Inside Al Jazeera: Samir Khaderby Mridu Chandra and Rehan Ansari
When Al Jazeera’s Senior Producer Samir Khader was recently in town for the theatrical release of Control Room, we met him at the Roosevelt Hotel. Born and raised in Baghdad but now living in Jordan, Khader seems right out of the world of American film noir— he’s like a Bogart character who has recognized a moral imperative and struggles with his fear of self and the world. Sitting on the edge of his seat, he holds his cigarette just a little bit away from his mouth so that it looks like he is talking through smoke. His lopsided smile is too soft to be called a sneer, while his self-effacing body language befits his idealist perspective; still, one can imagine him to be a bitch of a boss to work for.
—Rehan Ansari and Mridu Chandra
Rail: How does the fact that Al Jazeera is a target of the U.S. military affect your day-to-day life?
Samir Khader: To the U.S. administration, Al Saud, Al Qaeda, and Al Jazeera mean the same thing. But there was one clear example of the U.S. military targeting us. They knew where our hotel was and they hit us with a missile. Our entire office—23 people—could have been killed. Luckily the missile landed on an outside generator. But it killed Tariq Ayub. Sometimes I hold myself responsible. I sent him on the roof, for our uplink. He didn’t want to go up there, as he thought it was too dangerous. But he fucking had to go—it was his job. How was I to know?
Rail: How did you become involved in Al Jazeera?
Khader: I have been a TV journalist since 1979. I started in French Television. Then I moved to Jordan and worked for Jordan television for 16 years. When Al Jazeera started and advertised for professional journalists I applied. They made me an offer that paid much better: it’s the equivalent of a six-figure salary here. I get a 40-day annual vacation.
Rail: How would you respond to the standard charge that Al Jazeera is "anti-American"?
Khader: This is one of the misconceptions about Al Jazeera. We are an Arab channel with a Western mentality, and one that is actually more American than European. We are an Arabic channel but the staff communicates in English. We only use Arabic when we write the news. When one is inside our station you get the feeling you are in the West. How can we be anti-American? Saying that about us suits some people here in the United States. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, we in the Arab world have had the feeling that the U.S. is looking for an enemy. Sometimes they call it bin Laden, sometimes extremist Islam, sometimes Iraq.
On the other hand, when "the events of Falluja" took place the U.S. military treated me like a king. They were very polite. Very often we get a call from them in the Baghdad office inviting us to be embedded with them on an operation. Sometimes we go, sometimes we don’t—after all, it’s a military operation and therefore dangerous. Anyway, on the ground it’s different: the U.S. military shows us respect and is very cooperative, while it’s the Bush administration that says the negative things about us.
Rail: In general, why does Al Jazeera take so many journalistic risks?
Khader: Even here in the United States there are high-risk stories. Our reporters are more exposed than others because we take risks when others are not willing to, especially in hotspots like Iraq and Palestine. We try to be number one and how can you be that without going to places nobody would dare to? It’s a professional pressure.
Rail: How did you come by such a crusading spirit?
Khader: Usually a free press is the product of a free society. But we are a free press in an undemocratic society. We have become an example. Maybe our standards of journalism are obvious to an American journalist but these standards were completely absent in the Middle East. For example, we tackle questions about sexuality, religion, and corruption, all of which were taboo subjects. So to have a new channel trying to break down these taboos was difficult. Everyone was against us, because we were trying to transgress the norms of society. But as time has passed we feel that our viewers have become more aware. Before Al Jazeera, if you asked an average person in the Middle East what they thought of American values they would have said that Americans support the Israelis against the Palestinians. I think our average viewer will now say that is true, but only a part of the reality, and that America is other things as well, that there is a difference between the American government and the American people and their values.
Rail: So how did Al Jazeera originate?
Khader: It’s very simple. In 1996 the kingdom of Qatar wanted to set up a satellite channel to be part of Qatar television, in order to be just another state-run television station in the Middle East. They were looking for people to set this up. It just so happened that at this time BBC Arabic Service had laid off a lot of people. So somebody from Qatar went to London to recruit them. These ex-BBC people said that we had worked in a democratic country, and now want to work by certain professional ethics and no other way. Qatar decided "why not, let’s try it." At that time there was a new regime in Qatar and the new emir, who was educated in the UK, decided to offer an alternative news source. At the beginning Al Jazeera was a channel like any other, but then it became much more than that.
Rail: You have established yourself as a news agency that hustles for stories even more than US networks. At the same time, Al Jazeera has been criticized for showing casualties.
Khader: There are two ways of describing this war. One is "War in Iraq," and the other is "War on Iraq." For Al Jazeera this is a war on Iraq. Even if some in mainstream media here were willing to question the validity of this war they were unable to do it because of a fear of being labeled unpatriotic. This is my personal opinion, and I’m not speaking for my employers. The American media have not done their job. They have been afraid of this issue: "How dare you not support our troops?" I am sorry, but you are sending your children to fight an unjust war. If this is a war for democracy why not invade Saudi Arabia? Why not Egypt, why not Libya? Why Iraq?
If somebody asks what you associate with war you may answer guns, tanks, soldiers, aircraft, bullets or bombs…but what about the human cost? What about the death of soldiers and civilians? I don’t understand how an American can believe that the US can wage a war using its young, without any of them getting hurt or killed. This is war and it will cost American and Iraqi lives, more Iraqi than American. As long as we reported on Iraqi casualties the Americans were quiet. But when we showed American prisoners and the dead, U.S. authorities went crazy. They were trying to show their people that this is a clean war. When we showed American prisoners, they said Al Jazeera is violating the Geneva Convention. That’s just not true. But when they showed the dead bodies of the sons of Saddam, they said that was all right because how else are the Iraqi people going to know that the danger has ended.
Rail: It has taken a long time for people in media to say anything critical after 9/11. There has been paranoia, suspicion, insecurity, and the Patriot Act. But the war has now made Al Jazeera an international phenomenon.
Khader: Let’s not forget the war started in Afghanistan. We were there. And people in the States did not want to see it. I cannot forget that all the U.S. networks, and the BBC—which I believe has the best standards in journalism—used to take our pictures of the effect of the bombing in Afghanistan and show, for example, a school that was bombed by the Americans and the bodies of children lying on the premises; then they said that these pictures have been broadcast by Al Jazeera but "these allegations cannot be verified by independent sources." Fuck you! You have the pictures. What do you mean independent sources! C’mon!
Sometimes I feel that executives in these big media organizations are just jealous. They don’t have access. They cannot imagine that people of the Third World can think. They think that an Egyptian journalist or an Algerian journalist cannot do a good job. I remember we had an Afghani journalist who was reporting for us on the Taliban and he went to Peshawar and managed to meet a lieutenant of bin Laden and then managed to meet bin Laden. But when we narrated the story on Al Jazeera, the first reaction from an American network was "how could an Afghan journalist who lives under the Taliban show such initiative!"
Rail: Which country in the Middle East do you find it hardest to get access to?
Khader: Saudi Arabia. Because I am an employee of Al Jazeera they don’t even allow me to perform Haj in my private capacity! This is my duty as a Muslim! [laughs]. It’s very hard for all journalists to work in Saudi Arabia. For all journalists anywhere you can work as long as you don’t cross the red line. In Saudi Arabia the red line is the ground under your feet. Our mission is to look for these red lines everywhere and then cross them. What is the point of going to a country and talking about the achievements of the government? Every government in the world is supposed to achieve. As an employee of Al Jazeera, I get deported from 15 of the 22 Arab countries. Our journalists also run into trouble in India. We have to sign an agreement that we will not report on Kashmir. Among the countries that we do have access to are Iran and Pakistan. In Pakistan we were the only camera crew allowed in the area where the Pakistan Army is conducting an operation against Al Qaeda in the tribal territories. And in Iran we are allowed access everywhere.
Rail: Is Al Jazeera getting any competition?
Khader: If the West is genuinely interested in democracy then they will have to suffer hundreds of Al Jazeeras. There is Abu Dhabi television, Al-Arabiya (but that is under Saudi patronage), and there is a channel out of Lebanon (but they are politically close to Hezbollah). They are all very good as journalists but they are all part of the state.
Rail: As Senior Producer at Al Jazeera are you the first to see a bin Laden tape? Or does it just find its way into the conference room?
Khader: For the past year all their communication has been on the Internet. We receive an anonymous phone call telling us to go to such and such website. We search and scroll on some message board and then we start to see some messages, from Al Zawahiri or bin Laden. The Internet is an American creation and it is now being used by an enemy of America. I would like to ask someone at the FBI why are they not able to catch Al Qaeda when they upload a message?