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Interview with Ibrahim Helal, Chief Editor, Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera's Ibrahim Helal (left) and Mohammed Jasim Al Ali. Photo: Jehane Nujaim.

In a rapidly changing world of satellite television news there is one constant - Ibrahim Helal the chief editor (news director in American parlance) of Al Jazeera, who never seems to leave the News Center and must have secretly married the channel in some arcane ceremony half a decade ago, given the extent of his devotion to the job. Schleifer interviewed Helal in Doha during the first week of the war and then spoke with him again by phone on April 14th from Washington DC.

Schleifer: What sort of reaction did you get from your viewers when suddenly you were transmitting pictures of Saddam's statue being toppled and the people of Baghdad, or at least a good number of them, were smiling, cheering, and waving in a friendly fashion at the Americans and telling the press corps covering the fall of the regime what a relief it was to be, if you'll pardon the expression, "liberated."

Helal: It was shocking for many of our viewers. Many of our viewers called to say, "We cannot believe he has collapsed, we cannot believe Saddam has gone and Iraq is under occupation." Some viewers suggested that perhaps he was still in the area, in a suburb of Baghdad, with his best forces preparing a counter-attack. But some of our viewers said that this was to be expected, that for years these people had endured a very repressive regime and his overthrow, no matter by whom, was a relief. And some of these same viewers said they could even understanding the looting that followed since ordinary people in Baghdad felt that Saddam and the regime had stolen from them for years so they were going to get something back. But of course, many more of our viewers were in a state of shock, and some went so far as to insist that the crowds cheering the Americans, and cheering when the statue was pulled down weren't really Baghdadis, but people brought in for the occasion by the Americans from Kuwait.

Schleifer: Toward the end of the first week of the war it was suddenly announced that two of your reporters were told to stop reporting by the Iraqi authorities and one of them, Taysir Allouni, had been ordered out of the country. The order was rescinded but then the Iraqi minister of information Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahhaf criticized Al Jazeera in the course of one of his briefings, saying Al Jazeera was following the Coalition line. What exactly was that all about?

Helal: Two of our reporters in Baghdad were told not to report. One of them was Iraqi, but the non-Iraqi, Taysir Allouni, was told also to leave. He ignored the order to leave and we informed the Iraqi government that we wouldn't do any reporting from anywhere else in Iraq, so after 12 hours the government relented and said Al Jazeera's two reporters could return to work. But to give the minister a taste of our independence we didn't resume work immediately, in fact we waited for 36 hours. But of course we continued from Doha to report on developments in Iraq and while we wouldn't use our own pictures since our crews weren't working, we did use APTN video of the Americans in Baghdad Airport when he was still denying that the Americans controlled the airport. And that was the basis of his attacks on us during his briefing, accusing us of "taking Coalition's side." And then when our reporter did return to work and went on air and said he could see American tanks approaching one of the Republican palaces in central Baghdad, the minister again denounced Al Jazeera for lying during a press briefing and after the briefing was over he cursed the reporter out, using vile language.

Schleifer: Well, I found the information minister so outrageous, so over the limit of rational discourse, that he was almost charming in his madness and indeed I'm not the only one-he is becoming a cult figure in the West, however difficult it was for your people to deal with him. But let me ask you about the tragic death of your reporter, killed when your office was shelled. At the time I can understand the anger and rage and the suggestion by some it was intentional but then are we to consider that John Simpson's near miss due to an American bombing run was intentional, and given the way that the officers at Centcom have gone out of the way to woo Al Jazeera and offer you more embeds then any other Arab television broadcasters, I cannot even consider the idea of an intentional attack.

Helal: I don't think it was intentional. I think it was careless, far more careless than the attack that nearly got John Simpson. His caravan of cars had come right up close to an Iraqi tank, which was what the American pilot had targeted. And we had given the Pentagon the coordinates of our office months ago and they told us we would be safe there. No doubt there could have been some outgoing fire but not directly from our building, so this casual carelessness which resulted in the death of our correspondent occurred in many other cases like the failure of the Americans to protect the museum. and the hospitals even though they had been warned of the danger of looting once the regime collapsed well in advance of the event. This is something we can never accept.

Schleifer: The last time we were here it was in the earliest days of the Afghanistan War. Al Jazeera was just about the only voice out of Kabul and you were pulling down the CNN feed from Northern Alliance territory as the first fruit of your deal with Atlanta. How has the operation changed since then?

Helal: We are much more involved in outside activities, like field reporting, opening more bureaus, activating more facilities, getting quicker fast rushes, soundtracks, and many versions of reports. Now we can simultaneously produce three reports from the same source, going live to the correspondent, covering his report with pictures, and turning it into a fully edited package. We have three different ways of producing news reports out of one feed.

And we are undertaking far more simultaneous presentations, spotlighting correspondents on the screen and asking them to submit questions to each other.

Finally our Washington bureau now has a full-fledged direct 24-hour open satellite line, with three live positions in the office, which is in itself a new office opened only two months before the war. Since the war started, we have a daily slot of one to two hours coming from Washington-with interviews, guests, commentaries, and our own reports at the Pentagon and the State Department. In New York, we have as a political reporter Abdur Rahim Fuqara, who is ex-BBC; he joined us one year ago. And Abdur Rahim connects our viewers with personalities like the Syrian American filmmaker Mustafa Akkad, as well as Arab-American community figures. During the build-up to the war, we would go to the Washington bureau and have them handle the live coverage. Hafez, our bureau chief, would have the freedom to cut away from the debate at the UN to do interviews, and for the Security Council debates, we took for a sound track the official Arabic translator's voice.

Technically speaking our direct link from DC to Doha is two seconds faster than anybody else's, so we have the sharpest edge in time when compared to all other live coverages from DC to the region.

Schleifer: What about the unique reciprocal relationship that you developed with CNN on the eve of the Afghanistan War?

Helal: We still have a reciprocal relationship but not like before because we have very effective relations with other broadcasters like ABC and BBC. We take reports from their reporters from the field, like the coverage of the assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister, so we took a feed from the ABC producer in Belgrade and she was excellent and we broke the story on the arrest of local gangsters as the suspected assassins.

But as we increase our network of correspondents and bureaus, we don't feel so much of a need for the material of others, as much as they increasingly feel the need for us.

Schleifer: The major new development since Afghanistan is that now you have real competition from other Arab satellite channels offering 24-hour all-news formats like Al Arabiya, and Abu Dhabi, or vastly improved coverage like what LBC can put up on the satellite thanks to the many reporters of Al Hayat who are now feeding news to LBC.

Helal: Well, this competition is giving the Arab audience better choices but at the same time it puts the Arab audience in a position to judge, not like before-once viewers have right to choose and to ask themselves why do I watch this channel and not the other, the answer will invariably be in favor of Al Jazeera because we are the only channel working without a political agenda.

The first day of the bombing in Baghdad, Saudi TV simply took Arabiya and ran it instead of their own programming, and that move harmed Al Arabiya because it disclosed the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Al Arabiya.

Abu Dhabi took the idea of Sheikh Zayid that Saddam should resign, should stand down, and they promoted it with several interviews with very long sound bites with the Emirates information minister, in other words, they behaved like a national channel rather than an independent global channel. It's good for us to have these two channels around simply to establish the independence of Al Jazeera.

Schleifer: All right. Lets looks look for an equivalent situation. When Qatar walked out of the foreign ministers meeting at the Arab League in Cairo on the eve of the war, saying quite clearly that the meeting was a waste of time, how did his walkout affect Al Jazeera's coverage of the rest of that session of UN decision making.

Helal: We stayed with the meeting and we didn't even run the clip of the foreign minister walking out for two hours because we were taking live coverage from Mosul and Baghdad which had greater news value.

Schleifer: Well, I must concede that that certainly is not the way a national channel behaves. 

About Abdallah Schleifer

S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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