The price of truth: Al Jazeera marks 25 dangerous years

Killings, threats, and full-on aerial attacks on its bureaus; Al Jazeera has endured a staggering amount of tragedy and obstacles during its 25 years of covering the human story.

An Israeli missile strike destroyed Al-Jalaa Tower, which housed Al Jazeera's office in Gaza, and several other offices and residential apartments [Ashraf Abu Amrah/Reuters]

Doha, Qatar – As Al Jazeera marks its 25th anniversary on November 1, the history of the media network is beset with the inherent risks, obstacles and outright attacks it had to weather by reporting from the world’s most strife-stricken places.

The dangers faced by Al Jazeera included multiple threats to shut down its bureaus and the killing or detention of its front-line journalists. They ranged from phone hacking and network-wide cyber-attacks, to state-sanctioned satellite scrambling and outright aerial bombardments on bureau locations.

First independent news channel in the Arab world

Al Jazeera launched its first TV broadcast as an Arabic-language satellite news channel in 1996 from Doha, Qatar — dedicated to providing comprehensive news and live debate as the first independent news channel in the Arab world.

Since then, it has grown into the Al Jazeera Media Network, with several outlets in multiple languages. A private corporation for public benefit, the network now includes television channels, websites and other digital platforms.

Al Jazeera has led international coverage of some of the world’s most pivotal events — the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, for example — while reporting on crucial ongoing stories, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Afghanistan.

In the midst of these endeavours, Al Jazeera has been singled out by governments the world over who have tried to muzzle its reporting. In 2005, it was alleged that then-US President George W Bush mulled bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, in a meeting with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But it was mostly “Arab oppressive governments” that over the years have tried their level best to shutter Al Jazeera, said Sherif Mansour, programme director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in the Middle East and North Africa.

“During the Arab uprisings, and specifically since 2015, multiple countries blamed the channels for showing opposition voices in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and others where there was almost no other critical local or regional coverage,” Mansour told Al Jazeera.

“Accusing Al Jazeera of supporting terrorism, spreading false information, and insults has been the hallmarks of those censorship regimes, which also used it against other channels and independent individual journalists,” he said.

Press freedom advocates and media watchdogs, including Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, however, have condemned the various attacks on the network.

Raided and shuttered bureaus

Al Jazeera’s bureaus around the world have often borne the brunt of the pressure the network faced over the past 25 years — having been shuttered, hacked, raided, fired upon and even bombed from the air by authorities in various countries.

Most recently, at least 20 plain-clothed police officers stormed Al Jazeera’s bureau in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, ordering all the staff to leave. This came in the wake of President Kais Saied’s move to remove the government in July.

Reporters said they were suddenly ordered by security forces to turn off their phones and were not allowed back into the building to retrieve their personal belongings.

Last year, in Malaysia, police raided Al Jazeera offices and seized two computers as part of an investigation into a documentary, a move Al Jazeera called a “troubling escalation” in a government crackdown on press freedom.

Other countries that have shut down Al Jazeera offices include Sudan and Yemen.

“We have documented many cases where the channel offices were forcibly shut down, had their journalist detained, expelled, and even killed,” Mansour said.

Calls to close down the network as a whole also came when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism.

At the time, the quartet issued a list of 13 demands to be met for the embargo to end — including shuttering Al Jazeera, which dragged the network into the regional crisis that lasted for more than three years.

Attacks on journalists

But nothing has hit the network as hard as losing its own people in its quest of telling truth to power. Since its inception, 11 Al Jazeera employees have paid the ultimate price in the line of duty.

In April 2003, correspondent Tariq Ayoub died as a result of severe injuries he sustained when a US fighter jet bombarded Al Jazeera’s bureau in the al-Karkh neighbourhood in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. A US state department spokesman at the time said the attack was a mistake.

In 2004, Rasheed Wali was shot dead when covering clashes between US troops and Jaish al-Mahdi fighters in Karbala, Iraq.

Then, in 2011, cameraman Ali Hassan Al Jaber was killed in an ambush near rebel-held Benghazi in eastern Libya. Ali was returning to Benghazi from a nearby town when unknown fighters opened fire on the car he and his colleagues were travelling in.

In January 2013, correspondent Mohamed al-Massalma was shot dead by sniper fire while reporting from Syria’s Deraa. A year later, again in Syria, Hussein Abbas was killed when he was on his way back from covering the fighting on the outskirts of Idlib.

In September 2014, digital reporter Mohamed Abduljaleel al-Qasim was killed in an ambush by unidentified assailants in Idlib. Later that year, Mahran al-Deery, also a digital correspondent, was killed in a car accident when he was on his way to report on fighting between opposition factions and Syrian government forces in Sheikh Miskeen on the outskirts of Deraa. The incident occurred when he switched off his car’s headlights to avoid detection.

A year later, in June, photographer Mohamed al-Asfar was also killed in Deraa while covering fighting between opposition fighters and government troops in the Manshiya neighbourhood of the city. Also in 2015, photographer Zakariya Ibrahim died of shrapnel injuries he sustained while reporting on a Syrian government bombardment in the province of Homs.

Tragedy struck again in Syria in 2016 when Al Jazeera Mubasher correspondent Ibrahim al-Omar was killed in a Russian air raid on the town of Tamanyeen in Idlib province. Three weeks later, reporter Mubarak al-Ebadi was killed when was covering clashes in Jawf governorate in northern Yemen.

In honour of the fallen journalists, Al Jazeera established a monument at its headquarters in Doha; a steel tree sculpture with leaves that carry the names of the reporters. The monument serves as a constant reminder of the high price that has been paid in the pursuit of facts.

Al Jazeera Tree monument - Since its inception, nine Al Jazeera employees have paid the ultimate price in the line of duty. Al Jazeera’s steel tree monument carries the names of the journalists who have paid the ultimate price in the line of duty [Al Jazeera]

In other instances, journalists working for Al Jazeera have been wounded in the field, while many more have been intimidated, banned, forced to leave their country, prosecuted, and in some cases jailed for years.

Sami al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman, was detained in the infamous US-run Guantanamo Bay facility for six years.

He was transferred there one month after Pakistani security forces arrested him at the Afghan-Pakistan border in December 2001. No charges have ever been brought against the Sudanese national.

He was regularly tortured and launched a hunger strike to protest against his detention in 2007.

“Sami al-Haj should never have been held so long. US authorities never proved that he had been involved in any kind of criminal activity,” said Reporters Without Borders at the time of his release. “This case is yet another example of the injustice reigning in Guantanamo.”

In a more recent case, Egyptian journalist Mahmoud Hussein was released from prison in Cairo in February after being held for more than four years without formal charges or trial. The 53-year-old had been held under preventive detention since December 2016 while visiting his family for a holiday.

He was accused of “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos” — allegations that Al Jazeera rejected.

During his time in jail, Hussein suffered physically and psychologically. He was held for long periods in solitary confinement and denied proper medical treatment when he broke his arm in 2017.

Over the past few years, several other Al Jazeera employees were arrested and jailed by Egyptian authorities, raising concerns over press freedom in the country.

“It is no coincidence these attacks happen mostly in one of the most censored regions in the world,” Mansour said, adding that Egypt is one of the “worst jailers in the world”.

Bombed offices

On May 15, an Israeli air raid destroyed a tower in the besieged Gaza Strip that also housed the media offices of Al Jazeera, The Associated Press and other news outlets during an 11-day Israeli assault on the coastal enclave.

An aerial view of Al-Jalaa Tower in Gaza City that was levelled by an Israeli air raid [File: Mahmud Hams/AFP]

The owner of the 11-storey al-Jalaa building, which also housed residential apartments, had less than an hour to inform everyone inside to evacuate.

Al Jazeera Gaza Bureau Chief Wael al-Dahdouh said that moments before the tower crashed to the ground, Al Jazeera crew was on-air nearby.

“We quickly became the news that we were covering … We saw it collapse with the rest of the world, right before our eyes,” al-Dahdouh recalled.

Despite these “sad moments”, Al Jazeera’s image and voice “remained loud and intact”, he said.

Al-Dahdouh noted there has not been an “official reason” from the Israeli side as to why they attacked and destroyed the structure.

“Choosing to destroy the building, which housed press offices and civilian homes, during such a crucial time … means Israel may have been angered from the amount of coverage by Al Jazeera,” al-Dahdouh added.

The attack in Gaza was not the first time an Al Jazeera office was bombed.

In 2002, a US missile destroyed Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Fortunately, no journalists were in the office at the time. US officials said they believed the target was a “terrorist” site and did not know it was an office of Al Jazeera’s.

Telling the human story

Despite all these hardships, Al Jazeera continues to tell the stories that need telling.

“Journalists should not be subjected to arbitrary killing and detention, enforced disappearances, unfair trials, and psychological and physical torture; because of their profession and moral duty to uncover and impart truth,” said Mostefa Souag, acting Director General of Al Jazeera Media Network.

“Information today, is like water and air for human beings – it’s illegal to be forbidden. Journalism is not a crime!” he added.

Al Jazeera marks its 25th anniversary on November 1, while remembering the wounded and deceased colleagues, in particular, in the pursuit of shining a light on the issues that matter most from around the world.

It is a path full of risks and obstacles, but a journey we are determined to continue — to always tell the human story.

Source: Al Jazeera

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