Post-Khashoggi Affair: What future for Arab journalists?
Following the disappearance, then the revelation of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul in early October, many are concerned about Arab journalists and their safety. Journalists’ safety is not to be taken lightly, and plenty of Arab media professionals have left their countries, many of whom reside in Turkey.
Egyptian journalist Aboubakr Khallaf is one of them. Now the CEO and co-founder of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) Editors Network, he was previously imprisoned for several months because of his profession. In this interview he expresses his own views candidly, and expands on his concerns and hopes for the future of journalism in the Arab world.
The Global Editors Network presents here the unedited views of Aboubakr Khallaf in his conversation with Bertrand Pecquerie, GEN CEO.
Bertrand Pecquerie: Jamal Khashoggi decided to live in exile in Istanbul. How many Arab journalists did the same choice? Could you estimate the number from the MENA region? What are the main countries of origin of exiled Arab journalists?
Aboubakr Khallaf: Over 1000 Arab journalists live in Turkey and they mostly come from Syria, Egypt, Yemen an Iraq. About 25% of them work as freelancers. The Turkish Arab Media Association has about 600 members of Arab journalists. The Association has social and cultural activities, but does not offer training programmes for Arab journalists.
How many Arab media organisations are broadcasting to the Arab world but from the Turkish territory? How did they get licences and authorisations?
There are over 100 organisations broadcasting to the Arab world from Turkey, including TV channels and online newspapers, comprising hundreds of professionals from Arab spring countries, gulf and northwest Africa. Journalists in Turkey are not necessarily fleeing their countries. Rather many preferred to work from Turkey, since there are minimum requirements, and enjoy more freedom to practice journalism, far from the grip of their repressive regimes.
What are the main and most influential Arab networks based in Istanbul? How are they funded?
There are over 12 TV channels, representing Arab spring countries, comprising workers of different nationalities. The main channels are Ahrar in Libya, Belqais in Yemen, Al Rafiddin and Iraqiyah in Iraq, Syria Now in Syria, Al Sharq, Al Wattan and Mekamleen in Egypt. It is really hard to say the orientation of each channel, as they are generally opposition channels with workers of diverse backgrounds and address a very broad segment of the populations in their country.
You can easily measure the popularity and credibility of these channels (from the audience prospective) through the public interaction on social media pages. They managed to create a large audience (far more than any channels sponsored by the oppressive regimes in the relevant countries) over a short period of time.
Opposition channels barely survive on donations and premiums of their supporters, and they do not have any other sources of funding.
After the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in the centre of Istanbul, do the Arab journalists feel more unsafe there? Do you have examples of threats since the Khashoggi’s Affair? Either directly, or on social media.
Threats are usually directed by the media channels controlled by the oppressive regimes, the puppets of the regimes on their sponsored channels.. A recent example can be the campaign launched by Al Sissi media in Egypt against the opposition media figures such as Motaz Mattar of Sharq TV, Mohamed Naser of Mkamleen TV. Motaz and Mohammed are two top commentators and TV show presenters who previously worked for Egyptian TV channels. They are both of liberal background, and currently broadcast on Mekameleen from Turkey. Hamza Zubaa is a good third example of targeted journalist. He is a top commentator of the MB group. For me, this is a good example on professional cooperation between people from diverse political backgrounds.
Threats against these media professionals on the Egyptian army-backed channels included kidnapping and murder in Turkey. There also many other threats through social media (particularly from special digital groups formed by the regime in Egypt), including kidnapping and murder of family members of media professionals who live in exile.
Do you know some Arab journalists who already left Istanbul (or intend to)? Where did they go?
Yes, there are many journalists who left Turkey to the EU, especially the UK.
Who are those exiled journalists, aside from the fact that they are opposed to the current governments in the region? Are they members of the Muslim Brotherhood in majority? Do they also belong to the left and to liberal movements?
I doubt that a majority of journalists and media professionals living in exile belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. There are many from the left and liberal movements as well, even though they all may work under one roof and it’s usually difficult to say who is what. Journalists and media professionals living in exile, irrespective of their political background, are all professional, believe in democracy and see the practice of their profession as a forerunner for the establishment of justice and democracy in their respective home countries.
They could have accepted generous offers from their oppressive regimes, but they rather sacrificed their freedom and had to flee their home countries to be able to practice an ethical journalism. According to me, professionals with these characteristics are the elite of their professions and I consider they can easily overcome any differences and cooperate together for their shared cause.
Can Arab journalists create a joint community, even if they belong to opposite movements in the political spectrum of media organisations? Is it enough to be exiled for creating a sense of unity and common destiny?
We created the MENA Editors Network (website is under construction) for encouraging diversity in Journalism.
Our network is not limited to journalists living in exile, but welcomes all journalists and media professionals in the MENA region (including non-Arab Journalists). We welcome professionals of all backgrounds to join us as members and take part in our activities, so long as they abide by the customary principles of ethical journalism.
Based on our experience both in the past with the Electronic Media Syndicate in Egypt and currently in MENA Editors Network, we can readily confirm that professional Arab journalists have been always able to thrive in environments with diverse backgrounds. We strongly believe that such environment is conducive to creativity and openness. Meanwhile, screening members based on their political views or backgrounds is against our code of ethics.
What is the main goal of this new association?
MENA Editors Network (MEN) aims to be the broadest network of editors, journalists, reporters and media professionals in the MENA region, with the mission of supporting the free practice of public enlightenment professions with high standards of ethical behaviour.
Training, holding workshops and seminars, and hosting journalist experts to transfer their experience to our members will be our main activities. The MEN website will be a key platform for circulation of academic and educational content and raising awareness of professional rights amongst members.
Our network welcomes journalists and media professionals of all countries and backgrounds, regardless of their nationalities, religions, political views, and ethnicity.
Why is it a registered company in London and not an association?
Independent international journalist organisations active in the ME region are often accused of collaborating with foreign powers and plotting against the ruling regimes. In fact, it is really difficult to practice any kind of philanthropic or non-profit activity in the ME, especially when you would collect premiums or launch sponsored activities. Therefore, we have been keen on finding the best solution to spare our members any troubles and to offer them free of charge or low-cost training and education opportunities, irrespective of their backgrounds and the journalist entities they work for.
Is the link between the MENA Editors Network and Al-Jazeera?
So far there is not link. However, Al Jazeera is within the geographical area where MEN is active, and we would not mind to receive support from Al Jazeera, or any other institution, whether as a corporate entity or through the participation of Al Jazeera staff in any of our events.
The Turkish regime is very tough against its own journalists and many of them are in jail or exiled after the 2017 coup. How do you explain the openness of Erdogan’s government to exiled Arab journalists? Is there a contradiction for you between arresting journalists in their own country and welcoming thousands of journalists from abroad?
Most of foreign journalists working from Turkey are quite busy with matters of journalism and freedom of speech in their own countries, and pay little or no attention to the status of journalism in Turkey. In fact, Turkey represents an alternative home for many, where they have been warmly welcomed, given freedom of movement, residence and the right to exercise journalism without any restrictions or noticeable requirements.
What do you expect from the European Union?
Would the EU facilitate visa and asylum procedures to journalists who feel that their life is at risk in Turkey? Or would they rather make it even stricter, denying a basic right under the International Law for people who are part of a global cause, i.e. the free practice of ethical journalism?
In fact, it is quite difficult for journalists to enter EU countries, especially as they make it almost impossible for journalists in this situation to have Schengen visas, due to the possibility that they may apply for asylum.
Any concrete example?
Last year, I applied for a visa to attend a conference in Portugal. As there is no embassy for Portugal in Istanbul, I was referred to the Hungarian Consulate instead. I was interrogated by the Consul for about an hour, who asked me about the nature of my work as a journalist and whether I had any political opinions against the military regime in Egypt. Based on my answers, my application was rejected three weeks later on the grounds that my life was potentially at risk and I was likely to apply for asylum in the EU.
Don’t you consider that exiled Arab journalists have been taken hostage by the Erdogan government in a geopolitical game being beyond press freedom issues and solidarity with foreign journalists?
Being a hostage necessarily means that your freedom is restricted and your movement is confined to a certain place. Therefore, I cannot find any basis to reach such a conclusion, especially as Arab journalists enjoy full freedom in Turkey. For citizens of most of the MENA region, they do not need a visa to enter Turkey. At entry, you can easily get a two-year tourist permit or work permit.
What is asked of exiled Arab journalists when they consider relocating to Turkey? Do they consider that their situation can get endangered at any moment?
Procedures are very simple and there are no restrictions on the practice of journalism: a simple application and you get your permit about three weeks later. In fact, there is no such control. As to the threat of being expelled, it is the biggest fear of every person living in exile, since state policies can vary from a government to another.
I insist: do Arab journalists, residing in Turkey, feel censorship or risk of censorship? Are there limits, as there are in Qatar, where it is impossible to criticise the regime?
There is no censorship for Arab journalists. Arab journalists focus only on matters of their own countries, and all works are oriented to the Arab world, in Arabic language.
The views presented above are those of Aboubakr Khallaf. This interview has been unedited and is the result of a conversation between Bertrand Pecquerie, GEN CEO, and Aboubakr Khallaf.
Aboubakr Khallaf is an Egyptian investigative journalist and researcher in the international relations of the Middle East, residing in Turkey. He is a co-founder of the MENA Editors Network. He is former founder & chairman of the Board of Directors of Electronic Media Syndicate (EMS).