Wednesday 21 February 2018

Robert Fisk: How Al Jazeera helped the Arab Spring to blossom


The Mubarak family still believe it was Al Jazeera wot did it. Without the Qatari satellite channel's constant live coverage of Tahrir Square last January and February, so the story goes, the Emperor Hosni would still be on Egypt's throne, his hair as dyed as his pronouncements, his satraps still slobbering over his wisdom, his regime still producing fake news and fake ministries and fake elections for his people. It was when the aircrew of Tunisian Emperor Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia – glancing at Al Jazeera Arabic's news reports in the VIP suite at Riyadh airport – suddenly realised what was going on and filed a flight plan home and left the old man behind. It was George W Bush who wanted to bomb Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha – scarcely 20 miles from America's largest airbase in the Middle East.

Now, poor old Al Jazeera – or very wealthy Al Jazeera, which is closer to the truth – is the hateful channel undermining the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. "They lie – Al Jazeera is trying to kill Syria," a young Syrian government official insisted to me in Damascus last week. "They take these YouTube pictures which are lies and they are trying to destroy us all." I often appear on Al Jazeera myself. Dangerous friend. It even lets me speak my mind; say what I like; make jokes; poke fun at the pompous. Can it be that bad?

Its 15th anniversary was held under a rather dark shadow. Wadah Khanfar, its brave and imaginative CEO, resigned just over a month ago, days after WikiLeaks' purloined US diplomatic archives revealed that he had "done deals" with US embassy staff to mute stories which upset the Americans – the actual US reports did not suggest he acted as unofficial censor, but the conversations should never have taken place (not, at least, from any journalist's point of view) and I felt deeply sorry for my old friend. In Iraq, where the Americans managed to bomb Al Jazeera's office and kill its bureau chief during the 2003 invasion – deliberately, in my view, since Qatar had given the US embassy in Doha precise map locations for the Baghdad bureau to spare it from attack – Khanfar came under constant verbal sniping from the US authorities. I checked out Al Jazeera's stories at the time and found that, with one exception – Khanfar admitted the error of suggesting US forces had tied up a man before killing him, a mistake made in good faith – Al Jazeera had abided by the highest journalistic standards (I'm talking about the Western version of "standards", of course) and Khanfar behaved with as much integrity as he did courage.

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