Broadcast and be damned

The new editor of al-Jazeera is unapologetic about his channel's output and attitude
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The Independent Online

I tell the waitress that I want to reserve a table in the smoking section of the hotel restaurant: "somewhere quiet because I'm doing an interview". She asks who with. I tell her that it's the newly appointed editor of al-Jazeera, Samir Khader. Half an hour later every employee of the Qatari hotel is buzzing around. Even the cleaner from the fifth floor has come down to the lobby to tell me how much he loves the station and how his son wants to be a journalist.

I tell the waitress that I want to reserve a table in the smoking section of the hotel restaurant: "somewhere quiet because I'm doing an interview". She asks who with. I tell her that it's the newly appointed editor of al-Jazeera, Samir Khader. Half an hour later every employee of the Qatari hotel is buzzing around. Even the cleaner from the fifth floor has come down to the lobby to tell me how much he loves the station and how his son wants to be a journalist.

Doha may be a small city in a small country, but surely even this level of fawning is over the top. "The Qataris are more proud than us with this channel," says Khader, Marlboro red in hand - he's a chain smoker. "And the government are so proud that they don't even dare come close to it. They leave it like it is. Because when any government tries to interfere with the media, that's it, it's finished."

This, he says, explains why al-Jazeera, with an audience of 35 million, has become one of the most popular news channels in the Arab world. "The Arab world was not used to free speech. So we came and started broadcasting news without censorship or distortion, and they believed us."

The credit for this rare endowment of freedom goes to Crown Prince Hamad Bin Khalifa who, in 1996, invited journalists from the BBC Arabic service to set up in Doha after the Saudi authorities closed the BBC office down. The journalists only accepted his offer of employment and generous government funding on the condition that they retained the freedom they had with the BBC; something which until then was unheard-of in Arab countries.

"It was a political decision at that time and they decided 'Yes, why not?'" says Khader. "Remarkable. And that's it. It's as simple as that. 'You're free' - that's it," he says, with a remnant of shock and awe still left in his voice.

"It's been seven years for me with al-Jazeera and I've never received a phone call or any pressure whatsoever from any Qatari official. I don't know them, even."

The station may not get pressure from the Qatari government, but the US administration has repeatedly piled it on. Donald Rumsfeld famously commented: "We are dealing with people who are willing to lie to the world to make their case". As recently as September he suggested that al-Jazeera was a "Johnny-on-the-spot", implying that al-Jazeera journalists were being invited by insurgents to witness attacks as they happened.

"Donald Rumsfeld says that we are distorting reality, but everybody knows that this is not the case," says Khader. "Even when we meet these [US] officials, even the military officials, they say, 'you're doing your job but this is our job'. My feeling is they have to find someone to blame for failure."

Real pressure hit al-Jazeera on 8 April, 2003, when its Baghdad offices were hit by an American missile, killing the cameraman Tariq Ayoub. Khader believes it was murder.

"They wanted to silence us. I can't prove it, of course, but my own feeling was that something was going on that day at the entrance of the Republican Palace and they didn't want any witness," he says. I ask how they felt losing a colleague to American fire.

"During all the war I never noticed any anti-American feelings [at the station]. But that day everybody was against the United States. Not the government or its policies, but the United States as a whole," he says.

So did it not taint their coverage? "No. We couldn't change because it would prove to people that we were unprofessional and driven by emotions. It's true we were against the war. Perhaps the war could be justified by the fact that this dictator could be toppled, but at what price? The price is the suffering of the whole Iraqi people, and we chose to cover the war from this side: the human cost," Khader explains.

"When we broadcast footage of the bodies of the American and the British soldiers who were killed by Iraqis, we discovered that there was this new atmosphere, with the Americans accusing us of contravening the Geneva conventions and things like that," he says.

The British Air Marshal Brian Burridge condemned the pictures as deplorable and warned journalists not to become part of the "Iraqi propaganda machine".

Khader says: "To show their pictures is to show that people got killed. The Americans were lying to their people saying that this was a clean war, a surgical war with very little collateral damage and we showed that this was not true."

Does he get upset with the supposedly sanitised coverage from other news agencies? "We don't care, especially when they are Western news agencies and American news agencies," he says.

"The big difference is that these things happen at home for us. When we show human suffering this means something to the people of the Middle East. When CNN or Fox News choose not to focus on human suffering, I understand that, because they don't care about our human suffering."

And how does he respond to the heckles of "Osama TV"? "I laugh, that's it," he replies. "The same material, when we broadcast it, CNN takes it live from al-Jazeera. So that makes CNN also Osama TV? We are just doing our job," he says sipping on a cup of black, sugarless Nescafé.

"When you have somebody called Osama bin Laden, who is the most wanted man on planet Earth, and everything coming from him is major news, and then he sends you a tape, what do you do? Do you just hide it in your drawer? You have to take it out!", he says, with his voice raised and his palms upturned.

"Why are you blaming al-Jazeera and you're not blaming CNN?" His slow plodding voice has become quick, and his eyes stare thunderously at me.

"Because CNN is American? Because we're Arabs, Muslims? If you are doing the same thing you have no right, absolutely no right, to blame us."

He lights another cigarette. I decide to change the tone, and ask him about his habit. "I never tried to quit," he says, confiding that he started smoking to feel part of the university crowd while reading mathematics on a scholarship in France. It was with France's channel three. "FR trois", he intones, and his French accent matches the quality of his immaculate suit and shirt.

"I found that journalism was something very beautiful, and with a degree in mathematics it was very easy to learn the job because you have to be logical," he says.

Khader has some distinctly off-message views on the likely success of al-Jazeera's proposed English-language channel, headed by the former ITN executive Nigel Parsons and due to begin broadcasting in November.

"I don't believe in it," he says, after pausing to think.

"I don't believe in this channel. Look, what makes the popularity of al-Jazeera is that it's a free and bold station in the Middle East: the station that has no taboos; a station promoting both the opinion and the other opinion," he says, reciting the station motto. All these things are facts of life in the West. So what would this English channel promote?"

I suggest that, perhaps, the attraction would be that you'd get a more Arabic perspective, in the sense that its reporter would be Arab. He corrects me. "I'm sorry, but from what I heard most of the reporters will be British, so how can they convey the Arab feeling to the West?"

As Samir Khader gets up to leave, Marlboro in hand, he bids me goodbye, and I thank him for coming out to my hotel. Should I have told him that the lobby is 'no-smoking'? No. I don't suppose anyone in Qatar would stop the man from al-Jazeera.

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