A Month of Controversy and Hope

Last month was exciting. The excitement, controversy and indeed furor surrounding the launch of the Huffington Post Arabi website brought back to me lots of memories. Vivid, day to day memories of two decades of my work as a journalist.

I became head of Aljazeera in October 2003, having worked in the field as a correspondent across the African continent as well as in India, Afghanistan and Iraq. This was during a critical time both politically and in security terms for the Middle East. I hesitated when the top management post in Aljazeera was offered to me. I was skeptical of how effective I or anyone could be working in a comfortable newsroom or behind plush management doors. It seemed to me to be deathly quiet and monotonous.

I still had that bug inside me for getting to where the story is, wherever it is and at whatever the cost. I believe that journalists have a mission, a mission to explain, a mission to enforce everyone's right to knowledge. There is nothing more beautiful than being a journalist, living through what people are experiencing, sharing their hopes, passions, stories and tragedies, and communicating this to the outside world. That's why I think that the reporter in the field is the best, most enjoyable and most noble job in journalism.

One thing attracted me to the new job. I wanted to see if I could recreate the excitement of working on the front line within the newsroom itself. I accepted the challenge and worked with a distinguished journalistic and management team for eight years. The course we were on turned out to be far from quiet or monotonous. Those eight years were filled with challenges and accomplishments. During these years, the Middle East saw wars, conflicts and revolutions. Aljazeera grew from a single news channel into a global network that broadcasted in Arabic and English and possessed the widest and most pluralistic field coverage network of any organization. We had 55 different nationalities working for us, not to mention ethnicities, religions and cultures. During that time, Aljazeera became one of the most influential brands in the world.

Success like that comes at a price. A number of Arab regimes were horrified to see Aljazeera gain the popularity it did. The channel became the target of streams of accusations from all sides. One conspiracy theory was widespread. Aljazeera stood accused of being an Israeli invention, especially when the channel decided to give air time to Israelis. I still remember the articles published in the Egyptian press claiming, spitefully, that an Israeli Mossad officer was stationed in an office on the channel's ground floor from where he directed all editorial matters.

When I was officially appointed Director General of Aljazeera, the same writers claimed that I was an American stooge and that my appointment was ordered by Paul Bremer, the US Envoy to Iraq, simply because I was the first to conduct a media interview with him. It was possibly also because the last Iraqi information minister in the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had accused me of being a US agent and threatened to hang me in Baghdad's Freedom Square for transmitting my reports from Iraqi Kurdistan.

With the passage of time, and as events and Aljazeera's coverage unfolded in the region, the accusations assumed all sorts of shapes and sizes. Many of them were directed at me personally. I was accused of being an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a friend of Hizbollah, a close associate of Hamas -- all this while being a US agent and mouthpiece for one regime after another. In 2004, the George Bush administration and the government of Tony Blair joined in the hunt and accused Aljazeera of communicating with Al-Qaeda and the armed groups in Iraq. I was personally accused of the same.

This continued right up until the end. In 2011, I resigned from my post as Director General of Aljazeera network. It was claimed then that I had been a CIA agent whose "affair" was exposed by WikiLeaks papers. This was in reference to a document that had been doctored, twisted, and taken out of context to make it appear like a credible charge.

I took the accusations in the same manner as I took the accolades. My name was included in the 2009 Forbes magazine's most influential personalities. The American magazine Fast Company placed me at the top of its 2011 list of innovators and Foreign Policy magazine included my name in its list of political thinkers for the same year.

Neither the awards nor the malicious lies really affected me. I have always told those working in the public life not to let themselves be uplifted by praise nor downcast by a lie. A man or woman's real value lies in what they achieve and what they deliver. If there is a standard by which a journalist needs to be judged, it should be the service he or she provides to their readers, viewers or audience. Perhaps the dearest and happiest moments for me have been those when I encountered ordinary people who spontaneously and sincerely expressed their admiration and appreciation. That, indeed, is the highest prize anyone can achieve.

Aljazeera was, by all standards, a very special experience. The most important thing about it is its close proximity to its viewers. The channel opened unprecedented horizons in the Arab media and broke the monopoly of regimes over the news. It sanctified freedom of speech and the value of dialogue between one opinion and its opposite.

When I left it I started thinking about a new project that addresses the Arabs across the political and religious spectrum, especially the youth. The project would rely on the revolution of digital communication, for I believe that the media too is going through transition and that the internet provides a wonderful opportunity for wider communication than that offered by the traditional media.

Many ideas were proposed to me. Yet, what attracted me to the Huffington Post was that it was a truly global enterprise, which published in different languages and offered two simultaneous platforms: a platform for dialogue inside the one society and a platform for dialogue among people of different languages and cultures. I was impressed by a website that hosts blogs that are open to many. I liked the idea that officials and experts would be writing side by side with ordinary people. I considered this to be part of the spirit of the age of networking and social communication. I saw it as a means of ending exclusion and the elitism of traditional pyramids of power. It opened up a vast flat playing field of dialogue. This is exactly what the Arab world needs.

All this comes to mind as I reflect on the first month since the Huffington Post Arabi was launched. The site is attracting more and more bloggers and is opening up huge new horizons to anyone who has an idea or an opinion. In the meantime, I have also followed the media campaign waged against the website. Some of the attacks have been personal, directed against me and against the website's editor in chief, and some have been casting doubt on the objectives and policies of the website.

On the website's launch day, an Egyptian pro-regime newspaper attacked it, claiming that it is nothing but a new banner for the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, in the same spirit, it was confidently declared in English that the website is nothing but a platform for conservative Islamists. This was a repeat of the same lies that had been propagated in the Arab media, but with the addition of charges which would reverberate with the Western secular reader. It was claimed it was against homosexuals, was hostile to Israel, incited violence against minorities, opposed Western culture and incited against it. All this happened in the first three weeks of the launch.

During the same period, activists close to the Islamic movements organized a campaign against the website through the social networks because the website welcomed bloggers who support the Egyptian regime. They demanded that such bloggers should never be permitted to write since they happen to be enemies of the revolution. A journalist wrote a blog on an Arabic language Turkish website attacking the site because a blogger published an article in which he criticized the Turkish President.

Had any one asked me directly, and put those allegations to me as they are obliged to do as professional journalists, I would have said that the website and those who manage it are not part of any political party or ideological group. It is an independent website that belongs to the Huffington Post Media Group, which now publishes in 10 different languages. The website is a platform open to many and the blogs that are published on it do not necessarily represent the opinion of the website itself.

As the editorial team was preparing for the launch of the Huffington Post Arabi website, it wrote to hundreds of activists, writers and intellectuals of various political and ideological persuasions, inviting them to write. A large number of them took up our offer. Some people have expressed disappointment because the website hosts bloggers from political backgrounds which are different from theirs, but the website continues to embrace all ideas, not out of a desire to look good or pretend to be so, but out of an absolute conviction that the role of the journalist is to witness the reality and convey with all honesty the various perspective within it. A journalist should not play the role of the judge or censor unless the views violate our editorial guidelines of inciting violence, condemning an entire group, or promoting unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

As for the accusations leveled at the website that it adopts a conservative policy in contrast to the English-language edition, this is a fallacy. It is not the job of any media institution to stand in favor of one party against the other, especially within the extremely pluralistic reality in the Arab world. We have secularists, Islamists, nationalists and leftists and we also have diverse races, sects and organizations. In order for it to be a success story the website would have to provide space for dialogue for all of these constituencies.

One of the most important reasons behind the success of the English edition is that it accurately reflects the priorities, concerns and interests of its readers. Would it really be wise for the Arabic edition to reflect the priorities of the American public?

Since September 11th, 2001, Western institutions have been launching Arabic language channels and websites in a bid to attract the Arab public. However, most of these remained marginal in their impact because they copied and pasted their work in an environment that was completely different to the one they were used to operating in. This is exactly what the Huffington Post website is trying to avoid doing.

Over the past 20 years, I have worked with colleagues from diverse international media institutions. I was, and still am, convinced that the innovative journalist is one who places the news within its natural context. This is not possible to achieve unless one has a flexible mindset that believes in cultural and civilizational pluralism and embraces an explanatory paradigm emanating from within the society under coverage. The world is indeed pluralistic. Yet, politicians and journalists often miss this point. They monitor and analyze the situation from the point of view of their own intellectual and cultural biases. They compare the best of what they have with the worst of what the others have. As such, they fail to understand the events and their contexts and fail to predict their future consequences.

The Middle East has suffered considerably because of these biases and many international institutions have failed to cover the region because of the centrality rooted in its cultural paradigm and its explanatory vision. The Western media failed to cover Afghanistan and just dragged behind official narratives on the war on Iraq. Of late, it has opted to withdraw from the field within the region after things became too complicated and rather dangerous. It has preferred to follow events superficially from afar despite the fact that those events had an enormous impact on the future of the entire world.

The Huffington Post Arabi website endeavors to be Arab in spirit and global in inclination. As for its editorial rules, they will adhere to the same principled journalistic standards that are adhered to by all the various Huffington Post websites while of course asserting regional priorities at the present time. These include: embracing the culture of positive dialogue instead of exclusion, spreading hope instead of desperation, showing tolerance and mutual respect instead of bigotry, and demonstrating absolute belief in intellectual, religious and ideological pluralism as well as opening up to other world experiences around us. In doing so, we shall benefit from the other Huffington Post websites that publish in various languages so as to provide the Arab reader with a colorful outlook on the world as seen by its own folks.

The task is not easy. The outrage and tragedy and pain sweeping through the region, the absence of a political horizon, the fervent passions which feed on the images of death and destruction across the streets of the Middle East are hardly the right milieu for cerebral dialogue. We may encounter such outrage in a blog or in a news report that may amount to what we consider a violation of editorial rules. If these are digressions, they are unintentional ones, and we take action to enforce our guidelines when appropriate.

Last week an article was published in which the website was attacked for distorting Turkey's image by publishing a blog criticizing the policies of the Turkish president. By the evening of that same day an American magazine accused the website of promoting Erdogan. I recalled, then, a quote by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who said, commenting on accusations leveled at him in 1948 by both sides of the Cold War: "If that were to happen, it would prove only one thing: either I am clumsy, or that I am on the right road."

This post first appeared on HuffPost Arabi and was translated into English.