Interview with Samir Khader, Program Editor for Al-Jazeera

On 1 February 2006 in Doha, Qatar, I interviewed Mr. Samir Khader, Program Editor for Al-Jazeera Channel. Mr. Khader was a key personality in the highly acclaimed documentary “Control Room” about Al-Jazeera. I asked him questions about his channel, Bush’s plans to bomb Al-Jazeera, present and future goals of Al-Jazeera, Iraq and the state of journalism. -DJ
Dahr Jamail: How does Jazeera continue to operate amidst the leaked memo to bomb Jazeera, banned from countries in the Middle East, and in this increasingly hostile environment?

Samir Khader: Do you think that because of such a memo we have to stop working? Of course we can’t. We have to do our job. If the memo was true and George Bush wanted to bomb Jazeera, what can we do? They can do that, and the whole world will know. It’s not because a journalist is threatened that he will not do his job. So, no problem for us.

DJ How do you operate in countries where you’ve been prohibited from working, like Iran and Iraq?

SK As you know, Al-Jazeera has a history of being kicked out from many countries. It’s not new for us. But at the end, these governments reverse their decision and allow us to work. Because at the end, they can’t hide behind masks. They have to tell the truth one day. And one day they discover that we are telling the truth, whether it’s with them or against them. When they kick us out of a given country, they deprive themselves from a mean to answer all the accusations made. For example, if we make accusations at a given country of doing this and this and that and we’re kicked out, they have no means of answering these accusations.

So they realize it is better to have Jazeera with them, under their eyes, so they can use it and use it as a podium also because we are open to everybody. Whether it is opponents or governments, we give the possibility to anyone to express himself or herself. So denying access to al-Jazeera in their own country will in the end be at their own expense.

DJ Which countries right now have prohibited Jazeera from operating in them?

SK Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria. These countries completely prohibit al-Jazeera, 100%. There are other countries who don’t allow us to have a correspondent or to work on a regular basis, but allow us sometimes, for major events, to send a reporter for a couple of days only, then he shall have to leave the country. For example, India and Tunisia. These are important countries where we can only operate on the spot, but not on a regular basis.

Kuwait was one of these countries, but at the end they realized it was better to have al-Jazeera with them, so they allowed us to work there.

DJ Did Jazeera receive an apology or explanation for the leaked Bush/Blair memo?

SK No. Our manager explained that yesterday in his press conference. He explained the whole story. The official spokesman of the British government said there was nothing in that memo that referred to al-Jazeera and Tony Blair also said that at the House of Commons.

But in answering other enquiries from British nationals, the same spokesman recognized that this document, this memo exists and there is a reference to al-Jazeera. So there is a contradiction in their own statements. All we want as a channel is to know the truth. Was it true or not?

So, we’re trying. We didn’t receive an answer yet, but we’re trying.

DJ What are al-Jazeera’s greatest challenges today?

SK Today? Personal opinion of course. The problems of the Middle East, problems of the people. Like democracy and human rights. In all the countries of the Middle East everybody talks about democracy. And when you have elections in one given country, the government starts saying, “Look at our democracy!” But elections are not democracy. Democracy is something else.

I think that we have to focus more on the needs of our people in these times in terms of democracy and human rights. To tell them, “Don’t believe that elections mean democracy. No, it is something else.” And human rights, I don’t think that there is one single Arab country that really respects human rights. Freedom of the press? Where is it? I don’t see it-freedom of the press. We might enjoy it at al-Jazeera, but we are only a tiny part of the press in the Arab world. So all these things, I think we should focus on them more and more.

DJ What are Jazeera’s future plans?

SK We have plans to continue to cover Pakistan, Afghanistan, India or South America. Also we should cover them because we are an international channel. But we have a priority. We are an Arab Channel and we have to address our Arab populations. And I think the management has plans to focus more on these things.

SK I spent two weeks in Fallujah in April ’04. I then went to the “Green Zone” and went two times to press conferences of General Kimmitt where he asked Iraqis and Arabs to change the channel. I did an interview with him and I asked, “General…you’re not supposed to be afraid of us. We’re here everyday with you. Why did you ask people to change the channel?” He said, “Look, you do your job and I’ll do mine.” (he laughs) It amazes me that the Americans complain about al-Jazeera. When I was, at that time in 2004, in the field in Iraq, I didn’t feel that the Americans used to look at al-Jazeera as the enemy.

I used to hear Donald Rumsfeld attacking al-Jazeera, depicted as the enemy. But on the field, no. I used to look at and try to socialize with the simple American soldiers. These are poor guys! Most of them, they don’t know what they are doing in Iraq. They were told to go there for many reasons. Some want a scholarship, others want citizenship, any other reason. Some, because they are patriots. They are patriots, of course, all of the American soldiers. But they told them they had a job to do-to topple Saddam Hussein, to occupy Iraq, they did the job. And then what? To become the police? It’s not the role of an army to do the policing in a country, in a vast country like Iraq. So, this is a big problem for the Americans.

If I was in the shoes of George W. Bush I don’t know what I would do. As an Arab I will tell him to get out of Iraq. But if I were an American and a high ranking official in that administration, I don’t know. He’s really in a very bad position.

DJ Would you like to comment on the current state of journalism?

SK Journalism has changed much in the last years. Can you imagine, if Bob Woodward and Bernstein, were to uncover Watergate today? Would they be able to do it? Because today, now, they tell you, “What’s your source?” You have to uncover your source, otherwise you go to jail. And this happened with Judith Miller. Which means that journalists no longer have the ability to do their job.

I tried to meet with Bob Woodward last May when I was in Washington DC. I went to Washington and NY and tried to meet with him just to ask him this question: If you had similar information, inside information like that which led to Watergate, would you be able to publish it? I’m sure of the answer, but I couldn’t find him.