Amjad Atallah, editor in chief of Al Jazeera America, presented “Journalism Under Fire,” a lecture focusing on the importance of journalists and freedom of the press. The lecture was this year’s installment of The Daniel W. Kops Freedom of the Press series, which has been offered for over a decade.
Prof. Michael Jones-Correa, government, introduced Atallah, his high school classmate.
“Amjad, in his career both at Al Jazeera and before, has given a particularly sharp perspective on free speech and freedom of the press issues, which is the purpose of the Kops lecture,” Jones-Correa said.
Before becoming editor in chief, Atallah served as a regional director of the Americas for Al Jazeera Media Network and as Bureau Chief of the Americas for Al Jazeera.”
Atallah began by describing his journey through journalism as “eclectic,” saying that he has gotten to his current point based on his encounters with journalists at the beginning of his career.
In the 1990s, while Atallah was a studying the Holocaust at the University of Virginia’s graduate program in religious studies, a Newsday reporter discovered and published pictures of operating concentration camps in Yugoslavia. This led to an uproar of journalists reporting on the death camps. Amjad said what shocked people around the world, including himself, the most was that it had already gone on for so long without any global knowledge or news coverage.
“When I heard from all of these reporters … and then I would go to class and have an academic conversation and discussion about World War II, I was having a real problem with cognitive dissonance,” Atallah said. “I could not believe that these things could happen again and again and again despite all the slogans about it happening never again.”
This cognitive dissonance led Atallah to pose a question for himself.
“It wasn’t what should the world do, but what should I do? What will I need to be involved and how do I need to be engaged?” he said.
These questions led to the development of Atallah’s professional career working on humanitarian and policy issues on Bosnia, where he realized the importance of journalists.
“Without the reporting that came out of Bosnia, it is unclear what would have happened. That war continued even after people found out that rape camps and concentration camps and death camps were in place,” Atallah said. “But imagine if there hadn’t been any reporting at all? Or imagine if the reporting hadn’t been able to come out? Would the genocide actually have played itself out of its logical conclusion?”
Atallah then jumped forward 20 years, saying even after the importance of journalists has been shown, their situation has not gotten better — it has actually gotten worse. In this year alone, 48 journalists have been killed, and 147 journalists are now in prison.
Not only are these numbers startlingly high to him, they also ring close to home, Atallah said. Three Al Jazeera staff members were imprisoned in Egypt, accused of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news. The three were then placed on trial without any substantial evidence against them, according to Atallah. They were held in maximum-security prison and subsequently solitary confinement until their eventual release.
In response to the detainment of its own journalists, Al Jazeera started the “Journalism is not a crime” campaign, in hopes of raising awareness of violations of Press Freedom and in support of all journalists, primarily in the Middle East, according to Atallah.
When taking into account all the other injustices facing civilians in the Middle East, Atallah said he was aware that it might seem self-centered of journalists to demand so much attention to themselves. However, Atallah said he recognized “a correlation between attacks on journalists and the greater crimes that are taking place around them on the stories they are trying to cover” and cited this as an effect of journalism’s main role as a check on power.
“Journalism exists to be able to hold all power centers to account, whether they’re corporate, whether they’re financial, whether they’re governmental,” Atallah said. “Governments and militaries know this. They also know that if they can control the narrative, and if they can deny the story from getting out, they know that they can actually push their agenda a bit further. Reporters provide a reality check, but not everyone wants you to know what that reality is.”
Atallah made the distinction that censorship of journalists is not only occurring in the Middle East and is not just the literal detainment of journalists. He pointed to public pressure being just as detrimental and a very strong form of journalistic censorship, “especially in times of national distress,” and raised the issue of censorship in the United States.
Atallah cited The New York Times’ response to the United States Pentagon’s first guidelines on its interpretation of the law of war, which it stated was a direct threat to journalists.
“’Journalists,’ the manual says, ‘are generally regarded as civilians, but may in some instances be deemed unprivileged belligerents’, i.e. that journalists would have less rights than a soldier from the enemy side that was captured,” Atallah said. “’The manual warns that reporting on military operations can be very similar to correcting intelligence or even spying… Governments may need to censor journalists’ work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy.’”
The censorship and attacks on journalists affect much more than the news industry, Atallah said. He stressed that these attacks are used to intimidate the rest of the population, “making other violence that much easier to perpetrate,” and that journalists must be defended.
“Imagine if every newscast was delivered by lobbyists,” Atallah said. “That world is not that far away. We always have to struggle against it.”