Monday 27 July 2015

Al Jazeera - The Other Opinion

An interview with Jamil Azar, al Jazeera’s Senior Anchor as the channel launches it's English service

After 31 years with the BBC’s Arabic Service in London, Jamil Azar accepted a job at the fledgling al Jazeera in 1997. Since then he has risen to become a senior presenter and has a large input on their editorial policy. Among his achievements was to come up with the channel’s slogan, “The opinion and the other opinion.” In this interview, he discusses the original Arabic channel, the newer English language channel and how al Jazeera got where it is and where it’s going next.

What did you expect when you joined al Jazeera, before it had even started broadcasting?

Well, it was an experimental operation, but we found that the Emir of Qatar was serious about this venture, and I think he must have read the mood of the media in the Arab world and most of the Qataris had the BBC World Arabic service and he must have said we want something similar from Qatar and it fitted into his policy of liberalising Qatar. The Emir is still paying for it and he will continue to support us morrally and financially on the condition that we do our job professionally.

Is al Jazeera losing its Arab identity?

Many of its journalists come from places like the BBC, and launching the English channel has broadened its identity. Al Jazeera Arabic established its editorial policy on the lines of the western media, especially on the BBC, I consider it the mother of all broadcasters and I’m proud to have been with them for over 30 years, in radio and television. We, who left the BBC for a new oportunity to broadcast from the region, took these principles of journalism to the region where the audience was only given one opinion, the official side to the story, the other opinion was not allowed.

Giving the other opinion is important to us and to our audience. The English channel covers a lot of South, third world issues, not covered by the English-speaking media, then we should have some impact. After 9/11 the American audience felt that they didn’t know much about the outside world and they could watch us and learn about it and learn how to deal with the outside world. The Arabic channel is based in Arabic language and culture. The English channel speaks to a wider audience that doesn’t have a common culture, so they are different, addressing different audiences but we all work on the same principles and ethics.

You also devised the slogan, “The opinion and the other opinion.” Are you still keeping to that principle?

There has been no change to our principles but experience made us even more daring in tackling some very difficult areas, such as censorship by regimes. We are still al Jazeera, even after 13 years on air. We are banned by several countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia. Our offices have been closed in other countries for a time. For example, Saddam banned us from Iraq. We did not ask to be re-opened, but they asked us to come back. We do not target any country, we present the news where we find it. We report the facts, but that makes the governments who don’t like their problems being discussed attack us.

What are the limitations of just having two opposing views? Doesn’t that end up in a shouting match? Do you have a problem with people going on the record out of fear of reprisals?

We face the same problems as any media that wants to show a range of opinions. In the Arab world there are people who are worried that they might be imprisoned if they appear on al Jazeera and there have been some cases where this has happened. But for us, it doesn’t stop us from trying to present the other opinion.

You operate in very difficult environments, it must be very difficult to protect your sources, where the context may be a much more threatening environment than western journalists operate in. How hard is it to be ethical at the sharp end?

We have a code of ethics. We were the first Arabic channel to have such a code and we expect them to adhere to it. Protecting sources is enshrined in that code. We would go as far as we can to protect our sources. In Sudan, they stopped our reporter and manager of the bureau from operating because he wouldn’t reveal one of his sources. We were sure the source was correct and reliable, so the Sudanese authorities removed the ban, but we thought it best to recall our staff to Doha, but we do operate from Sudan. It’s very important that we keep our standards, otherwise we would quickly lose our credibility and lose the trust of our audiences. We take this seriously.

You are now global with the English channel. How well is it doing, because you aren’t in the US. Are you being censored?

Well, it looks as if there are certain quarters in the US, whether on commercial or political basis that do not allow al Jazeera English to go on the cable networks. It looks like an attempt to shield the American audience from what we can tell them, however in the last couple of days I heard there is going to be an announcement that a couple of cable networks are going to show us. We have a bureau in Washington and we are hopeful that attitudes will change. The Obama administration is bringing real change and there might be a change in attitude towards us. We were a revolution in Arab media and can al Jazeera English be a revolution in global media?

What does the future bring?

I don’t think we will change much in the near future, apart from some new programmes. We’re always responding to our audience, but we’re looking at more north - south issues so we can let the north understand more of the life and culture of other parts. This can bring people together.

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