As journalists worldwide reacted with universal revulsion at the massacre of some of their own by Islamic jihadists in Paris, Al Jazeera English editor and executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr sent out a staff-wide email, advising them to condemn the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, not their assassins.
National Review “Please accept this note in the spirit it is intended — to make our coverage the best it can be,” the London-based Khadr wrote Thursday, in the first of a series of internal emails leaked to National Review Online. “We are Al Jazeera!”
— 3ChicsPolitico (@3ChicsPolitico) January 9, 2015
Khadr urged his employees to ask if this was “really an attack on ‘free speech,’” discuss whether “I am Charlie” is an “alienating slogan,” caution viewers against “making this a free speech aka ‘European Values’ under attack binary [sic],” and portray the attack as “a clash of extremist fringes.”
“Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile,” Khadr wrote. “Baiting extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well.
And within a climate where violent response—however illegitimate —is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it’s pointlessly all about you.”
His denunciation of Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed didn’t sit well with some Al Jazeera English employees.
French people have to understand,obnoxious characters who mock others beliefs have no place in humanity.#IamNotCharlie
— Ahmed Tawakal (@atawakal) January 8, 2015
Hours later, U.S.-based correspondent Tom Ackerman sent an email quoting a paragraph from a New York Times’ January 7 column by Ross Douthat. The op-ed argued that cartoons like the ones that drove the radical Islamists to murder must be published, “because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.”
That precipitated an angry backlash from the network’s Qatar-based correspondents, revealing in the process a deep cultural rift at a network once accused of overt anti-Western bias.
“I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people chances are one or two of them will kill you,” wrote Mohamed Vall Salem, who reported for Al Jazeera’s Arab-language channel before joining its English wing in 2006. “And I guess if you encourage people to go on insulting 1.5 billion people about their most sacred icons then you just want more killings because as I said in 1.5 billion there will remain some fools who don’t abide by the laws or know about free speech.” [sic]
#IamNotCharlie and I hope you all realize your freedom of speech and expression has a limitation.Never ever mess with prophet Muhammad(PBUH)
— Ahmed Tawakal (@atawakal) January 7, 2015
“What Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech it was an abuse of free speech in my opinion, go back to the cartoons and have a look at them!” Salem later wrote. “It’s not about what the drawing said, it was about how they said it. I condemn those heinous killings, but I’M NOT CHARLIE.”
That prompted BBC alum Jacky Rowland — now Al Jazeera English’s senior correspondent in Paris — to email a “polite reminder” to her colleague: “#journalismsinotacrime.”
But her response triggered a furious reaction from another of the network’s Arab correspondents. “First I condemn the brutal killing,” wrote Omar Al Saleh, a “roving reporter” currently on assignment in Yemen. “But I AM NOT CHARLIE.”
“JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME [but] INSULTISM IS NOT JOURNALISM,” he raged. “AND NOT DOING JOURNALISM PROPERLY IS A CRIME.”
The heated back-and-forth illustrates Al Jazeera English’s precarious balance between its Arab center of gravity and the Western correspondents it employs. After being accused for years of fomenting anti-Western sentiment, most damningly by some of its own anchors, the network made a concerted effort to rebrand, hiring a slew American and European reporters — especially those who had trouble getting jobs in their own domestic markets.