Last week, I appeared via a London studio link on an Arabic language programme hosted by the greatly admired Egyptian broadcaster Yosri Fouda.
Yosri had asked me to take part in a discussion about President Trump’s war on the media and his characterisation of journalists as the enemy of the people.
But Fouda was broadcasting not from Cairo where he became one of the few trusted independent voices during the Egyptian Arab Spring but from Berlin where he is for all practical purposes in journalistic exile. Fouda’s refusal to park his journalistic principles and self-censure in his coverage of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sisi or cater to the interests of the owner of ONTV where he originated his programme made him a marked man and he decided to take his leave from Cairo for an indefinite period of time. Now Fouda is living in Berlin and is the producer and host of a new international Arab language programme, The Fifth Estate, for the German-financed international Deutsche-Welle.
I have known Yosri for a considerable period of time, dating to his high profile period of investigative reporting for the Al Jazeera Arabic channel. His “Top Secrets” investigations established him as the leading investigative journalist in the Arab broadcast world. He was recognised everywhere he went. On one occasion, I was with Yosri in Amman where he’d been lecturing Arab journalists who were taking part in a training course organised by the new Jordan Media Institute. Afterwards, we climbed into a local taxi whereupon the driver was overwhelmed to meet Yosri. He called his wife and asked Yosri to speak to her to prove that he was actually in his taxi. At the hotel where we were staying, hotel patrons kept approaching our table and asked if they could speak with him. They wanted to tell him how much his journalism mattered to them.
Far and away the biggest story he ever worked on was his exclusive interview with two of the Al-Qaeda planners of 9/11 – Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and Ramzi Binalshibh. How Yosri managed to get that exclusive interview is a long and fascinating tale of derring do and risk taking that could have easily cost him his life and wrecked his career. It all began in April 2002 with a fax from Osama Bin-Laden inviting him to Islamabad and a promise of obtaining the real inside story of the planning of 9/11.
What Yosri didn’t do is as significant as his reply to what appeared to be an authentic communication from Osama bin Laden. He told no one at Al Jazeera about this mission. Not the director general with whom he had a warm personal relationship. Nor any of his colleagues. He only told his Mother that he might see her in a few weeks in Egypt but not why he’d likely be coming her way.
For the detailed account of Yosri’s tense and at times dangerous assignment, read his “Capture or Kill: The pursuit of the 9/11 Masterminds and the Killing of Osama bin Laden” written by Fouda and Nick Fielding. https://goo.gl/OWRwsY
Why Yosri decided against telling his own bosses and colleagues at Al Jazeera, a seemingly defiant act that would get most journalists fired, would later become clear. In fact, his own bosses did tell the Emir of Qatar who then, according to American journalist Ron Suskind,* shared information with the Director of the CIA about the assignment. This breach could have cost him his life had Fouda not sent a coded message to bin Laden explaining that he revealed nothing that compromised the security of Sheikh Mohamed and Binalshibh.
In his broadcasting work for Deutsche Welle, Yosri Fouda is focused on re-connecting with his Arab language viewers who continue to rely on him for independent reporting and analysis.
And Yosri remains as committed as ever to spotlighting the plight of journalists in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, who face personal attacks and prison sentences if they challenge the el-Sisi government or provoke charges of aiding and abetting the Muslim Brotherhood.
In my contribution to his programme, I pointed to what the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, wrote recently in an Op-Ed for the New York Times: ” At a time when journalists around the world are being killed and imprisoned in record numbers, Mr. Trump’s relentless tirades against ‘fake news’ are emboldening autocrats and depriving threatened and endangered journalists of one of their strongest supporters- the United States government.
In his eagerness to befriend autocratic, anti-press free rulers like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi without any publicly proclaimed advocacy of human rights or press freedoms, Trump has surrendered any global moral leadership. He has given a green light to Putin and el-Sisi to continue to persecute and intimidate journalists and independent media. In doing so, he is also undermining principled and courageous journalists like Yosri Fouda.
*The One Percent Doctrine / Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of its Enemies since 9/11 by Ron Suskind