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Ali Hashem: Al Jazeera gave voice to dreams of the Arab world but has lost its credibility

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We’re continuing our discussion with Ali Hashem. He was a correspondent in the Middle East for Arabic Al Jazeera. And he joins us again from Beirut. Thanks for joining us, Ali.


JAY: And I urge you to watch part one and part two of the interviews, ’cause we’re just going to pick up our conversation from where we left off. So, Ali, one of the concerns you expressed after you resigned was about Al Jazeera’s coverage of Bahrain. Can you speak about that?

HASHEM: Actually, you know, everyone around the Arab world—I’d just like to say this—everyone around the Arab world, from Morocco to Oman to, you know, Syria, everyone thought that Al Jazeera is kind of holding his own dreams, you know, embracing his dreams, and, you know, is the voice of the voiceless, as they said before. But the [inaud.] is in Bahrain precisely there was a big problem, because Bahrain is a Gulf kingdom, and everyone over there—it’s like 80 percent of the people or, you know, 70 percent of the people are antigovernment. So the government represents a minority in the country [snip] where a big number of its people are really revolting against the regime.

But, you know, given that this regime is a Sunni regime and those who are doing the revolution are Shia, then it seems like they’re not allowed to have a voice on air. So the Bahraini revolution was muted by—it’s not only Al Jazeera; most of the Arab channels muted the Bahraini revolution. And it seems like, you know, people should be killed in Bahrain without having anyone asking for them, and there should be no account for those who are killing those people in Bahrain. At the same time, the revolution was [incompr.] still it’s—it is still going on on daily basis. The Saudi forces went into by Bahrain, and no one was talking about the whole issue. It was kind of, you know, external factors were going inside and things were deteriorating. What—I don’t know.

You know, there was a reason why all the Arab media channels or most of them were not covering this issue. It’s kind of a sectarian, maybe, reason. It’s—I don’t know. It’s maybe because most of the Arab media capitals are being paid in the Gulf, and this is a Gulf state, so in case a Gulf state falls, then the other Gulf states are going to fall. Maybe this is the reason. I don’t know why.

JAY: The coverage of Al Jazeera on Bahrain seemed kind of up and down. While on the whole it certainly didn’t cover Bahrain as much as it did, say, the Egyptian revolution, certainly not Libya, there was, for example, a documentary they produced about Bahrain that did win an award and did critique the suppression of the protesters. There was the odd story.


NARRATOR: People fighting for democratic rights broke the barriers of fear, only to find themselves alone and crushed. This is their story, and Al Jazeera is their witness.


So how does this work, that you get some coverage, and then you get coverage pulled down, and then you get lack of coverage? I mean, what is that dynamic?

HASHEM: Actually, the main coverage of al-Bahrain was by Al Jazeera English and not Al Jazeera Arabic. Al Jazeera English really—the guys over there made a great work, this documentary. It was really a very strong documentary documenting what’s really going on. Actually, they had several reporters, you know, who were kind of secret, doing secret reporting from Bahrain, and there they were really sacrificing their own security for the sake of their own career and their own—of really good journalism.

But the problem is the Arabic Al Jazeera wasn’t really doing that much for al-Bahrain. It was like, there is something going on in the country and we shouldn’t say anything about it. And this is really, you know, annoying, you know, to know that, you know, you are dealing with revolutions and people according to your own political agenda. So you are supporting people’s, you know, struggle in Syria. And, you know, I don’t have a problem with supporting anyone. I mean, [incompr.] covering anyone. I don’t have a problem with this issue. You know, whenever there are things going on, incidents going on, my job as a journalist is covering those issues and not, you know, supporting those issues.

But the problem is we were supporting in some places, and, you know, doing the cover over that, over the other movements in other countries. So it’s kind of—it was, as I said before, politicization of media once again. It’s because of the bilateral relations we do not support the covering what’s happening in Bahrain. Why? Because of the bad bilateral relations between Syria and Qatar now, we should go to the end in covering the Syrian stories and we should go, you know, till even sometimes some people are really right now accusing Al Jazeera of kind of staging some reports. I really can’t say anything about this issue precisely, because, you know, everyone have the right to accuse, and at the same time, Al Jazeera have the right to refuse such accusations. But, you know, it’s arriving at the point. When people accuse us of staging things, that’s really a big problem.

I just give an example of other stations who are really till this hour working from Damascus, and no one is talking to them. At the same time, from Bahrain, Al Jazeera had an access, a big access to go to Bahrain, but they didn’t send any reporter at this time. Before they might have sent twice, once someone from the general manager’s office. He’s a journalist. He was sent there, and he did some reports from Manama. It was kind of—you know, and, you know, things are being sold in this regard.

JAY: I once did a search in WikiLeaks. I searched the whole database. I had access to it, and I did a search for Al Jazeera. And it’s very interesting arc of the history there, because during the Afghan War, one of the WikiLeaks talks about how the king of Bahrain was joking with the American ambassador, saying, one of these days when you’re bombing Afghanistan, why don’t you take out the Al Jazeera office at the same time? And then they kind of did that in Baghdad, where they did attack an Al Jazeera office, and some Al Jazeera reporters were killed, they being the U.S.

But then there’s a WikiLeaks—one of the cables talks about a meeting that takes place in Washington somewhere around 2008.

Although, actually, before I go to this story, let me back up once more.

There’s also a story that just prior to the 2004 elections, when bin Laden sends his letter to the Americans, that there’s a report by CBS that—only CBS carried this report, only on their website, and I saw this nowhere else. But I later did confirm this with people who I know, that Al Jazeera sent the bin Laden tape to the White House, to the Bush White House to be reviewed, and they negotiated what could be released on the Friday, ’cause the election was the following Tuesday. So they only released certain segments of the bin Laden letter to the Americans that the White House signed off on on the Friday. On the Monday they released in text the whole bin Laden letter, but by that point it had already missed the news cycle and it was only in text, not the video. So only portions of the letter that, in my opinion, wound up helping Bush and not hurting him were released.

Then jump ahead. Then, apparently, in WikiLeaks—not apparently. I saw this myself in WikiLeaks. I believed around 2008—and on this I have to go check my notes, but I believe it’s with Hillary Clinton, there is a meeting between the leadership of Al Jazeera Arabic and the foreign minister of Qatar, and the WikiLeaks said it’s a very good meeting, and description of it is is now it’s clear now that Al Jazeera’s going to be a voice for Qatari foreign policy. And Hillary Clinton starts saying good things about Al Jazeera; something like about a year later she starts talking about Al Jazeera is a very good news source.

I mean, how much of all this comings and goings affected you as a reporter? Did you see a kind of change in orientation?

HASHEM: No, actually, to be frank, no. We didn’t touch such things, you know, because these things are really very big. It’s not our own things, you know, because in general the most thing that we can hear about is something like, do this or don’t do this, say this. But, you know, it’s not like, you know, we will know what’s really going on with the Americans, what’s going on between, you know, the Qataris and Al Jazeera directly. It’s not what we have access to. We don’t have access to such things.

Actually, even in Al Jazeera, till the end of, you know, my duties with them, they were always kind of, you know, trying to show us as reporters. You know, put aside this issue that happened in [incompr.] that I spoke about. They were trying to their best to show us as reporters, that, you know, they have really good confidence in us as journalists and they don’t have any problem with any story.

But the stories then—if you send the story, then the problem is in other places. It’s not directly with your boss. Then you just hear about other problems in other places, you know, inside the newsroom, the way they are dealing with the coverages.

So the things that you were saying, you know, I don’t know anything about them, because, actually, I don’t have access to such information. I wished I have such information so that I can say something about it.

JAY: That’s okay. So over the course of these interviews, our discussions, we’ve been very critical about Al Jazeera, and I think to be fair we better talk about the other side too, because there is another side, which, compared to most of the other media organizations in the world, the preponderance of Al Jazeera coverage is pretty good, wouldn’t you say?

HASHEM: Yeah, actually, let me say something. Al Jazeera from the year 1996 till 2011 was, maybe I can say, the Arab idol of media. Everyone was looking towards Al Jazeera. We used to—every journalist used to dream to be working with Al Jazeera. That’s something, you know, obvious. Actually, even, with all their stories, for example, when in my time, when I was working also with them, for example, when I went to Somalia and did some stories, you know, it was kind of great. Everyone was happy. Al Jazeera was going to places where no one dares to go, and they were trying their best to show some problems of the people who are really oppressed by, you know, whatever regimes, etc., etc., etc., even their own coverage, for example, of the Gaza War, or the war on Lebanon before.

But the real problem was this coverage of the Arab Spring. It’s not really my problem directly, actually. It’s the problem in the street. Everyone is talking about this issue. Everyone. Okay, some people are really happy with Al Jazeera covering in this way, but they are just turning to other channels to get more credible news because they know that Al Jazeera is on their own side. So they need to listen from a kind of credible side or a neutral side the real stories, because they think that Al Jazeera might exaggerate a bit in such stories. Others who are on the other side and they are against Al Jazeera will also watch sometimes Al Jazeera but will change to other neutral stations to know really what is really going on.

And so the problem is Al Jazeera in this one year, in the last one year, unfortunately, sacrificed its own credibility for nothing. Everyone is kind of, you know, saying that Al Jazeera is committing suicide. And this is the biggest disaster, I really feel, happening in the Arab media. It’s kind of a plight of the Arab media.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Ali.

HASHEM: You’re most welcome.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Ali Hashem is a television journalist who recently resigned from his post as a war reporter for Al Jazeera. While working for Al Jazeera, he covered the revolution in Libya, Lebanese politics, and tension related to the Syrian uprising on the Syrian Lebanese borders. He also worked for the BBC and led the production team at Manar TV.