How Qatar Used and Abused Its Al Jazeera Journalists

This week, I am back in court in an effort to prove my innocence at a retrial on charges that I was a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, designated a terrorist organization in Egypt since December 2013, and that I sought to harm the country’s reputation and security. I already spent 412 days in detention before my conviction in the first trial was overturned on appeal earlier this year.

The terrorism charges against me and my colleague Baher Mohamed are unfounded and have been widely discredited. The other charges relate to our employment by the Al Jazeera media network, which is owned by the state of Qatar.

Following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, Egypt moved to ban Al Jazeera’s Arabic service in the country, known as Mubasher Misr, because it was perceived as a Qatari-sponsored propaganda mouthpiece for the Brotherhood. I was the bureau chief of the Al Jazeera English service, a separate operation that adhered to higher journalistic standards, which, we assumed, would inoculate us against accusations of bias. We were mistaken.

Now, Baher and I find ourselves once again in the soundproof defendants’ cage, fighting to avoid long prison terms. Our friend and fellow Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste, will not be with us. Thanks to his government’s work to win his release, Peter is home in Australia.

At the retrial, we will argue that we continued to work despite the broadcast ban because we believed the English service was exempt and Al Jazeera failed to obtain legal clarification from the Egyptian authorities. If, as a result, there were violations of licensing laws, which in any case would be merely misdemeanors, it is the network’s executives from Qatar who should pay, not us. A final ruling from the Egyptian court could come later this month.

My 18-month ordeal may be close to an end, yet I find myself increasingly angry at how my life and the lives of my family and loved ones have been turned upside down. My anger, however, is not directed primarily at the prosecutor, the judiciary or the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It is aimed at my employer, Al Jazeera.

The network knowingly antagonized the Egyptian authorities by defying a court-ordered ban on its Arabic-language service. Behind that, I believe, was the desire of the Qatari royal family to meddle in Egypt’s internal affairs. While Al Jazeera’s Doha executives used the Cairo bureau of Al Jazeera English to give their scheme a veneer of international respectability, they made us unwitting pawns in Qatar’s geopolitical game.

Midway through our first trial, last year, Al Jazeera undermined our defense when it sued Egypt for $150 million in compensation for business losses in Egypt. The network’s own lawyer in our case criticized the lawsuit and quit the case. “Al Jazeera is using my clients,” he told the court, according to Agence France-Presse. “I have emails from (the channel) telling me they don’t care about the defendants and care about insulting Egypt.”

This is why in May I filed a lawsuit in Canada, where I hold citizenship as well as in Egypt, against Al Jazeera. I intend to hold the network accountable for its negligent conduct, and I am seeking $83 million in compensation for my ordeal.

When Al Jazeera was started in 1996, Qatar was widely praised for its enlightened thinking. The network’s 24-hour rolling news coverage was a breath of fresh air in the Middle East’s torpid media scene. The international services, like Al Jazeera English, recruited some of the best names in journalism.

Like many young Arabs, I was impressed. Al Jazeera seemed a model of courageous broadcasting in a region not known for upholding freedom of speech. That was still my view when I became Cairo bureau chief in September 2013.

I have since realized how deeply I, like the viewing public, was duped. I came to see how Qatar used Al Jazeera as a pernicious, if effective, tool of its foreign policy.

A court order shut down Mubasher Misr the same month I joined Al Jazeera English, but the channel continued to broadcast by satellite and Internet from studios in Doha. I soon had concerns that Qatar was compromising our journalism. Against my objections, the Arabic station redubbed our English-language news packages with inflammatory commentary.

I frequently complained to the Doha bosses that broadcasting our reports on the banned Mubasher Misr, which was officially classified as “a national security threat,” put our lives at risk. They told me to get on with the job, but the practice continued — even after Egypt declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group, days before our arrest. When we came to trial, the network’s actions made it much harder to disprove the testimony of the prosecution’s lead national security witness that I had worked for Mubasher Misr, inaccurate though it was.

The Doha management also neglected to tell me that it was providing Brotherhood activists in Egypt with video cameras and paying them for footage, which it then broadcast, without explaining its political provenance, on the banned Arabic channel. During my detention, I met a number of prisoners who told me how this worked, and I have seen court documents confirming it.

Al Jazeera’s managers crossed an ethical red line. By attempting to manipulate Egypt’s domestic politics, they were endangering their employees.

Qatar and Al Jazeera will continue to talk about Doha’s progressive values and support for freedom of speech in the region. Just days ago, Qatar’s ambassador to the United Nations piously told the Security Council that her country supported efforts to enhance the safety of journalists and voted for a resolution calling for “a safe and enabling environment for journalists, media professionals and associated personnel to perform their work independently and without undue interference.”

I wonder how the Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami feels as he languishes in Doha’s central prison, serving a life sentence for “criticizing the emir” in a poem. You won’t find his plight highlighted on Al Jazeera’s outlets anytime soon.

I have come to understand that Al Jazeera’s noble-sounding claims are nothing but a glossy whitewash.

Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian journalist who was the Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, is the author of Baghdad Bound: An Interpreter’s Chronicles of the Iraq War.

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