|Citizen journalism and the spread of new media have helped Al Jazeera access and report on regions where it is otherwise not allowed [GALLO/GETTY]|
When Al Jazeera and other Arab satellite TV services were launched in 1996, the intelligence agencies of Arab regimes began a campaign to create an atmosphere of doubt around us, including the rumour that Al Jazeera was established by a Mossad officer living in the Doha Sheraton. When you deal with this level of distortion, you know you are facing regimes that are too scared to confront you with facts.
In recent years they have started using new techniques, denying us accreditation so that we could not report in their countries. Tunisia never allowed us to report from its soil, and almost all other Arab countries where there was unrest followed suit. Sometimes heads of state have demanded this as a matter of national security.
Al Jazeera has been treated as a threat that had to be met by the strongest measures: in the past few months our equipment has been confiscated and our reporters detained or assaulted in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Syria. Our senior cameraman was killed in Libya by the regime’s forces. Our transmission was completely blocked by many Arab regimes. We were off-air in the whole region for a few hours at the peak of the Egyptian revolution.
If all this had taken place before 2007 the Arab public might have remained in the dark. But these decaying regimes didn’t recognise that withholding information and harassing journalists will no longer silence the truth. They couldn’t comprehend that, with the availability of mobile phones with cameras and high-speed internet, a new form of media was being born: the people’s media, created by the people and for the people. You can call it interactive media or Twitter and Facebook media or whatever you like: it enabled people to become masters of their own voices, away from the iron grasp of the state.
This outstanding change, this historic moment, was totally lost on ageing governments that thought they were dealing with a bunch of kids who only needed to vent and then go home to their aimless lives. But they were wrong: because their ideas were old, their opinions were old, their minds were old, and their spirit was old. Ignorance can sometimes be a tool of destiny.
This historic moment enabled Al Jazeera to soar. When the Tunisian revolution broke out we didn’t have reporters or cameramen there, but we had a tool that cannot be controlled by the authorities: active young people reporting live from the squares, sending video footage and calls for freedom. This people’s media couldn’t have played the vital role it did on its own, but by reaching out to us it was able to reach millions around the world.
There are difficulties, of course. We try to use people who are known to us: we know their names and phone numbers, and we know whether or not we can trust them. But recently in Libya, Syria and some other countries, our contacts’ phone lines have been hijacked by secret services, and imposters have tried to feed us lies so that we might lose our credibility. When this has happened, the country’s state-owned media have attacked us and told the world that we are deceitful.
The most notorious example was when someone claiming to be from the Yemeni opposition turned out to be the president’s media officer. And of course among all the people we contact, a few might be unprofessional, over-emotional or prone to exaggeration. But the solution is to direct our journalists to extract whatever information they can, put it into its proper context and try to verify it using other sources.
Whenever we receive footage we need to be sure it is recent. Many citizens at the scene of a protest will now take a picture of a day’s newspaper, or a poster with the day’s date, before filming the rest of a demonstration, thus eliminating any possibility of fraud. The only time we did transmit false pictures was when we showed torture in a prison that we were told was in Yemen, but turned out to be in Iraq. We immediately apologised to our audience. However, we cannot allow things like that to stop us – and we have to remember that the people’s media is a hundred times more honest than the official state media.
And so in today’s revolutionary atmosphere, with so much to play for, the people are our most valuable assets. We have our Twitter and Facebook followers, and we have the people on our side – people who marched in the liberation squares, people who risked their lives to send us pictures and videos – and we cannot let them down. We must stay close to the people and never let these glorious revolutions turn into a tool of dictators and murderers.
Wadah Khanfar is director general of the Al Jazeera network. This article first appeared in The Guardian. It is an edited extract of a speech he gave at the Al Jazeera youth bloggers’ forum in Doha last month.