Sixty journalists from Africa have engaged in a two-day dialogue on Agenda 2063 at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The African Union Agenda 2063 is a strategic framework for the socio-economic transformation of the continent over the next 50 years.
It builds on and seeks to accelerate the implementation of past and existing continental initiatives for growth and sustainable development.
One of the panelists was Dr. Mostefa Souag. He is acting director-general of Al Jazeera Media Network. He spoke to Capital about the network’s engagement in promoting free and fair journalism. He also spoke about the recent 13 points by Saudi to cease the networks activities.
Dr. Souag holds PhD in literary studies and was a professor of literary theory at the University of Algiers in Algeria until 1993, when he left teaching to pursue journalism. Before joining Al Jazeera, he worked for BBC and MBC. Al Jazeera Media Network is a Middle Eastern multinational multimedia conglomerate, and is the parent company of Al Jazeera and its related networks. Excerpts;
Capital: Let’s start with your presentation this morning about journalist safety, there were very interesting points that you have raised. You said unless we all come together and support each other whenever there are attacks on journalists; then those attacks will just remain numbers and figures. Elaborate on that.
Dr. Mostefa Souag: I think for a long time we have been waiting for and have been asking governments to protect journalists, asking the United Nations, international organizations to help, etc.
Journalists are being killed and being abused at all levels and we need to do something about it. What we have to do as media institutions, as journalists and as supporters of journalists is, to act on our ideas. One of them is to coordinate our actions; to work together to make sure that every journalist who is abused, especially those that have been killed, are known worldwide and regionally, and locally.
We have to get together and find out how to deal with the side that is actually committing the crime; the government or organization, individuals and so on, we need to expose them to the rest of the world. The protection of journalists is very important because it is the only channel through which we know what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Capital: Why do you say that protecting journalists is important when there is so much death in the world? We can look at the case of Yemen or other countries where people are dying everyday. So why then say it is important to protect journalists?
Dr. Souag: If you take the example of what is going on in Yemen, or what happened with Ebola, if journalists didn’t go there and report from the field and show what was going on, the rest of the world wouldn’t actually move to support and provide assistance. Journalists are the messengers who bring the fact and truth to the rest of the world.
If it wasn’t for journalists then we wouldn’t know about the suffering in Yemen, and it is the same for everything. If not for journalists, how do we know about the corruption that is going on in so many places in the world with government officials, with business people, security people, gangsters; all was done by journalists and you cannot practice your journalism properly and freely if you don’t feel safe.
Capital: How do you suggest we hold governments accountable who are letting this happening in their countries, what are the mechanisms to ensure the safety of the journalists?
Dr. Souag: I think first of all we have to make sure that society as a whole understand the role of journalists and the importance of protecting them. Second we have to open a dialogue with government, even oppressive governments to explain to them that free journalism is good for the country, for them and for the development of the country. But this doesn’t work all the time so we have to move again to expose the abusers of the journalists and we have to look for every opportunity, every mechanism to get to the point where every abuse is investigated and the people who actually committed the crime have to be held accountable.
However that is not easy because most of the time the ones who are responsible for the crime are the ones who are investigating the crime and they are a part of the system that created that culture of abuse. We need to understand that journalism is something that is not part of a conflict; journalists should not be part of any political group, not be part of any business group; even if you have your own conviction political or religious, you should not show it in your work.
Outside your journalism work you can do whatever you like, but when you are reporting you need to keep that distance so people don’t associate you with certain groups and that is another way of contributing to your safety. But again, society has to take action and civil society in particular has to support journalism and the safety of journalists.
Capital: Do you have any comment on the recent Saudi blockade and the demand that Aljazeera should be shut down? How has that affected your operations?
Dr. Souag: The Saudis and the other countries such as the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and some other countries that were associated with them somehow tried to put not only the blockade on Qatar, but also among the demands was the closure of Aljazeera.
That because these countries don’t believe in the freedom of media, they believe in media as a propaganda tool for their own politics and their own selves. It was a relief that Qatar didn’t take these demands into consideration because they know they are wrong demands and they target the sovereignty of the country.
If you cannot go to Britain and ask them to close down the BBC, you cannot do such kind of thing and you cannot go to Qatar and ask them to shut down Aljazeera. It actually created a lot of support and sympathy towards Aljazeera.
So we received a lot more support than ever before especially from people. Yes we lost the possibility to work in the field in Saudi Arabia or UAE or Egypt; in Egypt since 2013, but we still cover those countries through our own way and we are doing very well. But whenever you are prevented from working in the field in certain places you do something, you have to look for ways to continue.
Capital: There were also some issues with Ethiopia, you were banned from reporting here?
Dr. Souag: No serious issues there, we didn’t have an office here but we regularly reported from Ethiopia. At a certain time there was maybe some report the government didn’t like and this happens quite often with so many governments, they complain and we check the report, check what we did and we have never found anything wrong with our reporting. It’s just that they didn’t like it because it exposed something they didn’t want to be exposed. Aljazeera is not a mouthpiece for any government, it does not take any instruction from any government whether it is the Qatari government or other governments in countries where we have our office.
Wherever we work, we work freely, independently and very professionally; we do not put out anything that isn’t right.
Capital: Do you have any plans to support African journalists?
Dr. Souag: Yes, we are already supporting African journalists. We have quite a few journalists that were trained in Aljazeera training center. At this moment actually we have a whole team here training and supporting our colleagues at EBC and I think they are doing very well. And we are willing to continue to do that in Ethiopia and other African countries, we just have to be coordinated, we have to find the financial resources to do it and the right training programs.