London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Editor-in-chief of the Emirati Al-Ittihad newspaper, Mohammed Al-Hammadi, takes a strong view on journalism and freedom of the press. This is no surprise for somebody who began his journalistic career with Al-Ittihad as a first-year university study attachment, rising through the ranks until he was eventually appointed editor-in-chief earlier this year. Hammadi had previously served as a long-time journalist and opinion writer with the newspaper.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Hammadi speaks about his life in journalism, the difficulties of running one of the UAE’s most prominent newspapers, and the importance of professionalism and specialization in the media.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How did your career in journalism begin? Was there any specific moment in your life that made you want to be a journalist?
Mohammed Al-Hammadi: It was natural that my love for reading and photography would lead me to study journalism at United Arab Emirates University. Since my first day of studying media at university, I felt that I was learning something that I love, and in my first year at university I went to the offices of the Al-Ittihad newspaper in the city of Al Ain—where UAE University is located—and asked them to accept me as a trainee journalist without pay. From that moment I have been certain that I chose a profession that suits me, and I have never considered journalism a “career,” but rather as a profession, identity, and also a responsibility.
Q: What is the first story that you worked on and when was this published? What is the story that you would most like to write?
The first story that I wrote was during my university studies, and this was about students’ problems on campus in 1991. It was published in Al-Ittihad, following this I published a number of investigative reports and interviews, not to mention ordinary news stories. One of the stories that I will never forget was one that I wrote about the Bosnia and Herzegovina during the civil war in the 1990s . . . I visited Bosnia during the war and published a number of stories from there, particularly those related to refugees and human interest stories about the suffering of the Bosnian people who were displaced from their homes simply due to their ethnicity. I can still recall the images of young children who had lost their fathers and mothers to this day. When I view Bosnia and Herzegovina today and how it has recovered, I recall those days and I wish them the best, for they witnessed and experienced truly difficult days.
Q: How many hours do you work a week? Do the rigors of your job affect your time with the family?
In journalism, most hours of the day are reserved for work, and I won’t deny that one’s family life pays the price for working in this difficult profession. However it is important to spend some time in the day with one’s family, even if this is only a short period of time. As for the weekend, there is more time for the family, and currently I spend between 10 and 12 hours a day at the newspaper. This is a long time and I think it is important that those who work in the media create balance between our work lives and our family life. Our profession is a demanding one, but it is important that we make time to spend with the family.
Q: What’s your view of new media? Do you think this will ever replace more traditional forms of media?
The new media is a beautiful revolution that contains a lot of excitement and also anxiety; this media is the natural result of the development taking place in the world. This is something that has and will continue to affect the old—or shall we say traditional—forms of media. However it will not replace this in the short-term, for print media, broadcast media, radio, and satellite television have their well-established place and relevancy and credibility, and this is something that cannot be taken away from them. Anybody who is monitoring the media—both new and old media—will see that they benefit each other on a daily basis.
Q: Do you spend a lot of time monitoring other media, television for example?
I do not spend much time watching television, except for the news, which is indispensable. The one television program that I have begun to watch recently is Bassem Youssef’s Albarnameg, and I believe that this has made a qualitative addition to television media in the region, whether we are talking about the way it raises issues or its choice of subject matter and the way that it presents these.
Q: What blogs or websites do you follow?
I do not follow any specific blogs, but I am a member of the Twitter tribe, while I also keep up with many news websites. I believe that Twitter has succeeded in giving us a summary of what is happening in the world today.
Q: How important is it for a newspaper or journalistic team to have people who specialize in specific areas or issues?
Specialization in journalism is very important, and I believe that one of the reasons behind the lack of progress of Arab journalism over the past decades—at least as much as we would all like to see—is that we have failed to create journalists with specialization. This is contrary to the situation in the western press and some newspapers in East Asian countries. If we want a strong press, we must have journalists who specialize in different sectors, who can report the news and information in the right way, but who can also provide analysis and conclusions on their areas of expertise.
Q: What advice would you give young journalists at the beginning of their careers?
We all require advice, regardless of how much responsibility, position, or experience we have. As for new journalists, it is important that they understand that professionalism and credibility are the most important things that a journalist possesses, so they must be careful to preserve these. The role of the journalist is to create news, not just to report it. This is what distinguishes one journalist from another. Journalists who are just starting in this profession must also read a lot, they must read everything, they must educate themselves, and increase their knowledge. They must understand that beginnings are always difficult, so they must benefit from the experience of the journalists who came before; they should learn from them and get their advice. And if they stumble or make a mistake, then they must not give up: if you persevere you will succeed.
Q: In your opinion, what has happened to Arab journalism? What must we do to catch up with our foreign counterparts?
The press is an industry, and an industry must have production, innovation, and creativity. A large part of the Arab press relies on merely reporting the news, rather than putting their mark on it. Part of this is because we do not invest in our press and we do not provide the requisite money that this requires, for the press industry is expensive. As for the other issue, this is linked to freedom of the press. So for the Arab press to be able to reach the same level as its foreign counterparts, it must enjoy sufficient freedom to allow it to carry out its natural role.
Q: What conditions must be met to allow journalists to reach a high level of professionalism?
They must enjoy mastery of the language that they write in, and they must have also the correct information to build their stories on. It is also important that they work under a media law that clearly defines the duties and responsibilities of the press, as is the case in every country in the developed world. These things help a journalist to carry out his work to a high-level of professionalism.
Q: Can you describe an ordinary work day at Al-Ittihad?
My day beings before 8 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a newspaper, then I surf Twitter and some websites. By 9 a.m. I must be in the newsroom to attend the morning editorial meeting and put in place the daily work-plan with the department heads; we identify the most important news stories and coverage on the domestic and international front. This meeting takes more than half an hour, and following this I complete any outstanding administrative tasks. At noon, I meet with the editors, greet any guests who might be visiting the newspaper, or attend meetings outside.
The final part of the day begins at 7 p.m. with the evening editorial meeting; this is a meeting with department heads in order to finalize the front page . . . we also review all the pages and follow up on this. This process will often continue until midnight. After the final edition is sent to the publisher, I return home, and of course, go directly to bed. And then a new day begins with the same tasks, but with different details, news, and events.
Q: What kind of books are you reading these days? What Arab or foreign writer do you most enjoy reading?
I am currently reading The Anatomy of Revolution by American writer and academic Crane Brinton which was first published in 1938. He views that pre-revolutionary society experiences social and political tensions due to the gradual deterioration of social values. He writes that revolution is the means of overturning power, which leads to extremists coming to power, following which there is a period of calm. This books raises questions, such as: Is this what happened and is happening in our region?