When Al Jazeera first hit the airwaves in 1996, most Arabs had never seen the face of an Israeli on Arab TV. In fact, the media in the Arab world was classic propaganda - narratives constructed by autocratic Arab regimes to ensure carefully crafted information designed to shape and control the public opinion of their populations and to parrot a single permitted state narrative.
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In a single stroke Al Jazeera changed that, bringing to the airwaves opinions from all corners, from Arabs, Israelis, Americans, and the international community. It was a seismic shock, and a first for the region, in the way news and information was presented to the many millions living in the Middle East. Al Jazeera became a pioneer in independent news for a region that had been fed propaganda for decades. Ironically, when Al Jazeera first launched it was seen by Arab audiences and regimes as being a channel created by Israelis, since it hosted Israelis and gave a voice to their opinions.
Our guiding philosophy was and remains that an informed citizenry is the key to reform, democracy, and progress. We are not afraid to show all sides of an issue even if that means reflecting opinions that are troubling, challenging, and at times divisive and confrontational. They’re not our opinions – just a reflection of the realities on the street.
On that path, our independent journalism has been criticized for hosting controversial individuals and issues, but we have done so only in our persistent quest to present the spectrum of opinions that make truth possible. In parallel, we have been accused of incitement while our journalistic responsibility requires that we reflect the reality of complex issues, wars, and conflicts from the ground. We cannot, and do not, sugarcoat the truth.
Today, we are under siege by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt as a punishment and deterrent for airing viewpoints inconsistent with their official narratives.
One of the demands of these countries was that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera. This would be a tragic loss for independent journalism and for the millions who feel voiceless and powerless in our region. It would surely leave a vacuum and it would certainly come at a cost. Since its inception, Al Jazeera has provided Israel with a rare conduit for airing its viewpoints to Arab and Muslim audiences and participating in dialogue with them. Until now Israel has been one of the few countries in the Middle East to never ban or shut down Al Jazeera.
But this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to shut down Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem office. Citing, in his own statement, the legal restrictions that currently prevent this, Mr. Netanyahu vowed to change the rules to silence our voice.
While it’s no surprise that regional regimes would want to see the closure of Al Jazeera, why would Israel, one of the only self-proclaimed functional democracies in the region want to silence its voice?
The collusion by Netanyahu with his Arab autocratic neighbors leaves little doubt that free independent media and truth are ready to be sacrificed as collateral damage in the power politics of the region. What difference then is there between Israel, as a perceived democracy, and these dictatorships?
This recent turn of events, sadly, is not new for us. Our unflinching dedication to independent journalism and getting the story right has come with a heavy price. Our journalists have been threatened, imprisoned, tortured, and killed; our offices bombed, our websites hacked, and our social media accounts taken down.
We were the first network based in the Middle East to introduce investigative journalism to the region and have continued to win industry awards, including Emmys, for our in-depth brand of journalism. In many cases, our independent journalism put into focus the corruption marring the region and the world. At other times, it exonerated individuals and nations, including Israel, for charges and conspiracies alleged by detractors.
Arabs have criticized Al Jazeera of being pro-Israeli and Israelis have criticized us for being pro-Arab. We have been accused of being Islamist in the West and of being pro-West among Islamists. Governments have said we’re pro-rebel and rebels say that we’re pro-government. In fact, all we’ve done is the right journalistic thing – to bring all points of view to the table and let our audiences decide for themselves.
The pursuit of truth is not always popular. But it is vital to a free and informed people. Those on the side of truth have nothing to fear. Our audiences in the region and across the world are proof that people want a voice. They want Al Jazeera because they want to be heard. They want Al Jazeera because they want to know and make up their own minds. They want Al Jazeera because they want the truth to be told.
It may be easier for regimes to silence and eradicate independent free media in the short term for the sake of political expediency, but in the long run everyone pays a heavy price. A world without a diversity of opinions and views is a world of authoritarian rule. It is a massive step backwards. And in this case, Israelis should not allow their authorities to kill the messenger.
Walid Omary is Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief