The following was the last published piece – a commentary article – published on Wednesday, 11th August 2004, by my late Dad رحمه الله, ten years ago today.
A FEAR OF FREE SPEECH
THE LATE MAHER ABDULLAH
FOUNDER AND PREVIOUS HEAD OF ALJAZEERA’S INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
A few years back, a major Arab government took “mild” action against AlJazeera: the then information minister issued a decree preventing our correspondent from attending official functions.
When we contacted that government for an explanation, the minister cited a report we had aired, which had looked critically at a huge irrigation project that had flopped.
We pointed out to the minister that the report was not of our own production and that it had been aired by a major foreign news channel a couple of weeks beforehand.
We also noted that his government had not complained to the foreign channel. The minister replied that the other channel was broadcasting in English and many of his countrymen did not watch it.
But AlJazeera “spoke” the same language and had a wide audience. As such, the report was seen as an embarrassment.
Nothing was said about the report’s accuracy or content, but the local media was instructed to launch an onslaught on AlJazeera nonetheless – the main theme being that we were undermining the security of the state.
We have grown used to harassment from autocratic regimes in the Middle East, but since the Afghanistan war in 2001, we have had more harassment from US officials than from their Arab counterparts.
“Consistently lying” and “working in concert with terrorists” were some of the terms used by US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld to describe us.
Yet he came second best to his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who seemed to blame all the failures of his administration on AlJazeera.
The closest they came to an explanation for these attacks was a compilation by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq of what it called a “list of false and misleading reports”. The list was never made public because it contained “sensitive information”.
So, from where is the government of US-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi going to get its inspiration when it comes to dealing with the media?
Taking the decision to close-down the offices of AlJazeera in Baghdad resonates well with the Arab official approach to the press, whereas the statements made by his officials to justify the decision resonate soundly with the US official approach that AlJazeera has come to expect.
But there might be more to the latest Iraqi decision than is apparent.
Two weeks before the decision to close down AlJazeera’s offices, Ibrahim al-Janabi, the Allawi-appointed head of the commission that recommended these measures, cited the reporting of a sermon by the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in which he described Allawi as an “American tail”.
There is also possibly the more sinister motive of imposing a blockade on news reports while al-Sadr and the city of Najaf are “dealt with”.
This might be a new venture for the interim government of Allawi, but it is not a new experience for AlJazeera. Our offices have been closed in many an Arab capital before.
The wording of the justification of such action may differ from one country to another, but the gist is always the same: undermining state security (normally code for criticising the leadership), providing a platform for terrorists (usually means political opposition) and insulting the people of the country (normally means criticising a failed policy).
In the face of these policies, AlJazeera has always had a simple approach: we are willing to stand corrected when shown that we were wrong, and to offer equal airtime for the official version of events.
The rules that govern the way we report news have recently been put into a code of ethics and conduct, as we embark on a huge expansion of operations.
Plans are under way for a number of specialised channels to add to the existing news and sports channels. These will include a documentaries and children’s channel as well as an English-language news channel.
While we were disappointed by the Iraqi decision to close our Baghdad bureau, we have been comforted by the support we have received from media and free speech organisations all over the world.
The struggle for the truth is one with which the majority of media organisations empathise, and they appreciate that AlJazeera’s plight today could easily become theirs in the future.
The interim government of Iraq would do well to reconsider its unwise and unjustified decision. Should AlJazeera’s reporting go against its desires, then it ought to heed the advice of a US general who helped appoint it in the first place, ‘just change the channel.’ One would have hoped that he was referring to the remote control rather than the physical removal of the channel and its premises.
Blaming the messenger for bad news might help in hiding these from the public for a while. But it doesn’t make them go away.