In this interview, Ayman Mohyeldin discusses his recent experience covering the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, as well as the changing shifts in media coverage of the Middle East during his career.
Please find the transcript of the interview below the player.
The interview includes three parts that you can click on separately.
Ayman Mohyeldin is a foreign correspondent for NBC News. Since joining NBC News, Ayman has reported from Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Gaza and Lebanon. Inside Syria, Ayman traveled across the country reporting exclusively on the Syrian war with both opposition rebels and government officials. He has also reported on Syria’s humanitarian spillover into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In September 2012, Ayman was among the first journalists to report from Benghazi, Libya following the attacks on the US Consulate. He most recently covered the 2014 Israeli War on Gaza where his reporting was widely cited and praised around the world. In addition, to the Middle East, Ayman has covered the revolution and turmoil in Ukraine, rising tensions in Asia between North Korea and Japan.
Prior to joining NBC News, Ayman was a correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in Cairo where he was at the epicenter of Arab uprisings covering the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. In January of 2011, Ayman covered the Egyptian revolution broadcasting live street battles between the regime of President Hosni Mubarak and protestors. Throughout the revolution, Ayman reported from rooftops overlooking Tahrir Square where millions gathered to demand the removal of the President and his regime. On February 11, Ayman covered the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. His coverage of the Egyptian revolution and the fall of the Mubarak regime was recognized and praised for its distinction around the world. From May 2008 until May 2010, Ayman was the only foreign broadcast journalist based in the Gaza Strip. During the 2008/2009 War on Gaza, he was the only American journalist reporting live from Gaza.
Throughout his career, Ayman has reported from Europe, the U.S. and across the Middle East where he has covered the Arab revolutions, the siege on Gaza, sectarian strife in Lebanon, Israeli politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and human rights abuses in the Arabian Gulf. In 2007, Ayman`s exclusive report during Egypt`s referendum on constitutional amendments exposed serious voting irregularities and violations. Ayman was also among the first journalists to report on Gaza`s intricate system of tunnels along its border with Egypt. From 2003-2006, he was based in Baghdad where he covered the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq. While there, he reported on the daily struggle of ordinary Iraqis and embedded with the US military to cover the Iraqi insurgency. Ayman was among the few international journalists allowed to observe and report on the US handover of Saddam Hussein to an Iraqi judge. He has also produced exclusive reports from Libya where he was the first journalist to enter one of Libya`s nuclear research facilities.
Mohyeldin has covered nearly every major news event in the Middle East in the past decade as well as the aftermath of the Iraq War, the first multi-candidate presidential Egyptian Elections (2005), Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and the 2005 Palestinian elections. In 2011, Time Magazine named Ayman as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. For his reporting, Ayman has won a Peabody Award, the UK’s Cutting Edge Media Award , Argentina’s prestigious Perfil International Press Freedom Award, Lebanon’s May Chediac Foundation Award and Europe’s Anna Lindh Foundation Award in addition to several other American awards. He has received multiple Emmy nominations throughout his career.
Ayman has been featured in major international media outlets across the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He is a frequent speaker at universities, conferences and institutions. He is also a Term Member of the prestigious US-based Council on Foreign Relations. Ayman was born in Cairo, Egypt but grew up in between the US and the Middle East.
Transcribed by Samantha Brotman
Adel Iskander (AI): Ayman Mohyeldin, welcome to Status Hour.
Ayman Mohyeldin (AM): Thanks for having me.
AI: So, we want to talk to you a little bit about your experience covering the Israeli war on Gaza. This is at least the second time you find yourself on the front lines, essentially, covering a pretty brutal assault on the Israeli military on the people of Gaza.
AM: I hate to correct you and say it is actually my third time: 2009, Operation Cast Lead, 2012, and then now it is 2014. It is a sad correction that I have to make.
AI: Can I invite you to perhaps reflect on the difference between this most recent compared to the previous ones? So, July-August of 2014 versus previous installments of this kind of conflict.
AM: Well, you know, it is so difficult when you are comparing wars, because, obviously, there is always a tragic loss of life in each war. People lost their lives in 2009 or 2012 or now, and for them it is just catastrophic, regardless. I think, from a journalists point of view, there were some noticeable differences, obviously besides the staggering death toll this time around, and the duration of the conflict, and just the kind of sheer ferociousness of the attacks, the ability of Hamas, as well, to fight back on the ground inside Gaza this time. I think, perhaps, for me, the most underlying difference is that in 2014, the people of Gaza [unclear (00:01:20)] had been pretty much under siege since 2006-2007, if you will. So, you have to deal with seven or eight years of a siege in addition to a war. For example, with the experience in 2009, still the infrastructure of Gaza was somewhat still in place, not necessarily completely devastated, not completely destroyed. When you compound it with two previous wars, eight years of siege, and a kind of psychological toll that the people have lived through, the beginning of the 2014 war this summer saw Gaza starting off at a much worse point than where it was in any of the previous conflicts. So, people not only had to endure the fifty-or-so days of the war, but they also had to do it on top of the eight years of suffering they had already gone through, and the two previous wars that had destroyed the infrastructure, destroyed businesses, destroyed farm land, destroyed the economy, but also had taken a tremendous toll on the psychology of the individual. I mean, one of the things that I have constantly pointed out is that there are now hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children, nine-years-old, eight-years-old, who have lived through three wars in their short lifetimes. And that means they know nothing but war and siege and blockade. So I think when you look at what the people have gone through over the course of the last several years, this conflict probably compounded their suffering much more so than the previous two.
AI: Oh, absolutely. And I am really glad that you pointed out the cumulative nature of this collective act of misery. I wanted to invite you to talk about the difference in reporting this particular conflict. What is it like, as far as the personal challenges, the choices that you have to make as a reporter as to what to cover, how to cover it, where you stand in contrast with other media organizations, or other journalists and reporters, your peers?
AM: You know, in 2009, at the time I was with Al Jazeera English. Myself and my colleague, Sherine Tadros were the only two main stream channels—journalists working for a mainstream channel. I knew hundreds of Palestinian journalists who were reporting for Pan-Arab satellite channels, but unfortunately the [unclear (00:03:33)] because we were the only two English-language journalists, if you will, that were reporting and broadcasting live from inside the territory. In 2012, and in 2014, now it is a very different situation. Hundreds of journalists are allowed in, every major broadcaster is allowed there. There are some noticeable differences. Actually, I am a person who believes in the more media there on the ground, the better the coverage is going to be collectively. That does not mean some channels are not worse off than others, but when you have hundreds of journalists there you, collectively, have hundreds of eye-witnesses documenting what they are seeing, what they are hearing, that they are reporting to the outside world. That, in itself. . . because when you look at the collective reporting that came out of Gaza, you will see what the reporters themselves saw and what we had to live through, so you get a much more accurate and reflective account of the fifty days of the conflict. Whereas, in 2008, as the sole channels that were in there, the sole two foreign journalists that were in there, the pressure was on us. And, quite honestly, there was no way we were going to be all over Gaza over those three weeks that war lasted, in every place in Gaza at the same time. It is just physically impossible. So, we definitely missed things. Even though we tried our best to report, and we brought them with the kind of exposure and humanity we could get on the ground. Back then, we simply could not be everywhere at the same time. So, that was one of the immediate differences. I think, also, you have got to keep in mind that this time around, the war was very, very ferocious. And we had seen that in all of the conflicts, journalists pay the ultimate price in this war. This time around was no different. It was extremely dangerous, media buildings were targeted, again, journalists died, paramedics died. So, from that perspective, it was not anything new. We had been subject to this type of violence in the past. And, unfortunately we lived through it yet again.
AI: Your coverage alongside Sherine Tadros in 2008, being the only reporters there, that has since been memorialized in the form of a film, a documentary called The War Around Us. Can you tell us a little bit more about what it was like to be rendered the focus of the story? Of course, I know full well that was never the intention. But what does it mean to highlight the challenges and the dire circumstances faced by journalists in places of conflict?
AM: Well I think there [were] two aspects to this particular film. The first aspect was the dimension that you just alluded to, which was the challenges that journalists face in covering a war, and particularly the Gaza war, which is so unique because it was so cut-off from the outside world. I mean, you simply did not have a place to escape, you did not have an area to find shelter. In that sense, it is so much different from other conflicts, and I have covered many conflicts. But in some of the conflicts I have covered, there has always been this sense of guidelines or rules where there is a front-line, where you go to the front-line, then you can pull away from the front-line. You can get in and out of some of these conflict zones. So, there was a sense of—I do not want to use the word safety, but—there was a sense of controlled chaos that you as a journalist in war zone could kind of navigate or manage. In the Gaza war it was extremely difficult, and there was simply no place or the people around us, the Palestinians in Gaza, to run or hide. So, that in itself was part of the purpose behind the movie, was to capture that dynamic for journalists. But at the same time, it was, as you said, a kind of document for the sake of perpetuity through film what happened in those days as [unclear (00:07:01)]. We wanted to make sure that the story of what happened during Operation Cast Lead was never forgotten, not just in the two-minute news reports, or the hours that we covered that through the live report, but we wanted to make sure that the highlights and the trajectory of the war, and suffering of the people, and what happened was not lost or forgotten by anybody. And that it would always be there as a record for future generations who would one day want to look back and see what it is that happened, and who documented it, and what did they document. They now have this film as part of the historical record.
One aspect very much shown in this particular round of conflict was the capability that Hamas demonstrated in being able to fight back, particularly during the ground war. They certainly leveled or exacted a very deadly toll on the Israeli military during the combat operations, which Israel had not previously seen in the fighting in 2009 and 2012. So, from that perspective, I think that any film that would do this round of conflict justice would have to incorporate that in the context of how Hamas was able to build up an arsenal and capability against the backdrop of being besieged for the past seven years, and having itself survived two wars as an organization and a paramilitary group. And then, also, you have to look at the immense suffering that people went through. No film could possibly do justice to this round of the conflict without looking at the suffering that the people endured over the course of fifty days. Like I was saying, it was on top the eight years of siege, plus the fifty days of bombardment. What the people came out of it on the other end, and what is happening to them now, I think any film would have to look at that. And like I said, it is very different now because the magnitude of the destruction, the scope of the suffering, the level of the destitution among the people is much more significant than what it was back in 2009 or 2012.
AI: I also want to ask you about your appraisal, as far as the performance of media organizations and their coverage of this particular war. What was the coverage like both on the regional level in the Middle East, and as far as Western media is concerned? Are there any qualitative differences?
AM: Well, listen, it is hard for me, in a conflict, to assess and compare all the media, because you are in the moment so it is hard to see what everybody else is reporting. So, I do not know if I would be the best judge of that. I get a sense, sometimes, of the things that break out of the coverage at significant moments, or if somebody does some kind of significant reporting, or something that is groundbreaking that suddenly gets flagged to your attention and you see it and you kind of keep an eye on some of the things. But, I still think that, for the most part, Western media struggles to understand what is happening in Gaza. I think they still look at it from a perspective or prism that is not necessarily one-hundred-percent accurate. So, I think that has always been a challenge for Western journalists who are trying to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many of them with a tremendous amount of experience on the ground, but then you have to always make that distinction between what the reporters on the ground are doing and then what the actual discussion back in the anchor chairs or in the studios are reflecting. And I think that sometimes we do not make that distinction enough. But I think, for the most part, if you look on the ground reporting, you will see that, I think it did an amazing job. Any time journalists are on the ground, risking their lives, trying to capture that reality, definitely is significant. But it is the discussion that happens around that reporting that sometimes can even overshadow the actual reporting [that is] happening on the ground. And that I find to be the case a lot more in Western media than I do in pan-Arab satellite channels, for example. But, I think when you go back, there are a lot of well-documented cases of headlines that went out that misconstrued the realities on the ground among some of the major newspapers. And I think there is stuff out there that speaks for itself and got widely circulated. There were reports that really also stood out and documented things that were also really groundbreaking.
AI: So, you moved from Al Jazeera English, which was your affiliation during the 2008 conflict, and then now you are with NBC. Are there any differences in terms of the kind of reporting you anticipate doing when you are working for an international news organization versus a news organization whose audience is predominantly in the United States?
AM: Well, when you are speaking to an American audience, I think that, generally speaking, the point of the departure of the story for an American audience is very different than an Arab or perhaps an international audience. Certainly, an Arab audience knows a lot of the day-to-day nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it is covered on a daily basis. So they are familiar with all the players and the personalities and the issues and perhaps some of the key developments over the last couple months, because it is being covered for them daily. Particularly, also, on international news, I think a lot of the international news channels who are covering international news twenty-four hours a day are probably also giving a significant amount of time to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given everything else that is happening. When you are dealing with an American network, you are dealing with an American network that has obviously continued all kinds of other news and other issues domestically. Getting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the radar is much more difficult, or getting it in the [unclear (00:12:23)] coverage is much more difficult, unless it reaches a kind of violence or reaches a kind of peak interest, and that we saw this last summer. And at that point you are also having to provide a lot of context to the viewers about what has been happening over the several months, or even the last year. And you have to kind of tie it in for your audience in a way that you may not necessarily have to for an audience that is engaged with the story on a daily basis. The American audience is not engaged with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict story though mainstream media on a daily basis. When you are starting to report on it all of the sudden, you have to keep that perspective in mind. You may be making reference to agreements or things that have happened just because you follow it and you know, but that does not mean that most of the viewers who are watching you will know what you are talking about. They may not even know some of the major players that you are referencing in your daily reporting.
AI: You had mentioned the number of journalists that were on the ground covering this time around versus in 2008, and that it was a much more substantial number of reporters and news organizations on site. There is the adage that says, "If there are more messengers there, it is likely that it would act as a deterrent against the excessive use of force."
AM: I think this past summer refutes that. It is one of the things I learned [unclear (00:13:35)], which is back in 2008, everybody was saying, "Oh my God, the Israelis. . ." The Israelis were saying they did not let journalists in for their own safety, in a chaotic environment, and stuff like that. A lot of watchdog groups and, even journalists were saying, kind of, "No, Israel did not let us in because they were trying to whitewash what they were doing, and they did not want the international media to see the scale and scope of what they were doing inside Gaza." If you look at 2012 and 2014, you see their argument does not really hold water. The Israelis let in pretty much every journalist that wanted to go into Gaza. And yet, even with all the coverage and the spotlight on us, it did not deter Israel from carrying out the assault the way it wanted it to, or execute its military operation the way it wanted. It is hard to say that they refrained or constrained themselves because of the media when you look at how bad the destruction was at the end of those fifty days.
From the perspective of a journalist, despite the fact that Israel came under a tremendous amount of international criticism, I would say the reporting probably played a large part in that. I think that the international community woke up every morning and looked at headlines and newspapers and footage and looked at the continued destruction and devastation. I think there was a global sense at least that there was something wrong here, there was a sense of disappointment with Israel. But I think you should also follow that up with, well, what did that actually change? Did it actually change Israel`s political factoring, calculating the war for Israel or how they wanted to execute their war and their operation? Again, that part of the question I think would have to go to Israeli officials. Then they can tell you, "yes we saw the mounting international pressure, we changed course, we held back, we did not go all the way in." It is hard to say. Who knows? Maybe Israel`s plan was to completely invade and occupy Gaza, but when they saw the international pressure and outcry they did not. So, in that sense, you could make the argument that the media coverage tapered Israel`s reaction. But, at the same time, you can say, "No it did not." They executed the war in fifty days. They say they achieved all their military objectives, and that is what they wanted to do.
I think when you look at coverage, you have to be careful to say, "The collective coverage." Where I was in Gaza, I am not going to accurately get the sense of what is happening inside Israel. I do not think anyone realistically expects the journalists in Gaza to understand what is happening in Israel. At the same time, I do not expect the journalists who are covering Israel to understand what is happening in Gaza. That does not mean the two sides are equal in the suffering and in terms of what is happening. But, it just means that, collectively, the coverage probably reflects both sides of that story accurately, given what side was suffering more than the other and what side was exacting more of a punishment on the other. And, I think, that is the key question that people should be asking when they are looking at the overall coverage. Were both sides of the conflict covered fairly in relation to what that side of the conflict was participating in the combat? I hope the people in Gaza never have—or the people in Israel—have to live through another conflict. It is a testament to the fact that our reporting is not really changing anything in the grand scheme of things in the world. If you looked at it and said that, "Despite the fact that there have been three conflicts and they have all been covered, the siege is still very much in place, rockets are still very much being fired from Gaza into Israel, Israel is still bombing Hamas and bombing targets inside Gaza when they want to, not lifting the siege.” So, nothing is really changing, despite the fact that the international community has covered this tragedy for years. And in context of the water conflict for decades.
AI: So, what becomes the incentive of continuing to cover an attack on human sovereignty on one level, and trying to showcase the day-to-day struggles of Gazans, when you see that, in the grand scheme of things, as far as the architecture of things, very little progress is being made?
AM: Well, three things: One, is you have to do so with the belief that you are documenting what is happening. Just because there is an atrocity that is happening and a tragedy is happening and it is not changing as a result of your reporting does not mean that you should not document it. So, your job is to document it and, who knows, maybe future generations will come back and look at this and say, "Oh my God, how in the world could humanity allow something like this to happen?" And they will look back and say, "Well there were people who documented it, and there were people who tried to speak up about it with their reporting." So, in that case, your reporting, even though it may not be now changing the course, certainly may one day have an impact. You can look at all kinds of examples from our history that people recorded on air at times did not change the period that they were living in, but certainly the legacy of their work was substantial. So, that is one. Two, you still have to have hope that at any given point your recording is reporting is changing people`s perception and getting people to sit up and say, "What are we doing?" Getting people to say, "How could we be in the twenty-first century and still resolving our differences with F-16s and rockets and killings and all kinds of stuff?" It shows how human beings are very primitive, at the end of the day, despite any kind of justification one might think they have. The fact that we still resolve things with war and killing, and besieging people, and firing rockets at others shows how limited we are in our thinking.
AI: Ayman, I cannot thank you enough for chatting with us today, and we also would like to acknowledge your and your peers` demonstration of courage and selflessness in bringing forward the stories that you have from Gaza and other conflict zones, and for basically exposing what is very easily and very straight-forwardly one of the gravest human tragedies of our era. So, we thank you for that.
AM: [unclear (00:19:17)] Thank you so much for this interview, and thank you guys for all the stuff that you guys are doing at Jadaliyya and everywhere else. Keep up the good work.
AI: Thank you Ayman.