07 Dec 2006
An Interview With Al-Jazeera Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Sheikh
by Pierre Heumann
Pierre Heumann of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche spoke with
Al-Jazeera Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Sheikh in Doha. This revealing
interview appears here in English for the first time.
Mr. Sheikh, as the Editor in Chief of Al-Jazeera, you are one of
the most important opinion-makers in the Arab world. What do you
call suicide bombers?
For what is happening in Palestine, we never use the expression
What do you call it then?
In English, I would describe it as "bombings."
And in Arabic?
Literally translated, we would speak of "commando attacks." In
our culture, it is precisely not suicide.
But instead a praiseworthy act?
When the country is occupied and the people are being killed by
the enemy, everyone must take action, even if he sacrifices
himself in so doing.
Even if in so doing he kills innocent civilians?
That is not a Palestinian problem, but a problem of the Israelis.
You're avoiding the question.
Not at all. When the Israeli Army attacks, it kills civilians. An
army should be able to distinguish between military and civilian
targets. But how many innocent people did it kill in Beit Hanoun?
And then they justify this in saying that the grenade went
astray, that there was a technical problem or something. But who
There's a difference between Palestinian "commando actions" and
Israeli military operations. In the one case, the aim is to kill
as many civilians as possible; in the other, it is exclusively a
matter of military targets.
Oh really? If the Israelis made such mistakes only once or twice
a year, I would agree with you and say that it didn't happen
intentionally. But such mistakes happen every week. There are
three possible explanations for this: either the military
equipment is not up to date or the soldiers are badly trained and
do not know how to use their weapons or they do it intentionally.
Now, we know that the Israelis get the best weaponry from the
American arsenal and that the soldiers are well trained. That
leaves, then, only one conclusion: they do it intentionally.
You come originally from Nablus: a city that was occupied by the
Israelis in 1967. In 1968 you left your homeland to study in
Jordan. When you say that, is it the Palestinian in you speaking,
who regards Israel as the enemy, or the journalist, who is
dedicated to finding the truth.
Articles on this Issue
So your personal background has no influence on your work?
When I'm in the newsroom, I forget my personal background. I set
aside my political convictions. The news story is sacred for me.
One cannot change it. One has to broadcast the story, as it is.
Still, I have trouble believing that you leave out your personal
history in assessing a story.
You're right. It's not always possible at work completely to
separate oneself from one's personal background. For example, in
the newsroom one evening I received the images of the poor little
girl whose parents were killed on the beach in Gaza and who was
screaming in such a heartbreaking way. I went into my office,
closed the door, and cried. Then I decided to broadcast the
images of the girl screaming, but without commentary. In this
case, you could, of course, say to me that it was the Palestinian
in me who acted. Nonetheless, I do believe that one can separate
oneself from one's personal background provided one works hard
enough at it. In the newsroom, an editor has to set aside his
personal feelings. Otherwise, you lose credibility.
How did you report on Beit Hanoun, where 19 Palestinians were killed?
We interviewed people on location. We even spoke with the
Israelis. We wanted to know from them if they had done it
intentionally, which, of course, they denied. We had to ask them
that. As professional journalists, we can't afford only to speak
to Palestinians. Even if you hate the Israelis that doesn't mean
that you shouldn't speak with them. They are, after all, a party
to the conflict.
Did you show all the images from Beit-Hanoun or did you censor
particularly gruesome bloody scenes?
We didn't show close-ups of what was too brutal. We don't want to
turn the spectator's life into a nightmare.
Evidently, for your coverage of Iraq other standards apply. You
have repeatedly shown beheadings of western hostages. In the
U.S., you are accused of using Al-Jazeera to incite the Iraqi
population against the American troops.
The U.S.A. is occupying a country and one has not only to expect,
but also to accept that the people there resist. You see
yourself: in the end, the American Secretary of Defense, Donald
Rumsfeld, had to resign. Because everyone in the White House and
in Washington understood that the man was a catastrophe. In fact,
I am sorry about his resignation. (Laughs.) With his attacks
against us, he was a very good promoter of Al-Jazeera. But
seriously: now even Tony Blair, in his interview with Al-Jazeera
[November 18], has admitted that the war in Iraq is a disaster.
The British now say that he misspoke, that he didn't mean it like
that. But I ask you: can one justify the American policy and
America's actions in Iraq? My opinion is clear. The Americans
should stop accusing us of putting the lives of their soldiers in
Iraq in danger with our reports.
Is that why you again and again broadcast tapes of Osama bin
Laden that your station receives?
You are a journalist and you must know actually that if somebody
offers you a tape or an interview with bin Laden, you don't
hesitate to accept the offer -- even if it will get you sent to
It's striking, of course, that Al-Jazeera has a quasi-monopoly on
information coming from the milieu of bin Laden. Obviously, you
are close to them. On conservative blogs, your network is even
called "Osama TV."
Because the Americans are in a difficult situation in Iraq, they
are looking for scapegoats and they've found one in Al-Jazeera.
In the last five or six years, we've received maybe two or three
tapes per year. That's news that we cannot hold back from our
public. Besides, we're not the only ones to get mail occasionally
from bin Laden. In the past, CNN was also in the mailing list,
and news agencies like the AP or broadcasters like Al-Arabiya
also receive messages from al Qaida. It's true, though, that we
receive such tapes more often than the others. Then we put this
information in a news context. When, for example, bin Laden
offers a 90-day ceasefire or when he takes responsibility for the
bombings in Madrid, we have, of course, to report on it. It's news.
It's not only in Washington that you have few friends among those
in power. It's also the case in the Arab world.
We are not aiming to overthrow any regime. It is part of our code
of honor, however, that we value people's right freely to express
their opinions. We provide information, nothing else. We see
ourselves as a pluralistic forum dedicated to the search for the
truth. If in the process we manage to help to push through
reforms, of course we're happy about that.
Al-Jazeera has been broadcasting for ten years now -- but there
is precious little democracy or reform to be found in the Arab world.
We don't say to the Egyptians "Overthrow the regime!" That is not
our job. But if the people should vote out Hosni Mubarak one day
at the ballot box, we will report on it of course. We are always
uncovering cases of corruption -- like just recently in Egypt. If
one disseminates such information, sooner or later it has to have
an effect. People begin to pose questions.
You don't only target the Egyptian regime, but practically all
the Arab regimes in the region. As consequence, the editorial
offices of your network are always being shut down. In what
countries are you blacklisted at the moment?
Saudi Arabia has never allowed us to work. Just once, we were
allowed to report on the Hajj and I went there to shoot a film.
Tunisia and Algeria have stopped us; Iraq banned us temporarily;
for a time our reporters were also not allowed into Syria,
Jordan, and Kuwait. We also have problems in Sudan, because we
report on the atrocities in Darfur, where innocent people are
being killed. In Khartoum, they weren't happy that we broadcast a
report on this subject and they threw us out. Later, however, the
Sudanese thought better of it and they let us work in the country
again. We never make compromises, because we don't want to put
our credibility at risk. The Iranians also shut down our bureau
for a time, after we broadcast a report on the oppressed Arab
minority in Iran. The report provoked demonstrations in Iran and
the Iranian government held us responsible. We don't want to
serve as the mouthpiece of those in power -- as, unfortunately,
so many of our competitors do.
You describe yourself as independent. Since the amount of
advertising on Al-Jazeera is limited, one has to wonder who is
financing such a costly news channel.
The Qatari government covers 75 percent of our expenses. The
remaining 25 percent we cover ourselves through our commercial
activities. But we take no instructions from the Qatari government.
One hears it said, of course, that your independence ends where
criticism of the royal family of Qatar, your financiers, begins.
What nonsense! Whoever says that obviously does not follow our
broadcasts very carefully. We do criticize the government of Qatar.
We criticize the large presence of the American air force in the
country. We also criticize the fact that the Israelis are
permitted to have a diplomatic representation in Doha. But,
besides that, I have to ask you: what happens in Doha that would
be worth reporting about? Qatar is a small country. Apart from
the skyscrapers -- which spring from the ground like mushrooms
and nobody knows why they're needed -- absolutely nothing happens
here. It is impossible to compare Qatar with Saudi Arabia and the
social unrest there or with Iran or Iraq. Our situation at
Al-Jazeera is comparable to that of the BBC. This highly
respected network is also financed by the government. If the BBC
is independent -- and nobody doubts that it is -- why don't
people accept that this is also the case for us?
Of course, the BBC is financed via taxes. . . . Up to now, one
could only hear Al-Jazeera in Arabic. Since mid-November, an
English-language news channel is also part of your group. Does
this represent competition for you?
Not at all. Our new channel is the perfect complement for us.
Let's do a test. Suppose that your bureau uncovers a corruption
scandal. Who reports first on it and thus gets the praises for
their investigative work: you or your colleagues with the
It would be destructive to create a situation of competition at
the interior of the Al-Jazeera group. So, we would bring out the
revelation simultaneously, in Arabic and in English. After all,
we belong to the same organization and we work together in
perfect harmony. If, however, we send out two reporters and in
the end our man comes back with a worse story than his colleague
at the English-language channel, I'd give him a slap. I couldn't
But it's possible that you will have to accept that your budget
could be restricted by the new channel, since the investor is the
I hope that won't be the case. I hardly believe that the investor
will permit budget cuts at the Arabic channel. I'm convinced that
it will remain the most important part of the organization.
How can you be so sure?
The influence of the Arabic channel in the Arab world is
enormous. Go to Amman or Jerusalem or Cairo or Casablanca: With
around 50 million spectators, we are the most important source of
information in the Arab world and the most important
opinion-maker. In Palestine, for example, we are seen by 76
percent of the population.
What are you expecting from the English-language channel?
We are hoping to contribute with it to the mutual understanding
of cultures. Above all in a time of crisis, it is important to
clear up misunderstandings in order to defuse conflicts.
Of course, often you stir up conflicts. For example, in the case
of the Mohammed cartoons.
I can't accept this accusation. For example, we interviewed the
editor of the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons.
In doing that, we helped to reduce tensions.
Of course, many people claim that you outright staged the conflict.
Nonsense. We never even showed the cartoons. It was not us, but a
news agency that first reported about the cartoons. It was a good
story, a very important piece of news. It had consequences. There
were demonstrations, there were debates. It was a subject of
conversation. And, of course, we had to report on all that. It is
not, after all, the responsibility of a news organization to
decide whether to play up a particular story or to cool things
down. That's not our job. We have to report and in as unpartisan
a manner as possible. If the situation does not calm down, that's
not my fault. I only have to guarantee that my sources are
reliable, credible and precise.
Did you abide by this rule in your coverage of the Pope's speech?
When the Pope claimed in public that Islam and the Prophet
Mohammed only use the sword and accused Muslims of being
ignorant, our editor did not really grasp the significance of
this text. Until I explained to him that it was a highly
important speech and that he should make a headline out of it.
Was it right and was it necessary to give so much weight to a
speech that the Pope gave in the context of an academic ceremony?
Of course. We have to report, after all, what the highest
authority of the Church thinks about Mohammed and Islam.
But the Pope merely cited a medieval scholar.
But why did he do that? Normally, one cites someone in order to
support one's own point of view.
You have become one of the most important opinion-makers in the
Arab world and you play in the major leagues of the international
media. What is your journalistic credo?
I am not a big fan of the CNN motto to try always to be the first
with news. I consider scoops that are obtained at the cost of
truth and precision to be dangerous. In order to avoid only one
mistake, I prefer that the competition gets to a story faster
than me ten times. Because a mistake costs us our credibility. Of
course, we still do strive to be fast. We always have a suitcase
available with $150,000 dollars in cash in it. Whenever we want
to send a reporter to a war zone, we hand the suitcase over to
him, so that he can pay his expenses underway in an
unbureaucratic manner. That gives us flexibility.
Mister Sheikh, as a young man you had to leave your homeland.
What effect did this have on your personality?
If I had stayed in Nablus, I probably would have turned out
differently. But deep within you there is something that never
changes; and that is the formative influence of one's childhood.
We always remain children. If the child in you dies off, then
you're finished. So, it is a blessing for humanity, if the child
in you is kept alive.
What do you remember for example?
I still remember clearly how the Israelis invaded our town in
June 1967. We were expecting them from the West, but they
attacked from the East. Since I wanted to study, after that I
went to Jordan. Of course, that was important for my later
development. If I had remained in Palestine, I would see the
death and the problems every day. I would have to witness how
Palestinian land is confiscated. I would even have to put up with
having to speak with the enemy at road blocks. I would have to
put up with the daily humiliations of the occupying power, but
also to observe how Israelis are killed by suicide bombers.
How do you see the future of this region in which news of wars,
dictators and poverty predominates?
The future here looks very bleak.
Can you explain what you mean by that?
By bleak I mean something like "dark." I've advised my thirty
year old son, who lives in Jordan, that he should leave the
region. Just this morning I spoke with him about it. He has a son
and we spoke about his son's education. I'd like my grandson to
go to a trilingual private school. The public schools are bad. He
should learn English, German, and French -- Spanish would also be
important. But the private schools are very expensive. That's why
I told my son to emigrate to the West for the sake of my grandson.
You sound bitter.
Yes, I am.
At whom are you angry?
It's not only the lack of democracy in the region that makes me
worried. I don't understand why we don't develop as quickly and
dynamically as the rest of the world. We have to face the
challenge and say: enough is enough! When a President can stay in
power for 25 years, like in Egypt, and he is not in a position to
implement reforms, we have a problem. Either the man has to
change or he has to be replaced. But the society is not dynamic
enough to bring about such a change in a peaceful and
In many Arab states, the middle class is disappearing. The rich
get richer and the poor get still poorer. Look at the schools in
Jordan, Egypt or Morocco: You have up to 70 youngsters crammed
together in a single classroom. How can a teacher do his job in
such circumstances? The public hospitals are also in a hopeless
condition. These are just examples. They show how hopeless the
situation is for us in the Middle East.
Who is responsible for the situation?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most important
reasons why these crises and problems continue to simmer. The day
when Israel was founded created the basis for our problems. The
West should finally come to understand this. Everything would be
much calmer if the Palestinians were given their rights.
Do you mean to say that if Israel did not exist, there would
suddenly be democracy in Egypt, that the schools in Morocco would
be better, that the public clinics in Jordan would function better?
I think so.
Can you please explain to me what the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict has to do with these problems?
The Palestinian cause is central for Arab thinking.
In the end, is it a matter of feelings of self-esteem?
Exactly. It's because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the
people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel,
with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation
with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The
Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West's
problem is that it does not understand this.
Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent of the Swiss
weekly Die Weltwoche. His interview with Ahmed Sheikh originally
appeared in German in Die Weltwoche on Nov. 23, issue 47/06. The
English translation is by John Rosenthal.
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