Yousri Fouda: Information is Foremost; Scooping the Competition Comes Later
Al Jazeera’s Yousri Fouda is a confident man. The deputy executive editor of the leading Arab news channel, he has earned world-wide recognition for their coverage of the Iraq War. As senior investigative reporter for Al-Jazeera, Fouda has interviewed top Al Qaeda leaders and is also co-author of Masterminds of Terror.
We met in Edinburgh to talk about the agency’s news coverage in Africa. Fouda, busy taking phone calls, was trimly dressed in a black suit, white shirt and polished shoes. He took a few minutes for a cigarette, before getting down to business.
Al-Jazeera prides itself on having broken the pattern of reporting in the Middle East, says Fouda. "Before Al Jazeera, the norm on Arab state-owned TVs was to start with the news of the president, or the King or the Emperor shaking hands with other world leaders, then the prime minister, followed by news from Europe or the United States. If Africa was lucky, maybe towards the very end there would be news items saying that 5,000 or so people are died today in Africa." The station tries to report on Africa in spite of what he calls a "little bit of a logistics problem" in an area so vast, sending reporters across the continent to cover major stories as they unfold.
Comparing stories covered by foreign TV channels over the past years to current coverage of events in Africa, "The situation is slightly better," he said, "I must be fair to everyone. More stories have been generated from Africa, a bit on the red herring [a false trail] now. Sometimes I don’t agree with them, unfortunately."
On the new initiative to set up an African Satellite TV channel (ATV) Fouda wishes the initiators "all the best." He envisages, however, that they are going to have "a much more difficult job," because of language problems. "After all Al Jazeera comes out of the Arab world which speaks one language, almost all with one religion, and certainly the same history, same problems and same aspirations. The picture is slightly different in Africa, even though there are common things; you got [so many] different languages spoken there. So, this is a challenge."
He hopes they will take Al Jazeera as an example of how to look at the news coming from what he called "the other direction."
"When you look at the world picture, the flow of information, the flow of culture, the flow of style is from one direction to the other," he said. "It is time that we stand up to introduce to the other side a little bit of the ideas about us too."
Al Jazeera gets its share of exclusive world interviews, but Fouda said the Arab channel does not go after exclusivity for the sake of it.
"If your judgement as a journalist is that people would really like to know more about an issue, then you do your best," he said, "whatever it takes, whether it is chasing a certain source, whether it is being in a war zone or whether it is doing your investigation, something or another."
"Of course you’re a journalist, and you would like to have your own kind of glory, and be ahead of everyone else," he said. "I, myself would prefer to be accurate, fair and impartial – and first. But ‘first’ does not come first in my opinion."
Of all the wars and conflicts in Africa, Fouda believes that the causes are many.
"Colonial powers have taken much from Africa," he said, "and they haven’t provided the slightest [economic] returns. All we hear about Africa every now and then in the Western media is bad news, unfortunately, of people dying of hunger, poverty and other sources of corruption and the rest of it!" For him, it is time for African journalists to focus on other kinds of stories.
"And again, it is not our business as journalists to say whose fault it is. In my opinion, it is information that is foremost; people need to start educating people. That is what in my opinion Al Jazeera has contributed to our reality: education. [We] tell people about certain concepts, political participation, human rights, voting, democracy, women’s right – that never happen before, or if it happened, it was only to serve a certain agenda and then the government decides to be fit as far as they are concerned. So I suspect that the same would probably happen in Africa."
"I can’t expect too many leaders in Africa to really welcome the idea of a totally free press."
Fouda has some advice for the next generation of African journalists.
"First of all master your tools," he said. "Be on top of your profession so that you know your rights, just like a citizen. Then you know at least you’re meant to get into trouble, or somebody decided for you to get into trouble, at least you know your duties and then see what happens later."
On reporting from war zones, Fouda said he always tries to take what he calls a "calculated risk." For him, there is no point in going behind the bigger story if "you can’t come back to tell it."
In such a situation he said, there is always a balance to be struck. From a journalist’s point of view, one is never short of ideas. "Africa is full of stories; in the same way Africa is rich in terms of resources, it is also in terms of stories."
But the question is, which stories. "We all know that recently the world has decided to pay a little attention to Africa now," he said. "I do hope that attention would be given to Africa for the right reasons, and not for the wrong reasons."