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Journalism and journalists under fire like never before: Al Jazeera chief

Journalism and journalists under fire like never before: Al Jazeera chief

Tribune News Network
Doha
Students, staff and faculty had a chance to hear from Giles Trendle, managing director of Al Jazeera English, about some of the central questions and challenges of covering regional and global news today, at a recent webinar organised by the ‘Media and Politics in the Arab World’ course at Northwestern University Qatar (NU-Q) and the Liberal Arts Programme.
The event, which was moderated by Professor Khaled Al Hroub and student, Noora Al Yafei, centered on how journalism and journalists are ‘under fire like never before’.
Trendle began his talk by noting how “governments and leaders are seeking to discredit and delegitimise credible journalism, and to reduce public trust in the media in general.”
To show how this crisis is unfolding, Trendle provided several examples from his experience working at Al Jazeera to highlight how the profession is under threat.
Over the past 23 years, he noted, 11 reporters from Al Jazeera have lost their lives while covering stories.
“I would even use the word murdered,” Trendle said, “because I would say that they were deliberately targeted as opposed to just being killed in a crossfire.”
Trendle also said that many journalists from Al Jazeera have been unlawfully detained and imprisoned over the years “without appearing in a court to face any charges or any conviction,” citing the examples of Sami al-Hajj, who spent six years in Guantanamo Bay, and more recently Mahmoud Hussein, who has been in custody in Egypt since 2016.
Trendle also said that governments are recognising that there are other “slightly smarter ways” of undermining journalists, explaining how “certain leaders will just throw out the term ‘fake news’ about anything that they don’t particularly like.”
To this end, smear campaigns and legal harassments have proved especially effective as modern techniques of silencing journalists.
Trendle mentioned how the countries that imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017 called for the complete end and closure of Al Jazeera Media Network in their list of 13 demands.
A more recent example, he said, includes a criminal investigation that was launched by the government of Malaysia in response to a documentary by Al Jazeera about “how the COVID pandemic is forcing many illegal foreign migrants in Malaysia into hiding.”
Despite these setbacks, Trendle said that Al Jazeera maintains professionalism and a balance by airing and using footage from press conferences that capture the voices of officials from the Malaysian government or the foreign ministers of the blockading countries, “to make sure that we were getting all sides of the story.”
For Trendle, this was an instance of how “we sit by our journalism because we believe that the journalism was strong,” a lesson he urged the crowd of student journalists to embrace, especially in these challenging times.
Trendle was asked about the need to decolonise the narratives of the protests happening around the world, especially in light of the media’s fixation on their negative aspects when many of them have been peaceful.
Trendle said the network attempts to play its part in this respect by finding local reporters from the region that is being covered as opposed to sending its staff to speak on their behalf.
“We believe that it’s absolutely essential that the people at the heart of the story are the people telling the story and that they’re owning their own narrative,” he said, adding that the spirit of this effort was also reflected in St. Louis Superman a recent Oscar-nominated Al Jazeera documentary about the life of an African American man that was also produced by a racially and ethnically diverse filming crew.
When asked about criticism leveled against Al Jazeera as being in the service of the state, Trendle said there have been numerous attempts to delegitimise the authenticity of the channel, particularly by the blockading countries, but that most claims appear invalid when judged against the actual work of the channel.
“You don’t get Peabody awards, Emmy awards, Oscar nominations by being a platform for a government or for being a propaganda tool for a government,” Trendle said. “You get those through strong credible journalism, which is authentic and which is judged by our international peers.”
Concluding his talk, Trendle said the hostility the world is witnessing towards the media, which is increasingly becoming normalised, is adding “a new twist on the age-old practice of shooting the messenger.” Regardless of the form it takes, “whether it’s physical violence or verbal assault or online abuse or legal harassment, journalists around the world are increasingly being intimidated, detained, imprisoned and even killed and murdered.”
His message to a class of aspiring journalists and professionals in the field is “to hold firm to the idea that media freedom is worth fighting for and that journalism is a very important part of a free society.”
As the managing director of Al Jazeera English, Trendle oversees the channel’s operations in over 70 bureaus around the world with over 400 editorial staff. Trendle first joined Al Jazeera in 2004 and worked on the Arabic Channel’s flagship investigative documentary programme ‘Top Secret’.
He joined Al Jazeera English Channel ahead of its launch in 2006.

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