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EXCLUSIVE. Al Jazeera GM, Mostefa Souag, responds to the attacks of 13 Arab countries on the news channel | Dan Andronic's interview

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Al Jazeera ( the island in English) is the most influential news channel in the Arab World. And not only. It appeared in 1996, being fully funded by the Qatar Government (annual budget of about 100 million US dollars) and quickly gained a huge audience in the Middle East where there are around 350 million of Arabic speakers.

In 2001, it was rated as the most watched news channel, and in 2006 more than 75 % of the Arabs indicated it as their favourite news channel. It has offices in over 80 countries, and since the same year, 2006, there has been an English version as well. It has launched its own telecommunication satellite.

Arrived in the midst of Qatar's diplomatic conflict, I sought to speak with a Senior of Al Jazeera news channel to find out their point of view concerning the demand of the 13 Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia to discontinue the emission of the TV channel.

It seemed strange to me how a television station had become of crucial importance in solving a major conflict in the Arab world.

I knew that Al-Jazeera was considered by the Arab world and part of the West as a close post to the Muslim Brotherhood Movement, by Yemen's opposition, critical towards the immobility of regimes in most of the Arab countries. I was told that it was seen as a security risk. To my surprise, I received the acceptance for an interview with the Al Jazeera leader. Mostefa Souag is the General Manager of the Al Jazeera News Channel in Arabic. Prior to that, he held numerous positions within the network, including the Al Jazeera News Director (Arabic) and Media Adviser of the Al Jazeera Administration Board .

He was also the director of the Al Jazeera Study Center headquartered in London and the  Head of the Editorial Bureau, too. Prior to Al Jazeera Media Network, he worked at the BBC World Service and the MBC media group. Souag holds a PhD in literary studies and had been a professor of  Literary Theory at the University of Algiers (Algeria) until 1993. He is fluent in Arabic and English. "The news channel is criticized by governments that do not believe in the right to information."

Dan Andronic: Mr. Mostef Souag, you run the most important news channel in the Middle East. Do you still have the feeling that you are a voice of change? Do you think Al-Jazeera preserves  its initial mission?

Souget Mostef: I think change is the only constant of  the world we live in. And Al Jazeera has been a voice of change since the beginning of November 1, 1996. The change is taking  place right now when we are talking, it has happened and it will be going to happen. However, the change occurs through conflict between the different components, and sometimes you are above, sometimes underneath. I think Al Jazeera was the most important media vehicle in the Middle East from the beginning.

“It's still ...”

“It's still, but Al Jazeera is not only in the Middle East, it has become international. I think Al Jazeera's voice is the most professional voice in the media landscape.”

“Do you believe this despite criticism?”

“Criticism is normal. You cannot run such a press business in a bold manner of making journalism without being criticized. Criticism is a sign of doing the job as journalists in a right manner.”

“Normally you have to worry about lack of criticism when you are a journalist ...”

“Exactly! Criticism is an indicator of  well-done affairs. We often find that we are criticized by both the government and the opposition, both sides believe that Al Jazeera supports others. In the Middle East, this is more pronounced than in the West, because the tradition of  having  highly professional media does not exist. So if you do the right thing, if you are highly balanced, professional, then people will be on the one side, not on the other.”

“Is this the way you build your audience?”

“It's not about building an audience, but about telling the truth to people and letting them judge alone. I think the people who follow us trust us because they saw that every time we were right, those who criticized  us were wrong. We were criticized because Al Jazeera was telling the truth, not because we were doing something wrong. That is why we have such a large audience in the Middle East , and now even internationally.”

“How do you feel as the head of a news channel that is now in the midst of a conflict, or even more, is the reason for a diplomatic conflict in the Middle East?”

„I do not know if it is the reason for the conflict, but it is an important point mentioned in all the requests and it has always been the same. The Al Jazeera news channel was targeted by Arab countries that do not believe in press freedom. In fact, Al Jazeera was targeted by the governments of those countries who do not believe in people's right to know, to have the information on which to base their own decisions. For all of these , Al Jazeera has been put in this situation. Not only (the rulers) the Arabs did it, but of course they were the most aggressive against us. For a long time we were not allowed to send information from Egypt, we were asked to leave Morocco for two years, in Algeria we have no one to work for us, in Tunisia we were not allowed to do our job, in Syria we were was thrown out as soon as the conflict broke out , in Yemen, in Bahrain, we had the same problem, and in the United Arab Emirates we are only allowed to broadcast business reports.”

„We had retired, killed reporters, destroyed offices, but we never listened to those in the government”

“Do you think this is because of the fact that there is a tradition of the media in the Middle East as a part of the state?”

“I want to answer you completely to the previous question. I have a huge responsibility, so when this crisis broke out, I talked to my colleagues and we decided to continue our work and  be as professional as we could be, especially with those who were our opponents, with the people who attack us. We do not want to attack them, but if we have something real, important to say, we will say. We will not do like Al Arabiya or Sky News (rival Arabian rivals), or as Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

“It's important to look at what you are doing ...”

“We are not trying to say the others are right or not, but we will present the real facts to the people and let them judge by themselves. We do not attack, we do not use offensive expressions, but of course we will defend the position of Al Jazeera and we will convey everything we have to say about the other countries. That's the feeling I have. It's about much more responsibility.”

“How was it in 2014 (but another diplomatic conflict between Qatar and other Arab countries, of smaller magnitude, but in which the Al Jazeera issue appeared again)? In 2014, Al Jazeera's closure was once again a big issue in the diplomatic conflict between Qatar and other Arab countries. To my knowledge, then, the Qatar government came with a special request to Al Jazeera management. You have been asked not to report about the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).”

"I do not understand, Al Jazeera has reported on what happened, about the GCC demands, about Al-Jazeera's demands. That's our job, that's what we do. Before that, there were many complaints about Al Jazeera, from Americans, from British, from Egyptians, from Tunisians, but every time the Qatar government did not intervene. We are extremely lucky to be here because the government has been very firm: Al Jazeera is an independent and professional television station and will do everything it takes to stay that way. I have not had any pressure from the Qatar government. Never! We did our job as much as I could for a professional. Sometime, the emir's father said at the beginning of Al Jazeera that we are an independent post and as long as we remain professional no one will intervene in our work.”

„I referred to a clear event. In the 2014 conflict, according to official sources, there was a meeting between Al Jazeera management and representatives of the Qatari government and they presented GCC's request not to broadcast reports about the countries in that organization. This meeting lasted two hours, and, to my knowledge, the result was that Al Jazeera management refused to make the slightest concession. Can you confirm or comment on this?”

“No. That's not what happened in my presence or I knew about it. I can tell you with the utmost confidence that if it happened behind my back...”

“I have an official source that told me this story.”

“Please, bring that official source to tell me where and when it happened. It did not happen like that. I want it to be clear! Never a member of the Qatar government has ever come to Al Jazeera or to meet elsewhere to discuss such things. Neither in 2014, nor in 2017,  nor before, because we had serious problems all the time. We had closed reporters, killed reporters, offices destroyed in Afghanistan, but we never listened to the government, we did not consider the threats, because we were doing our work as journalists. However, by returning to the question, this has never happened!”

“How do you make editorial policy on sensitive issues, do not you see someone from the government?”

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