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2004-05-25

Control Room: Behind the Scenes of the Arab News Station Al Jazeera

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Their offices have been bombed by the U.S. and shut down by Arab governments–they are Al Jazeera, the biggest Arab news channel. A new documentary takes a look at how the station covered the Iraq invasion and how the U.S. government responded to their unembedded form of reporting. [includes rush transcript]

Their offices were bombed twice in Afghanistan. Their Baghdad correspondent was killed In Iraq. Their reporter was arrested en route to a summit in Crawford. Their New York correspondents were thrown off the floors of the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ.

We’re talking about al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television station based in Qatar.

Al Jazeera’s programing has been seen as controversial by some in Washington ever since it began broadcasting seven years ago. The network has since grown into a CNN of the Arabic world reaching up to 55 million viewers.

A new documentary film called "Control Room" takes an inside look at Al-Jazeera

  • Jehane Noujaim, began work in photography and film maiking in Cairo, where she grew up, before moving to the United States in 1990. In 2001, she co-directed the documentary, "Startup-Dot-Com" which chronicles the rise and fall of Internet startups during the boom years of the New Economy.
  • Samir Khader, senior Producer with Al Jazeera, the Arab-language satellite TV news channel, based in Doha, Qatar.

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Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The filmmaker is Jehane Noujaim, who is co-director of other films like "Start-up.com", which chronicles the rise and fall of internet start-ups. This is her film. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JEHANE NOUJAIM: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why did you decide to focus on Al-Jazeera?

JEHANE NOUJAIM: You just gave the list of everything that has happened to Al-Jazeera, how they have been criticized by the U.S. government, how they have been — well, during the war their reporters were kicked out of the stock exchange, but the list goes on in terms of the amount of people on both sides, the Arab governments that have criticized them and kicked them out of many Arab countries, and following the American government was very critical of Al-Jazeera. Yet we have never been able to see inside them and have never been able to see who are the people that run in channel, what motivates them, what are they showing, and how are they seeing the Iraq war? I was curious to get inside the station that nobody in the states had really seen before.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time you’re in the station you’re constantly showing what’s going on from cent com, from central command. That’s a key place-setter throughout the film. Let’s hear what Donald Rumsfeld has to say about Al-Jazeera, from the film Control Room: DONALD RUMSFELD: Al-Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again. What they do is when there’s a bomb goes down, they grab some children and women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children. It seems to me that it’s up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don’t know, and recognize that we’re dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case. And to the extent that people lie, ultimately, they are caught lying, and they lose their credibility. One would think that wouldn’t take very long for that to happen dealing with people like this.

AMY GOODMAN: People like this Samir Khader, senior producer with Al-Jazeera, your response?

SAMIR KHADER: Mr. Rumsfeld says we have a pattern of lies and repeating it over and over and over again. I have the feeling that he’s telling the world that we, Al-Jazeera are able everyday to fool more than 50 million of our viewers, 50 million Arabs and Arab-speaking people around the world. I don’t know how can this be done, but one thing that I can say is that Mr. Rumsfeld is no journalist. He doesn’t know what objectivity is, and if he wants to criticize he should use what we call constructive criticism.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the history of Al-Jazeera, why was it founded, what is it’s connection to Qatar?

SAMIR KHADER: Al-Jazeera was founded in 1996. It started broadcasting on November 1, 1996. The objective of this channel was from the beginning —- is to bring something new to the Arab world. The Arabs were used to listen or to discover what happens around them in their countries by listening to the outside, the B.B.C., or Radio Monte Carlo broadcasting in Arabic, and sometimes to the Voice of America in Arabic. For the first time, Al— Jazeera came to say to the Arab audience, look, you no longer need to listen to the outside what’s happening in your country, we are here. We will bring you credible, professional information with no redlines, no taboos. We will uncover corruption and talk about your daily life without managing anybody. If you like this, go ahead and join us. I think that millions and millions have joined us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to one of the more horrifying scenes in Control Room, that all of us remember well from a year ago, and that was the killing of the Al-Jazeera journalist. Let’s go to "Control Room."

SAMIR KHADER: I received a phone call from our correspondents saying that they were — there was a big fight in our office in Baghdad. So I put them on air live. We had everything, all of the fighting going on, but none of our correspondents was able to go in the room, so, it was live. When they said, if we can speak out, we can try to manage it. At 6:47, the camera that was filming had a picture of the correspondent. I shouted at them, telling them to move the camera out of the face of the guy that had nothing to do with anything, any of the fighting. We moved the camera. Ten minutes later, I was on the phone with the other correspondent, and they say there’s a plane coming over us, and now it’s coming towards us, and it’s taking down — nose-down, which means formation of an attack. And an American plane came and launched the missiles against our office. Then we announced the deaths. When you announce that one of your staff has died, you expect some calls from the families of all of these reporters on the camera. We received only one phone call from the wife of that reporter, saying what happened to Tarik? We said we didn’t say it was Tarik. She said, I know, my heart tells me it’s Tarik, and something happened to him. What can you say to that?

AMY GOODMAN: And that is Samir Khader, the senior producer with Al-Jazeera speaking in the film, "Control Room" about the death of Tarik Ayoub, the Jordanian-Palestinian reporter who had just got to Baghdad, a week earlier, is that right?

SAMIR KHADER: A week earlier.

AMY GOODMAN: As he is sitting there on the roof behind some sandbags, you tell the cameraman who is up there with him — I want to ask what happened to him — to pull away, don’t show him. Talk about that.

SAMIR KHADER: Yeah. Don’t show him because the camera was supposed to show us what was going around our office. American troops were positioned there, and American tanks were there. Iraqi soldiers were shooting at the Americans from their Presidential Palace, which was used to be behind our office, and the shooting was so intense that nobody — none of our reporters dared go up to the roof. So they used to report what happened, and we used to take live, audio only — and when Tarik managed to sneak out to the roof, the camera fell down. Instead of taking the scene of what’s happening around the office, it took only Tarik. I was shouting at the other reporter in Baghdad, please get this camera out of the face of this guy, because it’s not him they want, the event is elsewhere. And I thought it was something, because this was a really — the last time that we had seen Tarik alive.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know him personally?

SAMIR KHADER: I have never met him personally, no.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to the cameraman?

SAMIR KHADER: You know, when the missile was launched against the office, it exploded, and the office was destroyed. At that time there were 23 people — 23 members —- staff members of Al-Jazeera present in the office, and they just ran away and the cameraman was hurt, injured, but -—

AMY GOODMAN: He was up on the roof with Tarik.

SAMIR KHADER: On top of the roof, yes. But according to the people who were there, they said we saw this plane coming down to us, so we started running, and the last one to be up there was Tarik. He was unable to get toward the door, and come down.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you had given Al-Jazeera’s coordinates to the Pentagon?

SAMIR KHADER: Yes. Not only Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad because weigh were the only channel present in several Arab cities broadcasting live from Baghdad in the center, Mosul and Erbil in the north and Basra in the south. We had given all of the coordinates to the Pentagon. We received an acknowledgement.

AMY GOODMAN: What about what happened at The Sherton?

SAMIR KHADER: The Sherton?

AMY GOODMAN: The hotel where only Al-Jazeera —

SAMIR KHADER: The Palestine hotel.

AMY GOODMAN: No, I mean in the city where only Al-Jazeera was there.

SAMIR KHADER: Yes.

JEHANE NOUJAIM: Yeah, this happened about a week earlier before the bombing, actually, and we — I was sitting in a general manager’s meeting and nobody was killed, so it wasn’t taken obviously as seriously, but the journalists said, you know, this is a dangerous place to be right now. We want to be moving, because we need to move our locations, and the management meeting said at that point in time, we’ll, we need to give the new locations to the pentagon. So, they were being very sure to as their journalists moved from place to place to give the new coordinates.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the killing of Tarik Ayoub. You have the bombing of your offices in Kabul twice, is that right? In Afghanistan?

SAMIR KHADER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your dialogue with the Pentagon? Your offices were bombed twice.

SAMIR KHADER: Let’s say the following — in both cases, we compacted — contacted the American authorities and the pentagon to see if there is an investigation and we asked for an investigation. In both cases, to my knowledge, they have not been investigated. Even the death of Tarik Ayoub has not been investigated. So, I don’t understand. At least when there’s something happens, the Pentagon is ready to open an investigation, but — in both cases in Kabul and in Baghdad, they didn’t do it. Why? You’ll have to ask them.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s a mistake to give the coordinates of the offices to the Pentagon?

SAMIR KHADER: No, absolutely not. Because really, we will scared because off our office in Kabul was targeted and deliberately, we think, we thought that the Americans could at any time target our office, and pretend that they didn’t know. So, we gave them the coordinates. So, giving them the coordinates or not giving the coordinates, they will know.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel that you have support from your colleagues, from other journalists around the world?

SAMIR KHADER: Yes. Yes. We have tremendous — really huge movement of support within Al-Jazeera. We are very thankful to all journalists around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to another clip of Control Room. Jehane Noujaim, you can set this clip up, having to do with central command, and the other key figure that you have throughout this film is a spokesperson for central command.

JEHANE NOUJAIM: Lieutenant Rushing intrigued me because he was somebody that seemed very open to trying to understand the other side, and to engage with the other side. And so, you know, he didn’t have to have long conversations with the Al-Jazeera reporter, yet they talked for hours on end. And I think that, you know, I think that it was difficult for him, because there wasn’t something — even though it was his assignment to be dealing with the Arab reporter, it wasn’t always easy. He was often seen as kind of going over to the other side, in a way, I think, by the other people working with him.

AMY GOODMAN: This is U.S. Central command’s Josh Rushing, talking about the images of P.O.W.’s and civilians shown on Al-Jazeera.

JOSH RUSHING: The night they showed the P.O.W.'s and the dead soldiers — Al-Jazeera showed them. It was powerful, because America doesn't show those kind of images. Most of the time America doesn’t show those images. They showed the American soldiers on the tile floor. It was revolting. It made me sick to my stomach. What hit me that the night before there had been a bombing in Basra, and Al-Jazeera had shown images of the people, and they were equally, if not more horrifying images. I have never had seen it. I thought to myself, wow, that’s gross. That’s bad. Then I went away and was eating dinner or something, it didn’t affect me as much. The impact that it had on me, realizing I just saw people on the other side. And those are people in the Al-Jazeera office must have felt the way I was feeling that night and it upset me on a profound level that I wasn’t as bothered as much the night before. It makes me hate war. It doesn’t make me believe that we’re in a world that can live without war yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Samir Khader.

SAMIR KHADER: I’m really amazed, it makes me hate war, coming from the mouth of an American Marine in the central command. This — for me, this means only one thing, that behind all the abstraction of war, of Al-Jazeera of American military, there are human beings. There are human faces, and these human beings could develop, could interact with the other, could have a dialogue, which gave me the feeling that maybe — maybe — with all of the problems of the world could be solved through dialogue, and discussion.

AMY GOODMAN: You want to ask Jehane, what you were most surprised by as you filmed Al-Jazeera? How long did you film? JIHAN NIZAM:I filmed for about six weeks, which isn’t very long. The last film I made, I spent a year-and-a-half filming. So, when I left, I felt like there’s a possibility that there is not a film here. It took going through 200 hours of footage to realize we had something. In terms of surprise, I was surprised that we had the level of experience and openness of Al-Jazeera reporters. The two people — I mean, I’m biased towards the two people that I followed. I tend to follow people that I like and I’m inspired by, so I’m sure there are other Al-Jazeera reporters that I may not have liked so much, but the two people that I followed, Hassan and Samir, were people that have been in journalism for 25 years. Hassan has covered ten wars, went to college at University of Arizona, grew up in Saudi Arabia was in grade-school with Osama bin Laden. He has had a very — he has visited the palaces of Saddam Hussein. I wanted to be around people with that level of experience to try to understand what was going on. Samir, again, has had a huge amount of experience in journalism, and has covered a number of wars, and I think that the interesting thing is that it’s not like just going down the street to get a job. In the Arab world, the access you have to being able to work at a network that is not run by the state is very difficult because there aren’t a lot of free stations available you to. I think that people who have a real dedication to working for the freedom speech in the Arab world will go to Al-Jazeera. You do end up finding kind of a high-level when you go there. That was surprising to me, after hearing the criticism in the Arab world and the United States about Al-Jazeera.

AMY GOODMAN: Samir, let’s talk about the images of POW’s and of casualties. In this country, in the U.S. networks, we hardly saw images of casualties. Reporters called them tasteless, but they were all over the rest of the world. Can you talk about Al-Jazeera’s decisions both around casualties and also showing POW’s?

SAMIR KHADER: Look, we are in the business of news. News means facts. Facts should prevail speculation. From — right from the beginning the American’s announced and told the American people that this would be a very proper and clean surgical war, very quick. There are no — very few casualties amongst the civilians and where they suffered no losses. So, when we had these pictures of soldiers killed or taking prisoners, we thought, okay, the American’s are saying and telling their people something, but these pictures show something else. If the Americans don’t want to show these pictures, it’s their decision, but our audience wants to see this — these pictures. At least to see that the war is not as clean as the Americans used to pretend. So, we shot them, but I think that the American audience or the American public opinion was followed by the American media at that time by only talking about the Americans. They had all American soldiers, the patriotic war against terrorism, against weapons of mass destruction that they used to frighten America and to talk about the number of tanks and how was progress — they used to progress towards Baghdad and showing pictures of satellite pictures of bombs exploding. Without telling the American people that what was the result of this explosion. So, we decided in Al-Jazeera to cover the same story as the American media, but from another perspective. It’s the perspective of the human cost. Any war has a human cost, whether it’s a human cost regarding the Iraqi population, the casualties among the Iraqi populations, or the human costs among the American soldiers.

JEHANE NOUJAIM: I like what Lieutenant Rushing actually said about this which is that, you know, these pictures are disgusting, they make me queasy, they give me a stomach ache, but war should give you a stomach ache and people should be seeing this, and Americans and Arabs should be seeing the casualties on both sides of the war: the Americans that are dying and the Iraqis that are dying. Because it’s not a clean war. I guess that’s what was also interesting about being at Al-Jazeera. We went through the footage of their library. They use about 10% of the footage that they had, you know. There was a lot more gruesome footage, in there, let’s say. So to see they the very, very strong reaction from the American administration based on the 5% of the footage they showed was actually — was very surprising to me. Because you see it in the states. It’s very clean. It’s very — you don’t see any of this stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: Haven’t the power of the pictures been proven by the photos that have gotten out now of the torture at Abu Ghraib. I think it’s interesting to see the response in this country. There’s often mentioned the Arab world is incensed. I don’t think it’s because Arabs have a particularly hypersensitive gene. I think the whole world is incensed. When they see the picture, you can hear — that’s one thing, and then the government can always say it’s not true. But to see these pictures, I think it is really showing us the power of what an image has.

JEHANE NOUJAIM: It makes it into reality. When you just see it in print somehow it’s not a reality. A week before the prison photos, or two weeks before the prison photos were released, 600 civilians were killed in Fallujah. We didn’t see the pictures. I read ton the subway on — in one of the newspapers, and I was like — you know, oh, my goodness, and then Samir sent footage back of Fallujah and it hit me how terrible it was, but it didn’t hit the United States because you didn’t see it.

AMY GOODMAN: Don’t you share your footage with other networks? Doesn’t CNN, for example, use your footage of bombs over Baghdad, especially when they were kicked out and they couldn’t show it themselves?

SAMIR KHADER: Our footage is available to any station willing to take them. Many, many, many American stations took the pictures as to what did they do with the pictures, I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: General Powell, Secretary Of State, Colin Powell, just went to Qatar and word was he was putting pressure on the government there around Al-Jazeera. Is that true?

SAMIR KHADER: I don’t know. We have — I didn’t have the feelings that we were under pressure. I didn’t receive any phone call from any high manager. Maybe there are discussions with the Qatar government, but the fact is that when Al-Jazeera was created in 1996, the stated goal was that the Qatar government will finance the station, but will never, never, never interfere in the editorial line. Up until now, it was the case. I hope it will continue to be the case.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. I know you’re showing this film in many different places. I was just up in Vermont celebrating Independent Media throughout the state in Brattleboro and Montpelier and Burlington. They said June 1 at the Eclipse Theater in Stowe, Vermont, that they are going to be showing Control Room. And are you traveling around the country?

JEHANE NOUJAIM: We are. You can check out where it’s being released and when, at controlroommovie.com. That’s my plug for people who are checking out where it’s playing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well I want to thank you both for being with us, Samir Khader, senior producer with Al-Jazeera, and Jehane Noujaim, the filmmaker, who did this film in a six week period during the invasion of Iraq. of the film. Al-Jazeera means what?

SAMIR KHADER: It means the island of the peninsula. In both cases, it means the isolated place. We isolate ourselves from the environment of dictatorship and oppression. We want to expand and spread democracy, freedom and free speech and human rights.

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