Ali Hashem is a television journalist who recently resigned from his post as a war reporter for Al Jazeera. While working for Al Jazeera, he covered the revolution in Libya, Lebanese politics, and tension related to the Syrian uprising on the Syrian Lebanese borders. He also worked for the BBC and led the production team at Manar TV.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
In the middle of February, something called the Syrian Electronic Army—hackers in Syria that support the government—hacked into Al Jazeera’s servers and found some emails. Some of them were written by Ali Hashem, who was a Middle East correspondent for the Arab Al Jazeera channel. In those emails he expressed his concern about the way Al Jazeera was covering the conflict in Syria. It later led to his resignation.
Now joining us to talk about these events, his resignation, and the situation in the Middle East and media is Ali Hashem. Ali joins us from Beirut, where he’s a television journalist. As I said, he worked for Al Jazeera Arabic. He’s covered the conflict in Libya, Lebanese politics. He covered stories on the Syrian-Lebanese border recently. He previously worked for BBC, and before that at Manar TV in Lebanon. And as I said, he joins us from Beirut. Thanks very much, Ali.
ALI HASHEM, FMR. AL-JAZEERA REPORTER (RESIGNED): You’re welcome.
JAY: So start with what happened in February. Who, what were these hackers? And then what happened?
HASHEM: Actually, in February it seems that some hackers that are pro-regime hackers were able to get, you know, into the servers of Al Jazeera network and they were able to, you know, go into several—or, let’s say, hundreds of email accounts of journalists and, you know, executives and whatever. So those people were able to go into our emails and see, you know, the conversations that were going through inside the channel.
One of those conversations was between me and one of the Arabic channel’s presenters. And then we were just, you know, talking about the coverage and points regarding this coverage. We had some problems. You know. As for me, late in—before, in May, I had a problem with the channel when I—you know, we were on the borders with Syria and there were a lot of armed men, militants, tens of guns, and they were with weapons and just moving along the border from Lebanon to Syria.
At that time, you know, everyone was talking about the revolution in Syria, that it’s peaceful revolution, it’s not using arms. But, you know, what we saw, it was really interesting and kind of—if it was any other channel, this should be a breaking news, it should be a big story. But, actually, Al Jazeera, let me say, the policy and the channel itself, maybe the journalists inside, you know, they went back to, maybe, the owners, and then it was kind of—it’s not allowed, and I was asked to go back to Beirut, and those footage weren’t ever aired on Al Jazeera.
And this problem, you know, made, you know, a kind of credibility problem between me and the channel. And, you know, I tried my best to solve this issue. I tried my best to tell my seniors, my bosses, all of them, that there is a problem and we should solve such a problem. Actually, when this happened and I was talking about this issue with my colleague in Doha—and she’s a well-known presenter over there—actually, also she told me a lot about what she’s passing by and what she’s going through and how she was, you know, on air and then she was asked to leave the air because she asked kind of hard questions or harsh questions to the opposition members who are kind of supported by Qatar. So we were talking these issues. And then someone just popped in and took our, you know, privacy off and just took everything and, you know, published them on air. Some were kind of on the Syrian television, some were on newspapers in Beirut, in many other Arab capitals. So this was the story at that time.
JAY: So what—before we go further into your own story, let’s back up one step. What exactly did you see in terms of arms going into Syria? Who do you think (or were you able to tell?) was supplying the arms?
HASHEM: Actually, I can’t identify who’s really supplying the arms, but actually we saw armed men just crossing the river, the great northern river, which is the only, you know, natural barrier between Lebanon and Syria. They were just crossing that barrier and going into Syria, and then clashing with the Syrian Army. That was in May. And even something similar happened in April, but it wasn’t on camera. But in May it was on camera and we had the footage, and, you know, no one wanted to have them on air. At that time, you know, everybody was watching. You know, we were, as journalists, myself, were the only, you know, Arab channel, news channel on the borders, and we were trying to, you know, see what’s going on over there. [crosstalk]
JAY: So this is—you’re talking almost a year ago now, then.
HASHEM: Yeah, yeah, that was in May, that was in May, May 2011.
JAY: And, I mean, I was planning, actually, to get into this subject a little further on, but we’re here, so let’s talk about it. Is it your sense that what happened in Syria, that was in fact—I mean, this is what I’m getting from the people I’m talking to, that there was real peaceful protest developing across the country; that protest was repressed by the government forcefully, but then it gets militarized, and to a large extent by forces outside Syria the protest gets militarized. Is that scenario what seems to you to be correct?
HASHEM: Actually, you know, it was clear the protests started peacefully, but it seems that quickly it went into militarizing. Some external factors or factions wanted the resolution to be militarized and they wanted to face al-Assad’s crackdown with weapons. And maybe this was bad for the revolution. Maybe if this revolution stayed peaceful it might have achieved a lot.
But what happened is that—you know, I’m not sourcing or quoting; I just saw with my eyes, and it was in the beginning of the revolution, it was just, like, one month and a half from the revolution. And things were—you know, I was seeing a lot of weapons, people with RPGs, people with Kalashnikovs, you know, just crossing from the borders. And they were not one or two; they were a big number; they were just dominating the whole village that we were on the borders with. So, you know, the militarization of the revolution started early, and it may be those who were trying, maybe, to push and to—you know, they want al-Assad to fall as soon as possible. Those wanted to say that al-Assad is facing the peaceful crackdown with weapons, while the others on the revolution side are kind of peaceful people, are not holding weapons.
JAY: And you have no—you weren’t able to ascertain who those people were crossing the river, those fighters.
HASHEM: No, actually. That was impossible. You can’t ask, you know, who are those people, because, you know, you are just seeing armed men. And, you know, we were just beside them, we were just beside them. So it was clear that those people are fighting for the Syrian revolution. But who are they? Some of them were Lebanese, some of them were Syrians. But, you know, you can’t—you know, at that time it wasn’t clear. There were no umbrella they were fighting under. You know. After, like, six or seven months, we started hearing about the Free Syrian Army, but at that time, we didn’t hear about anyone. It was just, like, you know, those are armed men just crossing the borders and fighting against al-Assad’s army. But it wasn’t clear who are they and are they backed by, who is giving them the weapons, who is really pushing them to do this and that.
JAY: Now, so, in terms of your email correspondence and your concerns, what was it about the coverage that you didn’t find legitimate or—I mean, you say this story wasn’t covered, the crossing of the river by these fighters. But what about the rest of the coverage of Syria?
HASHEM: You know, actually, this was the main issue that I had, you know, a problem with, because it’s really a problem of credibility. Whenever you have your own footage and you are your channel’s eyes in that area, and the channel is refusing to, you know, air such pictures, then, you know, you should have some question marks, you should raise some question marks.
You know, I’m not coming—I didn’t come to Al Jazeera, you know, as an amateur. I’m a professional. I used to work for the BBC before, for four or five years with the BBC. And then, you know, there is a kind of—things we learn over there about the credibility, our objectivity, being unbiased. I might not be, you know, supportive of the British government’s doctrines or policies in the Middle East, but I respect working at that time for the BBC, because they used to respect us as journalists.
The problem is when you are a journalist and you’re not being respected as a journalist, and then you’re asked to do something, you know, in parallel with the agenda of the channel’s owners. And this is the problem, this is the big problem that any journalist might find.
JAY: Right. Now, in one of the emails, in one of the reports I read about the emails, one of the emails says that there’s this conflict for journalists between the Qatari agenda, it was described, and reporting. I mean, what is the Qatari agenda in terms of Syria?
HASHEM: No, actually, we didn’t talk in this issue [crosstalk]
JAY: I’m not sure it was your email, actually. I think it might have even been in reference to someone else’s.
HASHEM: Well, in general, I can tell you one thing. You know, there is no government—governments are not charities, you know. So whenever a government is paying for channel—. And I respect all my colleagues at Al Jazeera. They’re all good journalists, professionals, and I really—I’m proud to work with them. But the problem, it’s not in the journalists, it’s not in even the executives in Al Jazeera. It’s not a problem with Al Jazeera. It’s the problem with those who are really financing Al Jazeera, which are the Qataris.
You know, today the Qataris are kind of committing—you know, they are taking Al Jazeera to commit suicide, they’re forcing Al Jazeera to commit suicide. Al Jazeera was kind of respected by everyone. Even Al Jazeera went with two or three languages. And everyone was watching Al Jazeera, because they really believed that Al Jazeera is doing good journalism. Today it’s a big problem right now. Wherever you go around the Arab world, everyone is questioning the credibility of Al Jazeera, they’re questioning the agenda Al Jazeera is working with or it’s working for. Today, it’s not anymore that Al Jazeera is doing journalism for journalism; today, journalism is being used for politics.
JAY: And what is that politics? What does Qatar want in Syria?
HASHEM: Actually, it’s really strange. You know that—or everyone knows that the Qatari regime used to be one of the strongest and the closest allies of the Syrian regime. And that wasn’t for one year or three years; that was for the last, at least, six years. They were really close allies. They had even, you know, family visits between each other.
Actually, things changed after the Egyptian Revolution, and things started to be really strong. Really, something changed in the Qatari politics. Some will say that they had a kind of a deal with the Americans in this regard. Actually, I’m not here to—maybe, to analyze what happened, really, but it was something, you know, strange.
In my resignation letter, I was telling the executive or the executives of my channel that the first 15 days of the Syrian revolution, it was like nothing was happening in Syria. Al Jazeera wasn’t covering. And in case there was any kind of coverage of what’s going on there, we were, you know, referring to the uprising over there—it’s kind of demonstrations asking for reforms. It’s the same way the pro-Assad media was dealing with the revolution. But when the relation, the bilateral relations between the Qataris and the Syrians was kind of exploded, for a reason—we really don’t know why things changed—and we started, you know, dealing with the revolution in Syria as the priority of the channel, and that there is no other revolution but this revolution.
JAY: And is there any evidence that you know of that would show there’s something had to do with the Saudi-Qatari relations that would have changed Qatar on this? ‘Cause the Saudis seemed pretty militant on Syria right from the beginning.
HASHEM: Actually, you know, the thing is, as I told you, something strange happened. What really happened, what are the under-table, you know, deals that were really set, no one knows. Is it something that was really prepared before and the Qataris were just waiting for a turning point to really be so blatant and clear about their own stance from Syria?
Actually, you know, I can’t say, because I’m not a political analyst. Rather, you know, I was really—I really cared for one thing: doing real journalism. I really don’t really care about politics and who is with who, because, you know, my job as a journalist is saying what’s going on and not doing things to—you know, and making things. You know. So my problem was really journalism.
I don’t have a problem, because, actually, as you know, maybe Qatar is—have good relations with Israel, Qatar have good relations with America, Qatar have good relations with Iran, and that was just one year ago, one year before the revolution. It was—Qatar had good relations with everyone except for Saudi Arabia. You know. So—and just in a day, in a day and a night, everything changed, and now, you know, it have—Qatar is a country with enemies for the first time. They were kind of doing a strategy of zero enemies, zero problems in the region, and they were trying to show themselves as the brokers of the region, brokers of peace deals, brokers of, you know, consensuses, whatever—they solved the album in Lebanon, they solved the problem in Yemen, they—or tried to solve the problem in Yemen, they tried to solve the problems in Sudan. So these people were trying to play a role. And now they changed this role. Right now they are part of—.
JAY: Well, one of the turning points seemed to be Libya, because Qatar seemed to play such a leading role in the militarization of the Libyan conflict and being very, you know, supportive and, you know, again, leading very much the expansion of the NATO mission and turning it into regime change in Libya. Was that a sort of a change in Qatari policy? Is that where this begins?
HASHEM: Yeah, it seems, yeah, it seems. It seems the Libyan Revolution was the main turning point in the whole thing. But, you know, you never know what was going before that. You know, it wouldn’t be that one thing, you know, just changed everything. Assad’s stance from Gaddafi was kind of supportive.
But will this, you know, turn the Qataris against him directly? Okay. If that’s true, then they will start covering the revolution in Syria from the beginning and not waiting, like, 15 or 20 days to start covering this revolution. You know, there are many stories said about Hamad bin Jassim going to Damascus and meeting al-Assad and telling him that the Qataris are ready to pay from $1 to $1 billion for reforms and that, you know, al-Assad’s regime have kind of surpluses against, you know, facing other regimes, whereas the regime is kind of, you know, supporting the resistance and against Israel, and this is kind of popular in the Arab world. So whenever—when Hamad bin Jassim told him those things, then—as I know, it might be confirmed, it might not be confirmed, but this is what is said—then al-Assad was—replied in a harsh way and asked him to leave the meeting room. And from that point, everything changed and the Qataris decided to make al-Assad their own first enemy.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview we’ll talk more about Libya, Bahrain, and Qatar, and the media in general. So please join us for the second part of our interview with Ali Hashem on The Real News Network.