Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera America's website

ITHACA, N.Y. — Amjad Atallah, editor-in-chief at Al Jazeera America, gave a lecture titled “Journalism Under Fire” on Thursday in Cornell’s Lewis Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall.

[do_widget id= text-55 ]

The lecture was this year’s installment of The Daniel W. Kops Freedom of the Press series, which has been offered for over a decade, according to Prof. Michael Jones-Correa, chair of government, who introduced Atallah.

Below are my favorite quotes from the lecture.

Amjad Atallah, editor-in-chief at Al Jazeera America

1 – On the uniqueness of the Al Jazeera Media Network

“Al Jazeera Arabic was the first Pan-Arabic news channel. It was government-funded, but not government-run […] Many [journalists] who worked for BBC prior but who were from all over the Middle East and all over the region provided a unique perspective on a region that had never encountered dissidents or opponents of governments on TV […] [Al Jazeera Arabic] opened up and exploded the entire media landscape in the Middle East.”

2 – On Atallah’s own journey: How he got into journalism from his graduate program in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia

“I was studying Holocaust literature, and we were studying colonialism in the Middle East and a number of other related topics, and one of the questions that everybody had […] was that many people did not find out just about how horrible the Holocaust was and what was happening until after the fact, even though governments knew and people knew, and people were trying to bring it up […]

There was a reporter named Roy Gutman […] who had been assigned to go to Germany and set up a bureau for Newsday, and while he was there the war in Yugoslavia started, so he was sent to Yugoslavia to figure out what was going on […] They found there way to a concentration camp in the middle of Europe in the 1990s […] All of a sudden people began reading and realizing that there were death camps [….] in the middle of Europe close to every European capital and there was no international response about it.”

“I could not believe that these kind of things could happen again, again, and again, despite all the slogans about never again […] What should I do? What do I need to be involved in and how do I need to be engaged? So I cashed out with my Masters, if anybody with a Religious Studies degree could be said to be cashing out, and I started working on humanitarian issues, on Bosnia […] That effectively started my professional career. Some of the most amazing people that I met were journalists, who actually were changing the world. Without the reporting that came out of Bosnia it is unclear what would have happened.”

3 – How the world has changed for journalists and reporters 20 years later: The situation Al Jazeera faces right now

“We have a tough time at Al Jazeera because of the kind of reporting that we do and the places that we do it in […] The pressures we get from reporting a story that governments hope desperately not having reported can be extreme.”

[Atallah told the story of three Al Jazeera staff members who were held in maximum-security prisons and solitary confinement in Egypt, under the false accusation of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood.]

“Is it a little bit self-centered, a little bit narcissistic for journalists to say ‘What about us?’ […] I would say no, not because journalists can’t be narcissists […] but because it’s actually, I believe, a correlation between attacks on journalists and the greater crimes that are taking place around them on the stories they are trying to cover.”

Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera America’s website
Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera America’s website

4 – The role of journalists as a check on power

“We are supposed to be a check on power. […] Unchecked power, by definition, is dangerous, and that’s why journalism exists. Journalism exists to be able to hold all power centers to account, whether they’re corporate, whether they’re financial, whether they’re governmental.”

“Governments and militaries know this. They also know that if they can control the narrative, and if they can deny the story from getting out, they know that they can actually push their agenda a bit further. Reporters provide a reality check, but not everyone wants you to know what that reality check is […]

Reporters are supposed to not pick the narrative for you, they are supposed to identify what’s happening on the ground, and they are supposed to challenge all the narratives that are presented, and you are to ultimately make up your mind as to what the story is.”

5 – About censorship

“Public pressure is actually a very strong method of censoring journalists, especially in times of national distress. If your country is under attack, if you feel there are horrible things happening in your country, anything from a terrorist attack to civil unrest […] there is a normal human tendency to rally around the flag, but a lot of people confuse the flag with the government, a lot of people confuse the flag with the narrative that is being presented by official power centers, and so when reporters try to report outside of what becomes conventional wisdom during these times of national stress they can actually be shut down by their peers, they can actually be shut down by the public.”

6 – On the treatment of journalists covering armed conflicts

[Atallah cited The New York Times’ editorial about the United States Pentagon’s first guidelines on its interpretation of the laws of war, which, according to both the editorial and Atallah, was a direct threat to press freedom.]

“’Journalists,’ the manual says, ‘are generally regarded as civilians, but may in some instances be deemed unprivileged belligerents’ […] Journalists would have less rights than a soldier from the enemy side that was captured.”

“The manual warns that reporting on military operations can be very similar to correcting intelligence or even spying, so it calls on journalists to act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities. It says that governments may need to censor journalists’ work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy.”

7 – On the meaning of violence against journalists

“…The risks faced by journalists — just like the civilian populations that they represent — are extreme. That violence is not incidental to the greater violence that is happening in these countries. I would argue it’s an instrumental part of that violence. Attacks on journalists are nothing less than an effort to intimidate the general population.”

“The impact of the intimidation and violence against journalists is to make that other violence that much easier to perpetrate. Imagine a world where everything you knew about your world is provided to you by a lobbying group press release. Imagine if all you knew about the world is what politicians told you and then you would be confused because they change their mind often […] That Orwellian kind of world is not far away. We always have to struggle against it. We always have to fight against it.”

[do_widget id= text-61 ]