes into consideration the quintessence of experience and the values of work and its higher objectives.

During the first years following its launch, Al Jazeera did not have the time to theorise about its methods and experience as it was engrossed by sheer hard labour. It concentrated – while on the field and on the screen – without lending its ears to the questioning, critiques and praise that accompanied its trajectory. Al Jazeera was bent on practice rather than theory and discourses.

With Al Jazeera becoming a global phenomenon at the beginning of the war on Afghanistan in 2001, and a rising controversy over its identity, the channel found itself compelled to designate a spokesman to answer the endless stream of questions emanating from journalists and to guide groups of media, researchers, and politicians visiting the channel.

The rising intensity of the conflict in the region, and Al Jazeera’s exceptional coverage of the American war on Iraq catalysed the debate over media policies and the way that the means of communication dealt with new kinds of war and conflict coverage. Numerous questions were raised about media ethics, the images of civilian victims, prisoners of war, hostages, and about the professional relevance of broadcasting sequences from al-Qaeda tapes. On these issues there have been a considerable number of books and articles published, as well as a significant number of symposia and conferences. Al Jazeera has been at the centre of these debates, praised on some occasions and disparaged at others for its editorial line and policy.

During its international media summit, organised in the summer of 2004, Al Jazeera published a document stating its mission and vision and its code of ethics – a clear constitution that would provide guidance for its editorial policies. Along these lines, Al Jazeera also published a code of conduct, setting the practical rules of journalism to serve as reference for all its employees in their daily work.  

However, concerning the channel’s editorial line we still face fundamental questions on a continuous basis: What makes Al Jazeera what it is, and what are the features that distinguish it from the rest of Arab and international media organisations? What explains the tremendous amount of attention given to Al Jazeera? How did Al Jazeera succeed in winning the hearts and minds of millions of viewers around the world?

What is the story behind these questions? 

A closer look at the experience of the founding fathers of Al Jazeera – especially at their goals, expectations and hopes – reveals to us key elements of the answer. A look at the newsroom and the extended web of its exceptional variety of correspondents provides another part of the answer. There is no doubt that another significant part of the answer lies with the viewers of Al Jazeera who proved to be of exceptional alertness of mind. And last, in order to fathom the “spirit” of Al Jazeera, it is fundamentally important to have recourse to both the social, political, and cultural reality within the Arab world – in an attempt to understand firstly the developments characterising this reality — as well as the international impact of these realities in the Arab world.

The most important constituent of the spirit of Al Jazeera is its commitment to journalistic integrity, the core values of journalism, and its long-established traditions. The founders of Al Jazeera were conscious of the urgent need to create intelligent approaches to harmonise between the impulse to inform and the drive to educate. By reporting new events, they intended to inform people about things as they happened in conformity with the established rules of the profession. 

This means distinguishing between reporting the events in their raw form on the one hand and commenting and analysing them on the other, all the while ensuring that equal opportunity of expression is given to all opposing views and parties.

Concerning its mission to educate, Al Jazeera contributes to increasing the viewers’ awareness about new events by putting these events in their social, political and historical context. In brief, one major priority of the channel in this sense is to respect and promote the human right to knowledge. The dialogues and analyses offered by the channel contribute to the building of a conscious, free and responsible public opinion.

The second constituent of Al Jazeera’s spirit lies in the fact that, because of its commitment to the values of truth, balance and journalistic integrity, it considers the pursuit of man’s humanity as the kernel of its philosophy of information. Indeed, this is what drives Al Jazeera to rethink all kinds of established powers, be they political, financial, ideological, military, etc. We call to question all modes of power that intend to dehumanise man. Power, in its broader sense, which extends beyond the realm of politics, is by definition coercive and self-centred. It proceeds to mark a historical line, then it excludes evolution outside this line as being synonymous for barbarism, chaos, backwardness, and life outside history. This kind of power typifies the sort of hegemony which blinds man to that which it does not itself see and deafens him to that which it does not itself hear – whatever is under its limelight is supposed to exist and those things that are not under this light are non-existent. 

Unfortunately, some intellectual and media elites in the Arab world identify themselves with this power and look at the Arab people through these prisms of power. They do not refrain from classifying their peoples as “disordered, noisy, stupid masses and members of futile herds”. There is a plethora of adjectives and epithets in our Arabic lexicon to label the people, adjectives and epithets that testify to a deeply ingrained culture of coercion and socio-political hegemony. If people do not consent to follow what is good for them, they should be coerced into doing so. This unhealthy relation between the elite and the common man has resulted on one hand in a strong resistance on the part of the street, and on the other a persistent pessimism among the political and intellectual elites of ever reaching them – there is a wide gap separating them.

From the very outset, Al Jazeera found itself confronted with sharp dualities: official versus non-official, centre versus periphery, mainstream versus margins. It was necessary for Al Jazeera to feel its way through this reality, reaching out to both power and those who remain outside its realm. How can we use the camera to shed light on all that is darkened by power? How can the screen accommodate and offer a space for action at both the centre and the periphery, a periphery that has long been denied recognition as part of reality by the structure of existing power? This is vital, especially since anthropological studies have proven that real history is always produced in the periphery and that the seeds of tomorrow spawn on the margins. It is equally true that the world at the periphery is uniquely equipped with cultural dynamics that endow it with the necessary elements to resist the authority of power and the power of authority.

While the official Arab media considered the viewer as a mere receiver of official political propaganda, Al Jazeera chose from the beginning to be the “voice of the voiceless”, thus curbing the deeply rooted impulse of the power towards control and dominance of the media. The channel built a strong bastion to separate its newsroom from the influence of the lobbies of palaces. It deferred from its headlines news relating to official and royal ceremonies and receptions. It freed its language from the verbosity of panegyrics and laudations. Only by doing so, Al Jazeera has succeeded in piercing through the veils of generalisation and concealment directly into the heart of political matters and the sources of information. In such a working environment, our journalism became – despite all the accompanying difficulties – a pleasing mission.

Al Jazeera was the first to assign a privileged status to the viewer and to put him at the centre of its editorial preoccupations. During the planning process for our programmes we always consider the presence of the viewer. We feel his pulse, scrutinise his perception, and respect his priorities while deciding on our headlines and the themes of our programmes. We constantly communicate with him, read his commentaries, respect his ideas, and profit from his suggestions. This does not mean, however, that we are departing from our own skills, know-how, and proficiency. Far from it, we still preserve the balance of our screen, starting always from our first brandished motto: “The Opinion and the Other Opinion”.

The third constituent of Al Jazeera spirit dwells in our respect for the collective mind of our viewers. We believe that the Arab world has an incredibly rich tradition and a deep memory which endows Arab societies with a certain sharpness of wit. This is probably the reason behind the strong attachment of these societies to their roots and central causes and their acute political awareness.

Respecting the collective mind of our viewers never absolved us from our critical role or prevented us from rethinking and re-examining behaviours and ideas. Indeed, Al Jazeera has never refrained from addressing the most sensitive social, religious, or cultural issues. Yet, when dealing with such issues, we always insist that our approach stems from within the framework of the collective consciousness; it is not our intention to undermine this framework or neglect its elements.

It is also true that respecting the collective mind of the viewers does not mean shrinking back towards a regional, nationalistic or religious system of reference. Al Jazeera is fully aware of the necessity to increase the audience’s awareness of the world around us. Its news and programmes aim to reflect a world view that tends to be biased only towards the human right to balanced and truthful knowledge. Al Jazeera was right to identify itself as “an Arab-based media service with a global orientation”. This description reflects a forward-looking vision that shows a sharp awareness of the present and a deep understanding of its own mission.

In our editorial meetings, we are fully aware of the necessity to avoid falling on the one hand into the trap of populism (pandering for the feelings of the street by haranguing and manipulating emotions without distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between priorities and non-priorities), and on the other hand into the trap of elitism (considering one’s self above the common people which justifies their despising and contempt, and gives one the sense of being destined to dictate rather than dialogue).

To find a midway between populism and elitism is no easy task. It demands an affability of mind and a certain maturity; it requires a continual close examination and monitoring of our terminology, texts and programmes. Controlling the quality of the channel’s production is entrusted to a selected group of qualified journalists.

Diversity is another fundamental constituent of the Al Jazeera spirit. We realised in the channel that the Arab world is characterised by diversity and multiplicity, and that it is of paramount importance to not to be biased to one cultural, ethnic, or religious identity to the detriment of another. Our newsroom is a living and wonderful example testifying to the diversity of the Arab world. What unites our people coming from different backgrounds are the common features of their profession, and the unifying spirit of Al Jazeera’s mission. Our screen itself is a strong, potent symbol for diversity. Viewers coming from different horizons identify themselves with the channel and feel their presence on the screen. The channel has freed itself from the logic of exclusion so deeply embedded in the consciousness of authoritarian media.

The spirit of Al Jazeera helped free journalists from their shackles. Away from the vicissitudes of censure, a new generation of journalists from the Arab world are at present driven by their sense of freedom and duty to present exceptional models of journalism that are of international standards. They are now as far from the platitudes related to official meetings and communiques as they are close to the methods, truths, and strategies relating to in-depth journalism.

This has been Al Jazeera to the present. The future seems to be laden with more opportunities as well as challenges. Al Jazeera today is an international media organisation. The launching of the English channel offers the chance to reach out to a new audience that is used to hearing the name of “Al Jazeera” without being able to watch it or to understand its language. This openness to the global community will certainly enrich Al Jazeera’s experience. The newsroom of the channel has now become a meeting place for more than 40 nationalities. Its offices are spread everywhere in the world and its correspondents and journalists are located in the farthest confines of the earth. The new channel has a pledge to carry our media model imbued with the spirit of Al Jazeera and based in the South, to the entire world. It is truly becoming the voice of the voiceless worldwide.

I am completely aware of the full extent of challenges that will undoubtedly face Al Jazeera in its global context. The diversity of cultures, languages, and professional systems of reference necessitate continuous hard and onerous work. For it is not easy to build a consensus on the spirit of Al Jazeera. However, experience has taught me that what unifies journalists committed to their mission of journalism is much more significant than what divides them, provided they circumvent the power of money and politics.

To conclude, I think that success is a double-edged sword. Just as it can urge us to greater perseverance and further development, it can also cater for self-infatuation and enhance the spirit of retreat. I am confident that Al Jazeera will not fall prey to its success. It will reflect on its past experience, look to the future, and while it will benefit from its past it will refuse to stand in its shadow.

Wadah Khanfar is the director-general of the Al Jazeera Network. He has covered the world’s hotspots and significant political zones for the Al Jazeera channel since 1997. In 2001/2002 he was a war correspondent in Afghanistan and during the war in Iraq he reported from Kurdish-controlled territory in the North. Later, he was appointed as the chief of the Baghdad bureau and was successful in re-establishing the bureau in the wake of Iraq’s new political landscape. He became managing director of the Al Jazeera channel in 2003.

Source: Al Jazeera