Tuesday, June 20, 2017

History of Canadian journalists, Al Jazeera, and Qatar

What's this new Middle East confrontation, the one between Qatar and most of the other Arab and Sunni states of the region?

Tony Burman, the Toronto Star foreign affairs correspondent and former CBC broadcast honcho, argued the other day it's a campaign to silence Al Jazeera. Burman is not exactly an outsider here; he's a former managing director of the English service of Al Jazeera, the pioneering radio and television network supported by the rulers of Qutar.

It is particularly the English language service of Al Jazeera, the part Burman worked for, that has given the network its reputation in the west for impartial and penetrating journalism on Middle Eastern and world affairs. So to western readers, the confrontation with Qatar, when defined as an attack on Al Jazeera, seems above all an attack on a free press and an information culture.

But I've been reading The Marriott Cell, Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy's terrific and very readable book (with fellow Canadian Carol Shaban) about his imprisonment in Egypt and how he was eventually freed with the support of a lot of journalists, a lot of Canadians, and Amal Clooney. Fahmy ran Al Jazeera English in Cairo, and was jailed and abused by the al-Sisi military government of Egypt and its courts on charges his network was actually a front for propaganda in favour of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Fahmy is vehement and persuasive about how his Al Jazeera English was doing fair and objective journalism in the wake of the military coup that removed President Morsi and the Brotherhood from power in Egypt. But he does not say the same about the rest of Al Jazeera. He makes clear, in fact, that he believes what really got him into trouble was the way the Arabic-language services of An-Jazeera appropriated his English-language journalism and turned it into Arabic-language Muslim Brotherhood propaganda that it broadcast into Egypt.

That is why Fahmy, now free and in Canada, is suing Al-Jazeera for the way its actions endangered his life and freedom -- and his journalistic reputation for impartiality-- as one of its employees.

This backstory, brought out in The Marriott Cell -- for those of us who don't follow every detail of Middle-Eastern broadcasting politics -- does not in any way excuse the military government of Egypt for its arrest and abusive treatment of Fahmy and many other journalists (and many opponents of its regime as well!) But it did help explain to me -- rather better than Tony Burman's column does -- why the Sunni autocrats threatened by the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood are displeased by Qatar and its broadcasting network. Fahmy's book suggests Al-Jazeera, apart from the English service, is hardly the model of journalist objectivity it has come to be thought of in parts of the world community.

Burman acknowledges that Al-Jazeera gave voice to opposition forces like the Muslim Brotherhood, but generally portrays it as "the voice of the voiceless":
In a region where censorship was the accepted norm, Al Jazeera challenged the establishment elites and, for the first time, brought a wide diversity of perspectives into Arab living rooms. This included radical and Islamist voices, as well as viewpoints from Israel.
Fahmy, who suffered for Al-Jazeera's actions, makes at least some of the network's actions seem a good deal less admirable. I picked up The Marriott Cell in Vancouver recently, and it kept me engrossed all through the flight back to Toronto.

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