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"I'M NOT CHARLIE": Leaked Al Jazeera Newsroom Emails Reveal Charlie Hebdo Debate

"What Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech. It was an abuse of free speech," one Al Jazeera journalist wrote. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, an Al Jazeera spokesperson defended the internal debate.

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Reporters and editorial staff at Al Jazeera were divided on what response to take as a news network to the work of the slain Charlie Hebdo newspaper staff, leaked emails first published by the National Review revealed.

The internal staff email chain began with a Jan. 8 email from Al Jazeera English's executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr, asking his reporters to interrogate whether the attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper was "really an attack on free speech" and whether the slogan "Je Suis Charlie/I Am Charlie" is "alienating."

Describing the incident as a "clash of extremist fringes," Khadr was highly critical of the Charlie Hebdo staff:

Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn't bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response—however illegitimate—is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it's pointlessly all about you.

In response, U.S.-based correspondent Tom Ackerman quoted a Jan. 7 piece from Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

If a large enough group of someone is willing to kill you for saying something, then it's something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn't really a liberal civilization any more….liberalism doesn't depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it's okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that's when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.

Doha-based reporter Mohamed Vall wrote that supporting Charlie Hebdo ran the risk of encouraging more killings. "And I guess if you encourage people to go on insulting 1.5 billion people about their most sacred icons then you just want more killings because as I said in 1.5 billion there will remain some fools who don't abide by the laws or know about free speech," Vall wrote.

Vall was also highly critical of the French satirical newspaper. "What Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech it was an abuse of free speech in my opinion, go back to the cartoons and have a look at them! It' snot [sic] about what the drawing said, it was about how they said it."

"I condemn those heinous killings, but I'M NOT CHARLIE," Vall wrote.

The network's Paris correspondent, Jacky Rowland, then responded, reminding her colleagues of the hashtag their network had promoted in the wake of the arrest and jailing of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt:

Dear all

We are Aljazeera. So, a polite reminder:

#journalismisnotacrime

Kind regards
Jacky

Rowland's email prompted this all-caps response from "roving reporter" Omar Al Saleh:

First i condemn the brutal killing. But I AM NOT CHARLIE.

JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME
INSULTISM IS NOT JOURNALISM
AND NOT DOING JOURNALISM PROPERLY IS CRIME

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, an Al Jazeera spokesperson defended the internal debate.

"We have arguably the most diverse newsroom in the world, and the robustness of our internal discussions that flow from this are a great strength," he said.

"Viewers judge us on our actual output," the spokesperson said. "On the horrific story in Paris our coverage has been first class, relaying events in real time, all the while providing expert context and analysis from across the spectrum."

A statement from another Al Jazeera spokesperson to BuzzFeed News read as follows:

We join the rest of the civilized world in being horrified by the barbaric and heartbreaking attack on the Charlie Hebdo journalists. We are proud of the Al Jazeera coverage of the ongoing events and will continue to cover the story with facts and analysis in the coming days.

The email exchange in question reflects the values of diversity and debate that are inherent in AJMN; that disparity of views is both healthy and, as reflected here, leads to the sort of inquiry, examination and challenging of views that ensures comprehensive, agenda-free coverage.

We encourage our journalists to challenge each other in pursuit of truth. Every news organization has, and should have, conversations like this. It is a healthy organization which can accept the discussion of those opinions within the newsroom. What should be noted is what is presented on screen to our audience.

Al Jazeera covered the story in an objective and responsible way, as anyone who watched our screen or read our website can see.

You can read the emails in full below:

Executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr:

Thursday, January 08, 2015
Subject: AJ coverage of events in Paris


Dear Editorial colleagues,

Please accept this note in the spirit it is intended – to make our coverage the best that it can be …. We are Al Jazeera!!!!

My suggestion is that we question and raise the following points in our coverage – studio/anchors/guests/correspondents:

*This was a targeted attack, not a broad attack on the french population a la Twin towers or 7/7 style. So who was this attack against? The whole of France/EU society? Or specifically this magazine. The difference lies in how this is reported not in how terrible the act is obviously – murder is murder either way… but poses a narrower question of the "why"? attack on french society and values? Only if you consider CH's racist caricatures to be the best of European intellectual production (total whitewash on that at the moment)

*Was this really an attack on "Free speech"? Who is attacking free speech here exactly? Does an attack by 2-3 guys on a controversial magazine equate to a civilizational attack on European values..? Really?

*"I am Charlie" as an alienating slogan – with us or against us type of statement – one can be anti-CH's racism and ALSO against murdering people(!) (obvious I know but worth stating)

*Also worth stating that we still don't know much about the motivations of the attackers outside of the few words overheard on the video. Yes, clearly it was a "punishment" for the cartoons, but it didn't take them 8/9 years to prep this attack (2006 was Danish/CH publication) – this is perhaps a response to something more immediate…French action against ISIL…? Mali? Libya? CH just the target ie focus of the attack..?

*Danger in making this a free speech aka "European Values" under attack binary is that it once again constructs European identity in opposition to Islam (sacred depictions) and cements the notion of a European identity under threat from an Islamic retrograde culture of which the attackers are merely the violent tip of the iceberg (see the seeping of Far Right discourse into french normalcy with Houellebecque's novel for example)

*The key is to look at the biographies of these guys – contrary to conventional wisdom, they were radicalised by images of Abu Ghraib not by images of the Prophet Mohammed

*You don't actually stick it to the terrorists by insulting the majority of Muslims by reproducing more cartoons – you actually entrench the very animosity and divisions these guys seek to sow.

*This is a clash of extremist fringes…

I suggest a re-read of the Time magazine article back from 2011 and I have selected the most poignant/important excerpt….

http://world.time.com/2011/11/02/firebombed-french-paper-a-victim-of-islamistsor-its-own-obnoxious-islamophobia/?iid=gs-article-mostpop1http://world.time.com/2011/11/02/firebombed-french-paper-a-victim-of-islamistsor-its-own-obnoxious-islamophobia/?iid=gs-article-mostpop1

*It's unclear what the objectives of the caricatures were other than to offend Muslims—and provoke hysteria among extremists.

Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn't bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response—however illegitimate—is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it's pointlessly all about you.

Kind regards


Salah-Aldeen Khadr
​Executive Producer
Al Jazeera English

U.S.-based correspondent Tom Ackerman:

Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris


If a large enough group of someone is willing to kill you for saying something, then it's something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn't really a liberal civilization any more….liberalism doesn't depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it's okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that's when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.

-Ross Douthat in the NY Times

Doha-based correspondent Mohamed Vall Salem:

Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris

"large enough group"?

Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris


Rejoinder,

I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people chances are one or two of them will kill you… they don't represent the 1.5 who swallowed the insult in silence and patience in the name of free speech.

And I guess if you encourage people to go on insulting 1.5 billion people about their most sacred icons then you just want more killings because as I said in 1.5 billion there will remain some fools who don't abide by the laws or know about free speech. Simply put, it's difficult to control and tame and brake down or otherwise punish or educate all those 1.5 billion people.
Isn't it simply wiser to respect peoples' sacred values and sacred icons? Respect breeds respect, insult can degenerate into something worse than just insult, depending who who's at the the receiving end.

Last, if you no longer have anything that you hold sacred (the death of religion and the death of God etc…), there 1.5 billion people who still have … don't ignore their values in the name of yours, because values are a cultural construct, they vary from age to age and from culture to culture …

Last, last: what Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech it was an abuse of free speech in my opinion, go back to the cartoons and have a look at them! It' snot about what the drawing said, it was about how they said it.

I condemn those heinous killings, but I'M NOT CHARLIE

Mohamed Vall

Senior Paris correspondent Jacky Rowland:

Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris


Dear all

We are Aljazeera. So, a polite reminder:

#journalismisnotacrime

Kind regards
Jacky

Jacky Rowland
Senior Correspondent, Paris
Aljazeera English

Roving reporter Omar Al Saleh:

Friday, January 9, 2015
Subject: RE: AJ coverage of events in Paris
First i condemn the brutal killing. But I AM NOT CHARLIE.

JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME
INSULTISM IS NOT JOURNALISM
AND NOT DOING JOURNALISM PROPERLY IS CRIME


OMAR AL SALEH | ROVING REPORTER

ALJAZEERA ENGLISH CHANNEL
NEWS DEPT

David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.

Contact David Mack at david.mack@buzzfeed.com.

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