Reporter’s notebook: witnessing the story firsthand

Al Jazeera celebrates its 25th anniversary on November 1. To mark the occasion, we have asked many of our senior correspondents to reflect on what it means to them to work for the first independent media network in the Arab world.

August 2005. My career at Al Jazeera did not begin in a television studio, but in the bedroom of a large Doha villa, converted into a temporary office. It was approximately a 10-minute walk from the main Al Jazeera complex, where construction of the Al Jazeera English studios had just begun.

The decision to join Al Jazeera had not been difficult. A new channel with a blank canvas, but based on the bold and pioneering work of the Al Jazeera Arabic channel.

Those were exciting days: forming a new news channel, recruiting a global team, creating a new news gathering system, and finding a voice and tone for Al Jazeera in English.

Our management team had identified the best places to locate a network of offices to cover news around the world. However, it soon occurred to me that they had made a major omission.

When the initial planning for the new network was completed in 2004, Afghanistan no longer seemed like a big story. Hamid Karzai had won the presidency a year earlier in largely peaceful elections. But in mid-2005, it became clear that the Taliban were making inroads into the south of the country again.

I convinced the bosses to let me bring a team for a test trip. We returned with exclusive stories and compelling images, persuading management to commit to a permanent office for Al Jazeera English in Kabul. They asked me to organize it and recruit the team, some of whom still work for Al Jazeera.

We integrated with US and NATO forces, as well as the Taliban, trying to cover the real picture across the country, not just what’s going on in Kabul.

I remember western military commanders gently scolding me at the time. They considered our coverage to be too negative. The Taliban would soon be defeated, they told me, and we were exaggerating the scale of corruption on the part of government officials.

My time at Al Jazeera has taken me to conflict zones around the world. Correspondents who work for the channel have the opportunity to cover stories up-close and in-depth. The year 2011 was particularly spectacular and tragic. I traveled to Tunisia and then to Bahrain. I arrived in Egypt two days before the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Since March, I have spent most of the rest of the year in Libya. We traveled with rebel fighters as they captured areas in the east of the country. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces fell back, and from the rooftop of our hotel in Benghazi, we could see his tanks approaching the outskirts of the city.

It was a tense night, but also a busy one for diplomacy on the other side of the world. The United Nations Security Council, which would later become the focus of my reports, had authorized Resolution 1973 while we slept, and the French Mirage planes pulverized the entire column of the regime’s tanks.

Later in the year, I traveled from village to village when rebel forces took control of the Nafusa Mountains. I returned to Tripoli just after Gaddafi fled. I was there the day the dictator was finally captured and brutally murdered, and I lined up with the Libyans in Misrata as they inspected his body.

In Libya, as in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, I experienced acts of kindness and hospitality from people with so little to give. So many people yearn for freedom and a better life, goals that for most remain tragically elusive.

The world of media has changed radically since 2005. The Internet means that reporters are no longer tethered to satellite trucks on hotel rooftops. Social media and smartphones allow instant communication. When I started out as a reporter in the 1980s, presenting a story meant reserving an international phone line hours in advance. Now, the news cycle does not stop. But of course this is also dangerous.

I hate the phrase “fake news.” The news is produced by trained reporters, backed by experienced editors at reputable news organizations. The false is not news. That is why the need for professional and impartial reporters is greater than ever.

In this work, I have met presidents, prime ministers, generals, activists, protesters, rioters, and people from all walks of life. I have been shot, arrested, taken hostage, and contracted serious illnesses. But I have also witnessed the story first hand. There can’t be many better jobs.

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