‘I AM NOT CHARLIE’: Leaked Newsroom E-mails Reveal Al Jazeera Fury over Global Support for Charlie Hebdo

by Brendan Bordelon

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 e-mail.

“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 e-mails leaked to National Review Online. “We are Al Jazeera!”

Below was a list of “suggestions” for how anchors and correspondents at the Qatar-based news outlet should cover Wednesday’s slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo office (the full e-mails can be found below).

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.

Hours later, U.S.-based correspondent Tom Ackerman sent an email quoting a paragraph from a January 7 blog post by Ross Douthat. The New York Times’ Douthat (film critic for National Review) 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 at times 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].

“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’ snot [sic] 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 alumna 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 reflects 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 of American and European reporters — especially those who had trouble getting jobs in their own domestic markets.

As these internal e-mails show, that rebranding seems to have taken a toll on the network’s newsroom cohesion — particularly regarding stories like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which break so sharply on cultural fault lines.

Full exchange after the jump.

Executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr:

Thursday, January 08, 2015
Subject: AJ coverage of events in Paris

Dear Editorial colleagues,

Please accept this note in the spirit it is intended – to make our coverage the best that it can be …. We are Al Jazeera!!!!

My suggestion is that we question and raise the following points in our coverage – studio/anchors/guests/correspondents:

  • This was a targeted attack, not a broad attack on the french population a la Twin towers or 7/7 style. So who was this attack against? The whole of France/EU society? Or specifically this magazine. The difference lies in how this is reported not in how terrible the act is obviously – murder is murder either way… but poses a narrower question of the “why”? attack on french society and values? Only if you consider CH’s racist caricatures to be the best of European intellectual production (total whitewash on that at the moment)

  • Was this really an attack on “Free speech”? Who is attacking free speech here exactly? Does an attack by 2-3 guys on a controversial magazine equate to a civilizational attack on European values..? Really?

  • “I am Charlie” as an alienating slogan – with us or against us type of statement – one can be anti-CH’s racism and ALSO against murdering people(!) (obvious I know but worth stating)

  • Also worth stating that we still don’t know much about the motivations of the attackers outside of the few words overheard on the video. Yes, clearly it was a “punishment” for the cartoons, but it didn’t take them 8/9 years to prep this attack (2006 was Danish/CH publication) – this is perhaps a response to something more immediate…French action against ISIL…? Mali? Libya? CH just the target ie focus of the attack..?

  • Danger in making this a free speech aka “European Values” under attack binary is that it once again constructs European identity in opposition to Islam (sacred depictions) and cements the notion of a European identity under threat from an Islamic retrograde culture of which the attackers are merely the violent tip of the iceberg (see the seeping of Far Right discourse into french normalcy with Houellebecque’s novel for example)

  • The key is to look at the biographies of these guys – contrary to conventional wisdom, they were radicalised by images of Abu Ghraib not by images of the Prophet Mohammed

  • You don’t actually stick it to the terrorists by insulting the majority of Muslims by reproducing more cartoons – you actually entrench the very animosity and divisions these guys seek to sow.

  • This is a clash of extremist fringes…

    I suggest a re-read of the Time magazine article back from 2011 and I have selected the most poignant/important excerpt….

  • It’s unclear what the objectives of the caricatures were other than to offend Muslims—and provoke hysteria among extremists.

 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. 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.

Kind regards
 

Salah-Aldeen Khadr
​Executive Producer
Al Jazeera English

U.S.-based correspondent Tom Ackerman: 

Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris

If a large enough group of someone is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more….liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.

-Ross Douthat in the NY Times

Doha-based correspondent Mohamed Vall Salem:

Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris

“large enough group”?

Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris

Rejoinder,
 
I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people chances are one or two of them will kill you… they don’t represent the 1.5 who swallowed the insult in silence and patience in the name of free speech.
 
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. Simply put, it’s difficult to control and tame and brake down or otherwise punish or educate all those 1.5 billion people.
Isn’t it simply wiser to respect peoples’ sacred values and sacred icons? Respect breeds respect, insult can degenerate into something worse than just insult, depending who who’s at the the receiving end.
 
Last, if you no longer have anything that you hold sacred (the death of religion and the death of God etc…), there 1.5 billion people who still have … don’t ignore their values in the name of yours, because values are a cultural construct, they vary from age to age and from culture to culture … 
 
Last, last: 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! It’ snot about what the drawing said, it was about how they said it.
 
I condemn those heinous killings, but I’M NOT CHARLIE 
 
Mohamed Vall
Senior Paris correspondent Jacky Rowland:
Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris
 
Dear all
 
We are Aljazeera.  So, a polite reminder:
 
#journalismisnotacrime
 
Kind regards

Jacky

 

Jacky Rowland
Senior Correspondent, Paris
Aljazeera English
Roving reporter Omar Al Saleh:
Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris

First i condemn the brutal killing. But I AM NOT CHARLIE. 

JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME
INSULTISM IS NOT JOURNALISM 
AND NOT DOING JOURNALISM PROPERLY IS CRIME
 

OMAR AL SALEH | ROVING REPORTER

ALJAZEERA ENGLISH CHANNEL
NEWS DEPT

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