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Like it or not, Al Jazeera has become the vanguard of free speech

Repressive governments want to silence Al Jazeera because it reflects the concerns, aspirations and dreams of the Arab street

As a war correspondent, I am obliged to routinely undergo what’s known as “Hostile Environment Training”, a course designed to prepare me for how best to survive in violent or life threatening situations.

I remember the first time I attended this course several years ago, as it dawned on me just how dangerous our profession has become.

Al Jazeera’s coverage of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its wars on Gaza and Lebanon have proven to be a nightmare for the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu

Although I personally never studied journalism at university, my colleagues who did were never taught about surviving kidnappings, or how to identify booby traps or landmines. Regrettably though, this kind of education has now become mandatory for anyone who wants to become a journalist. A stark reminder of the lengths some will go to literally shoot the messenger.

Unfortunately, however, there isn’t any training on how to survive the merciless onslaughts of dictatorships and autocratic regimes; how to persevere despite some of the richest and most powerful governments in the world doing all they can to silence you; there’s no course for that. Instead at Al Jazeera we’ve been forced to figure that out first-hand.

Since our launch more than 20 years ago, we’ve had our bureaus closed in different countries on several occasions. Our offices have been bombed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza, and several of my colleagues have been killed, many others imprisoned.

Finding ourselves in the crossfire of repressive governments is nothing new. Attacks have failed to silence the Arab world’s first independent news network. Instead, they have strengthened our resolve and our belief in our mission – namely providing our audiences with high quality, factual and informative news and representing them with "the opinion and the other opinion".

Their failure to silence us seems to have led certain regimes to pursue other tactics in their bid to muzzle free press in the Middle East, and dare I say in the world as a whole.

This new approach began with Egypt and has since seen Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and more recently Israel following suit. Rather than using overtly violent methods, these governments have instead tried to present a legitimate facade for their repressive policies.

They are justifying closing down Al Jazeera’s offices and barring our satellite transmission by claiming that the network incites violence and terrorism.

Covering the occupation

Some may be surprised that Israel, the self-proclaimed sole democracy in the Middle East, has decided to join the attack on press freedom and move towards shutting Al Jazeera. They shouldn’t. Al Jazeera’s coverage of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its wars on Gaza and Lebanon has proven to be a nightmare for the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli political establishment.

Were it not for Al Jazeera, the world may not have known about the 2006 Qana massacre. Israel’s use of white phosphorus on the besieged Gaza Strip may have gone unnoticed, were it not for Al Jazeera English being the only international English language channel present. The 2014 World Cup would have come and gone without the public being made aware of the cold blooded murder of four Palestinian boys by Israeli naval fire as they played football on a Gaza beach.

Despite the counter revolutions succeeding in quashing the Arab Spring, the demand for freedom and greater social justice amongst Arab societies is greater than ever before

More recently, Israel’s attempt to further entrench its illegal occupation of Jerusalem didn’t feature on Egyptian or Emirati news channels. It barely found airtime on leading International outlets - and when it did, the narrative was one of Israel’s never-ending quest for security in the face of innate Palestinian violence, not one of an occupying power that has systematically and intentionally pursued an agenda of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem in a bid to rid the city of its indigenous Arab population.

On Al Jazeera, however, my colleagues led the way in presenting all the facts through informative news reports. We gave airtime to Israeli officials and pundits like Micky Rosenfeld and others, while also speaking to Palestinian officials from all the different factions.

Fear of an educated public

We provided our audiences with the necessary information, perspectives and context for them to make their own informed decisions. And it is that, an educated public, which Israel and its autocratic allies in Cairo and Abu Dhabi fear the most.

The irony behind Israel’s attack on Al Jazeera is that prior to its launch, there wasn’t a single Arabic language channel that allowed for Israeli officials to appear on its airwaves. It was Al Jazeera that broke that taboo, and we did that because of our belief in one of the most basic yet important tenet of human rights, namely the right to be informed.

Of course, as a news network, we aren’t flawless. There have been times that we’ve made mistakes and instances where individuals have exercised poor judgement.

One of these, for example, include a time when a former employee of Al Jazeera decided to celebrate the birthday of former Hezbollah prisoner Samir Quntar as he hosted him on his talk show. However, our belief is that those who have genuine criticism of our work should present it to us so that we can discuss it and rectify that which needs correcting. That is how progressive democratic societies operate.

The Middle East is currently witnessing one of the most tumultuous periods in recent times. Despite the counter revolutions succeeding in quashing the Arab Spring, the demand for freedom and greater social justice amongst Arab societies is greater than ever before.

The region’s absolute monarchies and dictatorships are well aware of this, and that is why they are waging a war on Al Jazeera. Not because we support any particular group, or oppose them, but because like it or not, we are the manifestation of free press in the Arab world.

We are the main outlet that reflects the concerns, aspirations and dreams of the Arab street; we are the foremost institution that speaks truth to power.

As I have mentioned, there are times that we get things wrong, but when those wanting to shut us down are being led by a country where women aren’t allowed to drive or a state whose policies have been labelled as apartheid by the likes of Desmond Tutu, then I’m pretty confident we’re currently doing things right. 

Photo: An employee working inside the office of Al Jazeera network in Jerusalem 7 August (Reuters)

Jamal Elshayyal is an international award-winning senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English. He joined the channel in 2006 as part of its launch team and served as its first Middle East editor. He covered the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. He has interviewed several world leaders and has extensive access to major power players in the GCC and the MENA region. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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