Gulf states and Israel won’t silence me: journalist Abdel Bari Atwan

Abdel Bari Atwan

Asa Winstanley The Electronic Intifada

Abdel Bari Atwan is one of the world’s most well-known Palestinian journalists.

His editorials are influential and widely-read and his appearances on many news stations in both Arabic and English have gained him a large following over the years.

Since 1996, when he interviewed Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, he has also been internationally recognized as a leading expert on al-Qaida. He has written two books on the subject, in addition to his evocative memoir, A Country of Words.

Born in a Gaza refugee camp, he rose up through the media ranks of several Arabic papers before establishing in London his own pan-Arab newspaper.

This was al-Quds al-Arabi. Unlike the majority of pan-Arab papers, owned by the Saudi royal family and sycophantically toeing their political lines, al-Quds al-Arabi developed a reputation for independence and freedom of expression, and was particularly supportive of the Palestinian struggle.

But in July, after 25 years at the helm, Abdel Bari Atwan suddenly announced on his blog and on Twitter (where he has more than 300,000 followers) that he was stepping down. It seemed he was retiring.

“Events and the requirements of third parties pushed” him into the departure, he enigmatically wrote. Many suspected the hand of the Gulf oil monarchies, of whom he had been critical over the years.

I ran into him at the recent MEMO Palestine book awards, where he won a lifetime achievement award. He told me about his new project, Rai al-Youm.

I asked, and he granted me a long and wide-ranging interview at his new office in west London. This interview was edited for length and in places for clarity.

The Electronic Intifada: Lets start off by talking about your new project.

Abdel Bari Atwan: [At al-Quds al-Arabi] I was always thinking of going to the online [platform]. I realized that 95-98 percent of our readers are online. We are a global newspaper, a diaspora newspaper.

On the Internet it was a very very successful venture. So I decided to do it. We started [Rai al-Youm on] 2 September. The first month we had two million unique visitors. Now the third month it could be two-and-a-half to three million.

EI: Weren’t you supposed to retire?

AA: I don’t think I will retire. Sorry to say that! You know my wife always asks me the same question: “You know, you are now over 60 so you have to slow down.” How can I slow down?

My colleague told me [Rai al-Youm] is worth about $400,000. I said, my God, that’s fantastic, so should I sell it and take the $400,000 and go to Hawaii, enjoy my retirement there?

EI: What do you have in the way of staff?

AA: I have one full-time staff [member]; she’s my managing editor. I have also four or five stringers.

I am back again as if I am 25 years of age as a young journalist. I work about 14 hours a day, so if I drop dead suddenly you know what the reason was.

EI: Don’t say that!

AA: Really, I work very hard. And I don’t need people: social life is nil. By the end of the day I’m exhausted and I want to sleep, so yes: a very small group, mainly the minimum of the expenses.

The reputation of online newspapers or websites is not really great in the Arab world. So when I said I want to produce an online newspaper people [said] “Abdel Bari Atwan, you are belittling yourself!” I said look … we have to look at the other side, there are very successful experiences: the Guardian is spending about £15 million to improve their website because this is the future.

Really the reaction, the response of people is fantastic. I am flooded by articles from young people, free of charge. The people who are against us are the people who are old, and expired!

EI: How are you generating income?

AA: Until now, I spent from my own savings, to be honest, hoping after six months when we have a good history that the advertising will come.

I received a lot of offers from people who would like to be a partner, people wanted to buy the newspaper. And I said to them look, it’s too early now … I don’t want to be an employee of anyone, and receive orders and be part of any political agenda.

Now I’m more independent. I’m not really a captive of this money, or of states. It is nice to be free.

But if somebody want to volunteer and help us and offer us with money without any strings, why not? But until now they want to buy it – maybe to silence me. But I wouldn’t be silenced.

EI: So you can’t tell me who those offers were from?

AA: Well they came from the Gulf, from Gulf states. It’s very very obvious. Because who’s got the money?

EI: Which ones?

AA: I’ll keep it secret! [laughs] They wanted it to be secret, so I don’t want to disclose.

EI: So you think that those offers might be coming to silence you?

AA: Oh yes. I was actually forced to leave al-Quds al-Arabi because they didn’t like my editorial line. Many people did not. I received a lot of threats –

EI: Many people from the Gulf?

AA: From the Gulf, from Zionist organizations, Arab intelligence services also. The Syrians threatened to kill me at a certain stage. Because I was very critical of them, talking about their bad record of human rights. Jordanian intelligence, they also threatened me.

This is life if you want to be straightforward, if you want to speak your mind. We have to take the risk [as journalists].

EI: When you resigned from al-Quds al-Arabi, you mentioned writing a book.

AA: My al-Qaida books were very very successful. For example, the first one was translated into 32 languages. But when I wrote my memoirs, no American publisher wanted to touch it. They said no way, they don’t want anybody to write about Palestine. It’s unbelievable, even the media here; I didn’t have a single review in a major newspaper.

With The Secret History of al-Qaida, for example, it was reviewed by everybody. So it shows you the censorship, direct or indirect, on anything written about Palestine. That’s why I honestly admire The Electronic Intifada. It’s fighting against this tsunami of censorship, of actually shutting up people like you and myself.

When it comes to America, they shut their door completely – my publisher did their best. But when I came out with my third book, After bin Laden: al-Qaida, the Next Generation, immediately they [clicks fingers].

We [Palestinians] are not human [to them]. We are terrorists, guerrillas, suicide bombers, yeah that’s fine, fantastic. But if you want to tell a human story, my story in the refugee camp, they don’t want it.

EI: What is your advice to journalists like us at The Electronic Intifada, when confronting Israeli propaganda?

AA: You cannot imagine the hate campaign against me that I faced for the last, say, twenty years in particular since I became a prominent speaker on the BBC and Sky News. The whole of the Zionist lobby [are] against Bari Atwan as they call me. Why? Because I managed to penetrate the media.

Yes: they would like us [Arabs] to be in the media, but we have to be stupid, or we have to be like [jailed Islamic fundamentalist] Abu Hamza al-Musri or Omar Bakri – they don’t want people who can influence the people.

As a producer, if I want to have a debate about Palestinian issues, I have to have an Israeli and a Palestinian. They [the Israeli side] said immediately, no I don’t want to appear with Bari Atwan. By this way, they reduce my appearances – because if you are a producer, you want the program [to air].

EI: What does it mean that Israel has these flack groups and blogs like MEMRI, Honest Reporting and CiFWatch?

AA: The significance is the cowardice of the British media. For example, they come and select a line of an hour interview in Arabic media and they send it to the BBC, to Sky News, to the Guardian – “he is a terrorist, he is supporting suicide bombers, he saying something in Arabic and something else in English,” and you know this propaganda.

And the problem is they intimidate the media in this country, they intimidate the universities. They bombard people with letters with emails, and they are scared. You don’t have brave people who say, look, this is rubbish and throw it in the bin.

They plant a story in The Jerusalem Post, and then it is quoted by the Jewish Chronicle, and then it is sent to Sky News, to CNN, to the BBC – “look at Abdel Bari Awtan” or “look at Asa” for example. This is the problem.

EI: They said that you “justified” one of the shootings that took place in 2008 in an [Israeli] religious school.

AA: Yeah. And this is rubbish.

EI: The thing is you can tell even reading that that it’s obviously rubbish because they don’t put the whole quote, they just put the word “justified” in quotes.

AA: Exactly. But the problem is – you’re aware of this, but someone [less aware] in the BBC – “oh my God, no, the killing of children.” That’s the problem.

I admit they are not as successful as they used to be, people are fed up from them.

EI: How did it make you feel to leave al-Quds al-Arabi after a quarter of a century?

AA: It was the saddest moment in my life. Because it was like giving my baby up for adoption. I was very very depressed and very, very stressed. I cried.

EI: And you were really forced out?

AA: Yes. By financial problems, because I couldn’t save the newspaper. The only option for me was either to shut it down or to leave in order for other of my staff about fifty people – fifty families – to actually survive.

You cant imagine, those people were very kind to me, very nice, very dedicated – and in certain stages they were not paid their salaries.

I was offered a lot of money to stay as director, as editor-in-chief, but [I would have been forced] to change my editorial policies. I said no: I wouldn’t. Many people thought I was stupid. I was even offered a salary for life. I said no, I want a clean break.

EI: So they had to bring in new management to try and save it financially.

AA: Yeah definitely it was new management, they got money.

EI: How did they want you to change your editorial [line]? They must have had specific things.

AA: I didn’t go into details with them, because I realized that I wouldn’t survive. I realized that this is the end of the journey so I had to quit.

[At the beginning of al-Quds al-Arabi] my house was to be repossessed by the bank because I didn’t pay the mortgage. I do regret losing a huge pyramid [in my life], but what shall I do?

EI: The new funders from the Gulf, were they from – was it a Qatari?

AA: No comment.

EI: They never told you anything specific you had to change in your editorial policy to bail it out?

AA: I could continue if I actually accepted their new editorial policy.

EI: Whereas the whole time you were there, you were the one deciding the editorial policy, but they would have had someone above you.

AA: Yes. I was responsible for every word on the newspaper. Nobody never imposed any journalist or anybody on me. Nobody ever asked me to write editorial to support this, or not to support this – never. Until the last –

EI: Nobody even tried?

AA: They tried. Definitely. I always said no to any interference. I never published anything in the paper which was planted. I never fabricated the news. I never put anything [in the newspaper] which I believed was wrong.

When you have a newspaper, sometimes there will be some sort of self-censorship in order to keep the newspaper going. Saudi Arabia blocked our website, the same thing in Syria, the same thing in Bahrain for example.

I’m trying now to wash off the remnants of self-censorship. Definitely there are some from al-Quds after 25 years. Sometimes you have be soft here, to be harsh there, to be moderate there. Now I am trying to get rid of it gradually.

EI: Why does that kind of self-censorship happen?

AA: The problem is al-Quds al-Arabi is a pan-Arab newspaper. If you are banned across all of the Arab countries, it is useless – I want to reach the people. I don’t want just the people in diaspora to read it. There are 400 million [Arab] people, I want to reach them.

EI: What would you say you are most proud of in your time at al-Quds al-Arabi?

AA: Al-Quds al-Arabi became a brand: a brand of freedom, professionalism and courage. The second thing I’m proud of: I never sacked anybody from the newspaper.

Third, nobody could twist my arm. I was offered a lot of money. I wasn’t able to pay the salaries of my staff … if I couldn’t save the newspaper and those people [were] suddenly on the streets, and my family also, I would be blamed for that, I would be guilty of wasting this opportunity.

EI: In the end they twisted your arm to force you out.

AA: Yes. If I submit to arm-twisting, I wouldn’t be Abdel Bari Atwan. This is my reputation, this is my asset. My asset is to be as free as I can.

EI: It is twenty years since the Oslo agreement was signed. What do you make of the Palestinian Authority now?

AA: Before Oslo, the Palestinian cause was on the top of the agenda in the Middle East. Wherever Yasser Arafat went in that time, he was the headline. After twenty years of Oslo, Mahmoud Abbas visits a lot of countries: there is not a single line in any newspaper about it. This summarized to you the huge difference.

Nowadays when I write an editorial about Syria, it is the best read [piece]. When I write an editorial about Palestine and peace talks, it is the worst read. If about 100,000 read my editorials about Syria or about Egypt, [and] maybe about 10,000 read my editorials about Palestine, if I am lucky.

People are not interested in our cause any more, because of us as Palestinians. When we actually throw in the towel, when we talk to the Israelis while settlement is continuing, when our leader said I give up my right to return to Safad, when actually we don’t have a proper protest in the West Bank, when there is Arab spring everywhere and we don’t have anything in our territories, it tells you a lot.

We used to ignite revolution all over the world. We used to be respected all over the world.

EI: You sound quite pessimistic.

AA: Our kuffiyeh [traditional Palestinian scarf] used to be the flag of every revolutionary free movement. Now, nobody talks about us. It is our mistake. It is Abbas’ mistake. It is Fatah’s mistake. Actually we are a captive of the salaries at the end of the month.

I feel sick talking about it. It makes me depressed.

EI: Is there anything that gives you hope?

AA: To be honest, no. Unless there is a new generation with new ideas, maybe.

I don’t want to see any of the [Palestinian] Authority [officials] when they come to London. I try to avoid them, because I will explode.

EI: Do you think the refugees are going to return within our lifetimes?

AA: Oh yes. Within your lifetime. Maybe not mine. We will, and they will return. The big lie of Israel is starting to be discovered now.

This agreement between Iran and the United States is a very significant turning point. If this happened ten years ago, [Benjamin] Netanyahu or any of them – or [Ehud] Barak – would have actually prevent America from signing this agreement.

It means Israel lost the power to twist the arm of the west.

EI: That’s something that gives you hope then?

AA: Oh yes. But I believe that I will have hope when our people move. When they make the occupation very costly. Once they do so, I will have hope.

Here we are depending on others – we should be dependent on ourselves.

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Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London. He is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada. He first visited Palestine in 2004.