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An Interview With Al-Jazeera Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Sheikh

Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006

Pierre Heumann of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche spoke with Al-Jazeera Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Sheikh in Doha. This revealing interview appears here in English for the first time.


Mr. Sheikh, as the Editor in Chief of Al-Jazeera, you are one of the most important opinion-makers in the Arab world. What do you call suicide bombers?

For what is happening in Palestine, we never use the expression "suicide bombing."

What do you call it then?

In English, I would describe it as "bombings."

And in Arabic?

Literally translated, we would speak of "commando attacks." In our culture, it is precisely not suicide.

But instead a praiseworthy act?

When the country is occupied and the people are being killed by the enemy, everyone must take action, even if he sacrifices himself in so doing.

Even if in so doing he kills innocent civilians?

That is not a Palestinian problem, but a problem of the Israelis.

You're avoiding the question.
Not at all. When the Israeli Army attacks, it kills civilians. An army should be able to distinguish between military and civilian targets. But how many innocent people did it kill in Beit Hanoun? And then they justify this in saying that the grenade went astray, that there was a technical problem or something. But who believes that?

There's a difference between Palestinian "commando actions" and Israeli military operations. In the one case, the aim is to kill as many civilians as possible; in the other, it is exclusively a matter of military targets.

Oh really? If the Israelis made such mistakes only once or twice a year, I would agree with you and say that it didn't happen intentionally. But such mistakes happen every week. There are three possible explanations for this: either the military equipment is not up to date or the soldiers are badly trained and do not know how to use their weapons or they do it intentionally. Now, we know that the Israelis get the best weaponry from the American arsenal and that the soldiers are well trained. That leaves, then, only one conclusion: they do it intentionally.

You come originally from Nablus: a city that was occupied by the Israelis in 1967. In 1968 you left your homeland to study in Jordan. When you say that, is it the Palestinian in you speaking, who regards Israel as the enemy, or the journalist, who is dedicated to finding the truth.

The journalist.

So your personal background has no influence on your work?

When I'm in the newsroom, I forget my personal background. I set aside my political convictions. The news story is sacred for me. One cannot change it. One has to broadcast the story, as it is. Unchanged.

Still, I have trouble believing that you leave out your personal history in assessing a story.

You're right. It's not always possible at work completely to separate oneself from one's personal background. For example, in the newsroom one evening I received the images of the poor little girl whose parents were killed on the beach in Gaza and who was screaming in such a heartbreaking way. I went into my office, closed the door, and cried. Then I decided to broadcast the images of the girl screaming, but without commentary. In this case, you could, of course, say to me that it was the Palestinian in me who acted. Nonetheless, I do believe that one can separate oneself from one's personal background provided one works hard enough at it. In the newsroom, an editor has to set aside his personal feelings. Otherwise, you lose credibility.

How did you report on Beit Hanoun, where 19 Palestinians were killed?

We interviewed people on location. We even spoke with the Israelis. We wanted to know from them if they had done it intentionally, which, of course, they denied. We had to ask them that. As professional journalists, we can't afford only to speak to Palestinians. Even if you hate the Israelis that doesn't mean that you shouldn't speak with them. They are, after all, a party to the conflict.

Did you show all the images from Beit-Hanoun or did you censor particularly gruesome bloody scenes?

We didn't show close-ups of what was too brutal. We don't want to turn the spectator's life into a nightmare.

Evidently, for your coverage of Iraq other standards apply. You have repeatedly shown beheadings of western hostages. In the U.S., you are accused of using Al-Jazeera to incite the Iraqi population against the American troops.

The U.S.A. is occupying a country and one has not only to expect, but also to accept that the people there resist. You see yourself: in the end, the American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had to resign. Because everyone in the White House and in Washington understood that the man was a catastrophe. In fact, I am sorry about his resignation. (Laughs.) With his attacks against us, he was a very good promoter of Al-Jazeera. But seriously: now even Tony Blair, in his interview with Al-Jazeera [November 18], has admitted that the war in Iraq is a disaster. The British now say that he misspoke, that he didn't mean it like that. But I ask you: can one justify the American policy and America's actions in Iraq? My opinion is clear. The Americans should stop accusing us of putting the lives of their soldiers in Iraq in danger with our reports.

Is that why you again and again broadcast tapes of Osama bin Laden that your station receives?

You are a journalist and you must know actually that if somebody offers you a tape or an interview with bin Laden, you don't hesitate to accept the offer -- even if it will get you sent to Guantánamo.

It's striking, of course, that Al-Jazeera has a quasi-monopoly on information coming from the milieu of bin Laden. Obviously, you are close to them. On conservative blogs, your network is even called "Osama TV."

Because the Americans are in a difficult situation in Iraq, they are looking for scapegoats and they've found one in Al-Jazeera. In the last five or six years, we've received maybe two or three tapes per year. That's news that we cannot hold back from our public. Besides, we're not the only ones to get mail occasionally from bin Laden. In the past, CNN was also in the mailing list, and news agencies like the AP or broadcasters like Al-Arabiya also receive messages from al Qaida. It's true, though, that we receive such tapes more often than the others. Then we put this information in a news context. When, for example, bin Laden offers a 90-day ceasefire or when he takes responsibility for the bombings in Madrid, we have, of course, to report on it. It's news.

It's not only in Washington that you have few friends among those in power. It's also the case in the Arab world.

We are not aiming to overthrow any regime. It is part of our code of honor, however, that we value people's right freely to express their opinions. We provide information, nothing else. We see ourselves as a pluralistic forum dedicated to the search for the truth. If in the process we manage to help to push through reforms, of course we're happy about that.

Al-Jazeera has been broadcasting for ten years now -- but there is precious little democracy or reform to be found in the Arab world.

We don't say to the Egyptians "Overthrow the regime!" That is not our job. But if the people should vote out Hosni Mubarak one day at the ballot box, we will report on it of course. We are always uncovering cases of corruption -- like just recently in Egypt. If one disseminates such information, sooner or later it has to have an effect. People begin to pose questions.

You don't only target the Egyptian regime, but practically all the Arab regimes in the region. As consequence, the editorial offices of your network are always being shut down. In what countries are you blacklisted at the moment?

Saudi Arabia has never allowed us to work. Just once, we were allowed to report on the Hajj and I went there to shoot a film. Tunisia and Algeria have stopped us; Iraq banned us temporarily; for a time our reporters were also not allowed into Syria, Jordan, and Kuwait. We also have problems in Sudan, because we report on the atrocities in Darfur, where innocent people are being killed. In Khartoum, they weren't happy that we broadcast a report on this subject and they threw us out. Later, however, the Sudanese thought better of it and they let us work in the country again. We never make compromises, because we don't want to put our credibility at risk. The Iranians also shut down our bureau for a time, after we broadcast a report on the oppressed Arab minority in Iran. The report provoked demonstrations in Iran and the Iranian government held us responsible. We don't want to serve as the mouthpiece of those in power -- as, unfortunately, so many of our competitors do.

You describe yourself as independent. Since the amount of advertising on Al-Jazeera is limited, one has to wonder who is financing such a costly news channel.

The Qatari government covers 75 percent of our expenses. The remaining 25 percent we cover ourselves through our commercial activities. But we take no instructions from the Qatari government.

One hears it said, of course, that your independence ends where criticism of the royal family of Qatar, your financiers, begins.

What nonsense! Whoever says that obviously does not follow our broadcasts very carefully. We do criticize the government of Qatar.

For example?

We criticize the large presence of the American air force in the country. We also criticize the fact that the Israelis are permitted to have a diplomatic representation in Doha. But, besides that, I have to ask you: what happens in Doha that would be worth reporting about? Qatar is a small country. Apart from the skyscrapers -- which spring from the ground like mushrooms and nobody knows why they're needed -- absolutely nothing happens here. It is impossible to compare Qatar with Saudi Arabia and the social unrest there or with Iran or Iraq. Our situation at Al-Jazeera is comparable to that of the BBC. This highly respected network is also financed by the government. If the BBC is independent -- and nobody doubts that it is -- why don't people accept that this is also the case for us?

Of course, the BBC is financed via taxes. . . . Up to now, one could only hear Al-Jazeera in Arabic. Since mid-November, an English-language news channel is also part of your group. Does this represent competition for you?

Not at all. Our new channel is the perfect complement for us.

Let's do a test. Suppose that your bureau uncovers a corruption scandal. Who reports first on it and thus gets the praises for their investigative work: you or your colleagues with the English-language channel?

It would be destructive to create a situation of competition at the interior of the Al-Jazeera group. So, we would bring out the revelation simultaneously, in Arabic and in English. After all, we belong to the same organization and we work together in perfect harmony. If, however, we send out two reporters and in the end our man comes back with a worse story than his colleague at the English-language channel, I'd give him a slap. I couldn't accept that.

But it's possible that you will have to accept that your budget could be restricted by the new channel, since the investor is the same.

I hope that won't be the case. I hardly believe that the investor will permit budget cuts at the Arabic channel. I'm convinced that it will remain the most important part of the organization.

How can you be so sure?

The influence of the Arabic channel in the Arab world is enormous. Go to Amman or Jerusalem or Cairo or Casablanca: With around 50 million spectators, we are the most important source of information in the Arab world and the most important opinion-maker. In Palestine, for example, we are seen by 76 percent of the population.

What are you expecting from the English-language channel?

We are hoping to contribute with it to the mutual understanding of cultures. Above all in a time of crisis, it is important to clear up misunderstandings in order to defuse conflicts.

Of course, often you stir up conflicts. For example, in the case of the Mohammed cartoons.

I can't accept this accusation. For example, we interviewed the editor of the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons. In doing that, we helped to reduce tensions.

Of course, many people claim that you outright staged the conflict.

Nonsense. We never even showed the cartoons. It was not us, but a news agency that first reported about the cartoons. It was a good story, a very important piece of news. It had consequences. There were demonstrations, there were debates. It was a subject of conversation. And, of course, we had to report on all that. It is not, after all, the responsibility of a news organization to decide whether to play up a particular story or to cool things down. That's not our job. We have to report and in as unpartisan a manner as possible. If the situation does not calm down, that's not my fault. I only have to guarantee that my sources are reliable, credible and precise.

Did you abide by this rule in your coverage of the Pope's speech?

When the Pope claimed in public that Islam and the Prophet Mohammed only use the sword and accused Muslims of being ignorant, our editor did not really grasp the significance of this text. Until I explained to him that it was a highly important speech and that he should make a headline out of it.

Was it right and was it necessary to give so much weight to a speech that the Pope gave in the context of an academic ceremony?

Of course. We have to report, after all, what the highest authority of the Church thinks about Mohammed and Islam.

But the Pope merely cited a medieval scholar.

But why did he do that? Normally, one cites someone in order to support one's own point of view.

You have become one of the most important opinion-makers in the Arab world and you play in the major leagues of the international media. What is your journalistic credo?

I am not a big fan of the CNN motto to try always to be the first with news. I consider scoops that are obtained at the cost of truth and precision to be dangerous. In order to avoid only one mistake, I prefer that the competition gets to a story faster than me ten times. Because a mistake costs us our credibility. Of course, we still do strive to be fast. We always have a suitcase available with $150,000 dollars in cash in it. Whenever we want to send a reporter to a war zone, we hand the suitcase over to him, so that he can pay his expenses underway in an unbureaucratic manner. That gives us flexibility.

Mister Sheikh, as a young man you had to leave your homeland. What effect did this have on your personality?

If I had stayed in Nablus, I probably would have turned out differently. But deep within you there is something that never changes; and that is the formative influence of one's childhood. We always remain children. If the child in you dies off, then you're finished. So, it is a blessing for humanity, if the child in you is kept alive.

What do you remember for example?

I still remember clearly how the Israelis invaded our town in June 1967. We were expecting them from the West, but they attacked from the East. Since I wanted to study, after that I went to Jordan. Of course, that was important for my later development. If I had remained in Palestine, I would see the death and the problems every day. I would have to witness how Palestinian land is confiscated. I would even have to put up with having to speak with the enemy at road blocks. I would have to put up with the daily humiliations of the occupying power, but also to observe how Israelis are killed by suicide bombers.

How do you see the future of this region in which news of wars, dictators and poverty predominates?

The future here looks very bleak.

Can you explain what you mean by that?

By bleak I mean something like "dark." I've advised my thirty year old son, who lives in Jordan, that he should leave the region. Just this morning I spoke with him about it. He has a son and we spoke about his son's education. I'd like my grandson to go to a trilingual private school. The public schools are bad. He should learn English, German, and French -- Spanish would also be important. But the private schools are very expensive. That's why I told my son to emigrate to the West for the sake of my grandson.

You sound bitter.

Yes, I am.

At whom are you angry?

It's not only the lack of democracy in the region that makes me worried. I don't understand why we don't develop as quickly and dynamically as the rest of the world. We have to face the challenge and say: enough is enough! When a President can stay in power for 25 years, like in Egypt, and he is not in a position to implement reforms, we have a problem. Either the man has to change or he has to be replaced. But the society is not dynamic enough to bring about such a change in a peaceful and constructive fashion.

Why not?

In many Arab states, the middle class is disappearing. The rich get richer and the poor get still poorer. Look at the schools in Jordan, Egypt or Morocco: You have up to 70 youngsters crammed together in a single classroom. How can a teacher do his job in such circumstances? The public hospitals are also in a hopeless condition. These are just examples. They show how hopeless the situation is for us in the Middle East.

Who is responsible for the situation?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most important reasons why these crises and problems continue to simmer. The day when Israel was founded created the basis for our problems. The West should finally come to understand this. Everything would be much calmer if the Palestinians were given their rights.

Do you mean to say that if Israel did not exist, there would suddenly be democracy in Egypt, that the schools in Morocco would be better, that the public clinics in Jordan would function better?

I think so.

Can you please explain to me what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to do with these problems?

The Palestinian cause is central for Arab thinking.

In the end, is it a matter of feelings of self-esteem?

Exactly. It's because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West's problem is that it does not understand this.

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. His interview with Ahmed Sheikh originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche on Nov. 23, issue 47/06. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.