For the millions of non-Arabic speakers around the world who followed Egypt’s revolution live one journalist stood out–Ayman Mohyeldin of Al-Jazeera English. Mohyeldin, 32, used his knowledge of the region and of the West to make sense of the events unfolding in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for an international audience. He also witnessed the unprecedented wave of assaults on journalists by supporters and hired thugs of the crumbling Mubarak regime. Mohyeldin was himself detained while reporting.
Mohyeldin visited CPJ’s office in New York March 23 to speak with supporters, friends and staff about the role of the pan-Arab satellite channel since a Tunisian fruit-seller in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in December in frustration at the dead hand of political repression.
Q. What role has Al-Jazeera played since December?
A. It has been a microphone and a conduit for ordinary citizens in the Arab world who want to express themselves, express their dissatisfaction with the government, and express their demands. It has been a conduit for all of these people to do all of these things to a much larger audience. These are revolutions that are being started by Arabs. They are organic, they are not a product of any foreign interference, foreign influence; they are not started by satellite television, they are not started by the Internet, they are not Facebook revolutions or Twitter revolutions, they are simply organic people-movements that are powered by information.
[Al-Jazeera] has shrunk the space and time by which information moves across borders. It allows people in a small village, like Sidi Bouzid, for them to go to the streets and protest and upload those videos to the Internet to show the world what they did out of anger, and for that being put on Al-Jazeera and being broadcast across the Arab world inspired others, and motivated others, and helped others break their own fear factor towards their own government.
Q. What does Al-Jazeera bring to television reporting that distinguishes from others?
A. It brings context. It brings depth. It brings institutional knowledge and it brings vast amounts of resources to cover a story properly and accurately. And what I mean by that is not only do they commit tremendous amounts of resources and correspondents but they also devote a big portion of their airtime to these stories. We on many occasions throughout the past couple of months would break into live, rolling coverage unscripted for days on end. Twenty-four hours a day, we would stay with the story as it moves and develops; we never would stop to go back to our regularly scheduled program.
Q. What are the particular risks faced by Al-Jazeera journalists in the Arabic-speaking world?
A. Al-Jazeera journalists suffer from sometimes two different realities than I would say most other journalists. One, they suffer from what I call the official limitations, and in this realm that is something that could happen against other organizations but in reality we have only seen happen against Al-Jazeera, and that is the official crackdown by the government, including the revoking of licenses, the jamming of signals, the confiscation of equipment, the detentions of its journalists, the denials of visa or entry permissions into countries. That happens on an official level from the government.
The problem seems to be that the dangerous stuff happens more in the unofficial realm, which is the public incitement that so many of these governments participate in or partake in against Al-Jazeera. They take to the airwaves denouncing Al-Jazeera or foreign satellite channels and say that they are interfering in the internal affairs of a country and it fosters and creates a sense of tension that gives people, particularly those close to those regimes, the green light to attack Al-Jazeera. To show up at our offices with sticks and demand that we be turned over. The fact that they’ll burn and damage some of our vehicles and offices. That public incitement is the more dangerous one because that is the one that’s really incontrollable. And I think foreign journalists that work suffer to a certain degree of both of these but we’ve seen they are much more and on a larger scale against Al-Jazeera employees.
Q. What should CPJ and similar organizations do about the attacks on journalists in Egypt?
A. Organizations like CPJ and others should look at the protection of journalists in some ways retrospectively and in some ways proactively. So retrospectively they need to look at the incidents that happened and where they can pursue justice, but pursue justice insofar as it advances the future interest of media freedoms. So, for example, if you look at my case, I was detained, there was probably some kind of legal violation. No charges were filed. In the most basic sense my civil rights were probably violated. There could be a case for justice there. But is it worth the resources of CPJ to come out and defend and pursue on my behalf something which had very little profound impact on me or my news organization? I would probably argue humbly and modestly and very gratefully, no.
But on behalf of journalists that have died, and on behalf of journalists who have been subjected to abuse and intimidation, harassment, these journalists need people to fight for them. Because when they fight for them and pursue justice on their behalf then they will advance it for all of us. So if you can go back and find out who killed X or person Y and pursue that to its fullest you send a message that these crimes will not go unpunished.
Attacking journalists is not part of the rules of engagement. You can dismiss soldiers as combatants of a conflict but journalists are not. So therefore these governments must know that journalists are a red line and the best way they will understand that going forward is by even holding those in the past accountable for their actions.
Q. Were you surprised by the number and the severity of the attacks on journalists in Egypt?
A. I was surprised by how the government let this kind of carte blanche of attacks happen against journalists from all walks of life. We know from the documentation that Western journalists were attacked, that Arab journalists were attacked, local journalists were attacked, newspaper print photographers, anyone. My concern is that we still live in a world where regimes, collapsing regimes, are willing to unleash whatever power of destruction they have against journalists because they still see journalists as a threat, they still see the power of information as a threat and there has to be a change in the culture towards journalists in the Arab world.
Q. What will Arab media look like in five years?
A. More participation from the bottom up. More consumer-driven content. More participation in shaping the programs that actually deliver the news. Media organizations like Al-Jazeera will always have a role to play because they can shepherd these changes and help guide these changes and, more importantly, I think that even though information becomes more ubiquitous with the power of technology, information doesn’t replace context, and context is only presented by those who experienced it, know it, live it, are taught it, and can put it in wider perspective–take an isolated incident and put it in the bigger picture.
Q. Is there still a role for the old-fashioned foreign correspondent?
A. Today you can find almost in any country capable correspondents, educated, up-to-speed on the latest technologies, who speak English. So why in the world would I ever want to send somebody from London, or Paris, or New York to a country when I have someone who knows the nooks and crannies of every street alleyway and every little intersection in Cairo and can tell me what’s happening in Tahrir much better than some who arrives just the day before?
Q. Will success make it more difficult for Al-Jazeera to operate in authoritarian countries?
A. I think it is going to be more difficult for Al-Jazeera to operate freely. It has become clear in the eyes of the regimes that Al-Jazeera is perceived to be on the side of the people. In these cases the battle lines are very clear; it’s the government versus the people. So if the government is perceiving you to be on the side of the people, then they will treat you in the same way that they treat the people–deprive you of your fundamental rights.