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Former Al Jazeera Director General speaks at City

Lecture reveals new insight into network's reporting on the Arab Spring.

by Hollie Jenkins

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Wadah Khanfar, recently Director General (DG) of the Al Jazeera Network, delivered the annual James Cameron Lecture at City University London on 6 October 2011, providing new and passionate insights into the network's operations and reporting during the recent uprisings in Egypt and Libya. 

Khanfar, who is the first non-Western journalist to feature at the event, outlined that it had been an emotional year for him and his team, saying that "this year resurrected something that was deep within our hearts and souls. This year the Arabs experienced victory."

However, for Khanfar and his team, 2011 also brought many dangers and he outlined for the audience the adversities Al Jazeera faced in order to continue reporting during the uprisings, stressing Al Jazeera's close understanding and relationship with its audience was crucial to their broadcasting. 

"The Egyptian regime decided to close down the Al Jazeera offices and to ban its reporters and crews from working; thinking perhaps, that by banning Al Jazeera the truth about what the country had been going through could be obscured.

"We sent out a message to our viewers in Egypt telling them: if the authorities have banned our reporters from working, then every single one of you is an Al Jazeera reporter. Hundreds of activists responded immediately by supplying us electronically with a stream of news and video clips via social network sites...We succeeded in breaking the siege imposed by the Egyptian security apparatuses, thanks to the faith our viewers had in our mission and to our faith in their capabilities," said Khanfar. 

Khanfar also spoke of his experiences when the Egyptian and Libyan authorities managed to switch off A Jazeera's satellite transmission:

"They succeeded in obscuring the channel from its viewers across the Arab world. During those tough hours I had the feeling that we were transmitting only to ourselves in Doha. Our screen, which had become the hope of the revolutionaries in Egypt and the conduit of their voice to the world, ceased to be.

"Then we were contacted by a small satellite TV channel asking for permission to relay Aljazeera transmission via its own frequency...Within less than two hours, Al Jazeera was being transmitted via 14 different satellite channels, which chose to suspend their programmes in favour of Al Jazeera."

He also shared his overwhelming joy and celebration on 11 February 2011, when the Egyptian President decided to step down. 

"That was a watershed moment in the history of the region, as well as in the history of Al Jazeera.... guards at the outside gate of Aljazeera compound phoned to inform us that people had been assembling outside the gate asking for permission to be allowed inside to thank Aljazeera for its coverage."

Stressing the importance of journalists being passionate about what they do, Khanfar also talked about reporting from Libya, where he spent his last week as DG of Al Jazeera, saying:

"We told our journalists to come back because their lives were threatened. They refused."

Overall, Khanfar highlighted the importance of both journalists and politicians understanding the mood of the people, saying: "I learned from my experience as a reporter and then as director of a media institution an important basic fact: that we should always posit people at the centre of our editorial policy." 

The annual James Cameron Lecture is given in memory of prominent British journalist James Cameron and is supported by the James Cameron Memorial Trust and was attended by James Cameron's friends and family, as well as prominent journalists and City staff and students. 

You can read Head of Journalism at City, Professor George Brock's blog on the lecture here, City Professor of Journalism Roy Greenslade's blog on the lecture here or read the full lecture here.

The video of the lecture is also available online here.

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