AlJazeera: What’s behind the shifting politics of this “independent” news channel?

Behind the News / Columbia Journalism Review — September 28, 2011

What Wadah Khanfar Did For Al Jazeera…

And what the sudden departure of the network’s managing director might mean for its future

By William Stebbins

From the very first moment I joined Al Jazeera in 2005 to lead the launch of the English channel’s Washington broadcast center, there was talk of the imminent demise of Wadah Khanfar, the managing director of Al Jazeera Arabic. But until last week, when Khanfar abruptly announced his resignation, it seemed that the stronger the rumors were, the higher he climbed.

Many believe that Wikileaks provided the silver bullet that finally brought him down. Leaked diplomatic cables document a series of meetings between Khanfar and US embassy officials in Qatar, raising questions about the extent of US influence on both him and the channel. One especially damning cable from 2005, which has received extensive play in the Arab press, alleges that Khanfar agreed to a US request to remove certain pictures from the Al Jazeera website. Al Jazeera has claimed Khanfar’s resignation was in the works before the cables’ release; he has said he stepped down as the specific mission he agreed upon with the Qatari owners—“to transform Al Jazerra into an international news network,” as he put it in an exit interview—had been accomplished. Whatever the reasons, Al Jazeera has much to thank Khanfar for. He had built it into a global network, and led it to its greatest triumph.

Khanfar was at graduate school in Johannesburg when the original Arabic channel launched in 1996, and first appeared on air as an analyst on African affairs. This evolved into a job as a correspondent based in South Africa. In 2001 he began his ascent, and his career as a problem solver, when he was brought in to replace the Kabul bureau chief, Tayseer Allouni, and repair the damage caused by his perceived proximity to the Taliban. Then, at the height of the 2003 invasion Khanfar moved on to oversee Al Jazeera’s Baghdad operation during one of its most challenging periods.

In 2003, following a scandal not unlike the one that many believe to be the cause of Khanfar’s sudden resignation, Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, the original Qatari managing director of the channel, was forced to step down. The Sunday Times published documents discovered in post-war Iraq that alleged ties between al-Ali and Saddam Hussein’s security services.

After a brief caretaker administration, the channel called on Khanfar once again to repair the damage, and appointed him managing director. By this stage, Washington’s view of Al Jazeera had changed: once regarded as a budding institution necessary for regional reform, the channel was now seen as a strategic threat. Its popularity meant it could not be ignored, and the fact that many of the voices the channel hosted were critical of US actions in the wider Middle East meant it had to be neutralized. Now out of Baghdad and safely in Doha, the threats Khanfar faced were more rhetorical than physical, but ferocious nonetheless. (It is during this time that President George W. Bush is alleged to have mused out loud about bombing the channel.) As the violence in Iraq grew, so too did the pressure from Washington. Yet the more Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld railed against the channel, the more popular it became. The only real threat to the prestige of both Khanfar and Al Jazeera would come from within, with the announcement of the launch of the English language channel.

The early recruits to Al Jazeera English, myself included, were drawn by a compelling vision. It was to be the first truly global channel that did not come from any fixed cultural or national context, but rather addressed a heterogeneous audience by originating from four separate broadcast centers scattered around the world. The only problem was that it was never clear why the channel was called Al Jazeera, or indeed why it was headquartered in the Middle East. The vision never fully embraced the success of the original channel, and even appeared to place itself beyond it. Many seized on the fact that the English channel was established as a wholly separate entity as a repudiation of what were considered to be the excesses of Al Jazeera Arabic. This was when the rumors really began to fly that Khanfar would be undone by his alleged Islamist sympathies—much like Tayseer Allouni, who, before his own fall, had been, as Khanfar was now, one of the channel’s best known figures.

There was an expectation that the English channel would be a more sober and sophisticated Al Jazeera, less parochial and operating with higher journalistic standards. While this perception may have played to the English service’s favor, it reflected poorly on the broad Al Jazeera brand, and that implication was never strenuously enough denied. Almost the entire staff were imported, with few of them having any real experience of the Middle East, and fewer still speaking any Arabic. There was a barely concealed discomfort with the sister Arabic channel amongst many of the new arrivals, coupled with the widespread belief that the path to success for Al Jazeera International, as the English service was initially called, was to emphasize the distance between the two.

This tension between the channels did not go unnoticed by outsiders, and soon there were attempts to exploit it. On a visit to the State Department to promote Al Jazeera English, it was suggested to me that any pressure I could exert on my Arabic colleagues to tone down their reporting would be rewarded with increased access. The discontent at Al Jazeera Arabic was palpable, at the perceived slight to the legacy in which so much blood and toil had been invested, and it soon reached the ears of the Qatari owners. Again they called on Khanfar, to repair the rift, and rescue the brand from confusion. He more than rose to the occasion.

Overnight, Khanfar was transformed from the managing director of the Arabic channel to the director general of a global network, with a diverse portfolio of channels broadcasting in both Arabic and English. He immediately set about bridging the chasm between the two news channels. One of the first steps was to change the name of Al Jazeera International to Al Jazeera English, to make it clear that both channels shared the same perspective and were animated by the same spirit, while being separated only by language. Achieving coherence between the two was a long process, and it involved some key personnel changes along with the rebranding, but the universally celebrated coverage of the recent uprisings in the Middle East is a testament to his ultimate success.

Khanfar in many ways prefigured the Arab Spring. His overarching vision was that the network be the voice of a world in transition. He could be mesmerizing in both Arabic and English, as he spoke from the horizon of aspirations yet to be realized but that were already shaping the course of current events. It was also why he made plenty of people nervous. Bursting with impatience at the autocratic regimes smothering Middle Eastern societies, he is emblematic of the generation that took to the streets to demand change. Though marginalized and making only a cameo appearance in Western consciousness as the so-called Arab street, Khanfar recognized them as history’s true actors, and addressed them long before they had coalesced into a visible, and very vocal public. I was always impressed with how he spoke about the Al Jazeera audience, as he described them with such intimacy. The Arab Spring was that audience made flesh.

Al Jazeera’s coverage was so compelling because it was the culmination of an extraordinary historical moment it had been documenting for many years. With the cameras left on all night in Tahrir Square, viewers were given unmediated access to that audience turned protagonist.

Equally remarkable was the convergence between the two channels. During my time with the network, it was not unusual for Al Jazeera Arabic correspondents to appear on their sister channel, but few at Al Jazeera English spoke Arabic well enough to return the favor. That changed during the uprising in Egypt. For the first time that I can recall, there was movement in both directions, with Al Jazeera English’s Cairo correspondent, Ayman Mohyeldin (now with NBC), appearing on both channels. It was as coherent as Al Jazeera Arabic and English had ever been, and it produced their most successful coverage to date.

Their sudden popularity in the US was helped by the fact that the policy Washington eventually settled on to ease out Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler of three decades, was also in line with the network’s thrust. The praise was a dramatic reversal of fortune for a channel that not too long ago was considered a synonym for terrorism. The alignment of both channels, and the global recognition of the coverage, in both Arabic and English, was a vindication of Khanfar’s entire project.

The internal rumors of his fall had dried up some time ago, which is why his sudden resignation last week, at the moment his star was shining the brightest, is that much more curious. Qatar has always insisted on the independence of the Al Jazeera channels. They have moved to preserve that independence in the past, and the Wikileaks revelations about Khanfar’s dealings with the US do raise enough questions to warrant action to safeguard this tradition.

His replacement, though, would seem to contradict that concern. Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al Thani, an executive with Qatargas and a member of the al Thani ruling dynasty, is expected to be the new director general. A Qatari national did run Al Jazeera for a number of years, but a member of the royal family is a little too close to power for comfort. The message is clearly that the state will be exerting more direct control over one of its most prized assets.

In his resignation speech, Khanfar spoke of having achieved his strategic objectives. It makes you wonder whether the network’s owners have also decided that their goals have been achieved, and what exactly those goals might have been.

Al Jazeera has always been better known than the country that backs it. The increased visibility that the channel provided has allowed Qatar to play a political and diplomatic role greater than its relative size. Backed by the immense wealth derived from its natural gas reserves, it has capitalized on this reflected prestige to pursue a series of aggressive policies that have consolidated its global position, independent of its well-known media brand. Qatar lead the Arab involvement in the campaign to support the Libyan rebels. It also lobbied for and was awarded the hosting of the 2022 World Cup, one of the ultimate prizes of global recognition.

The emirate has arrived. So it is no longer in the business of trying to attract attention; it now must manage it. It would be only a matter of time before Khanfar’s cherished audience demanded the same kind of rigorous analysis of Qatar’s actions that other regional players are subject to on Al Jazeera. In the past, it was always argued that due to its tiny population and negligible role in world affairs, Qatar did not merit inclusion in any editorial agenda.

That is no longer the case, and Qatar does not appear ready for that sort of introspection. Qatar agreed recently, along with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to protect Bahrain’s monarchy during that country’s popular uprising. These rulers want to forestall the Arab Spring in the Gulf, and they will sleep more soundly following Khanfar’s resignation.

The challenge now for Qatar will be how to orient the channel’s coverage towards its policy objectives without appearing to exercise too heavy a hand. Independence has indeed been crucial to the channel’s success, and any obvious interference could compromise the brand beyond repair. The shift will be imperceptible. It may very well take the form of a simple reaffirmation of the channel’s outward focus. The level of coverage of Syria, Egypt and Libya will most likely remain unchanged, with the Gulf in a permanent blind spot. Ironically, Al Jazeera English may take on the role of burnishing the brand’s international reputation, as the repository of the sort of programming absent from Al Jazeera Arabic. As the English channel is watched mostly outside the middle east, it can safely air material that on Al Jazeera Arabic would be seen as inflaming local passions, and upsetting Qatar’s neighbors and allies. This dynamic may already be playing out in relation to Bahrain.

Khanfar’s future is an open question, but I doubt he will disappear completely. He has made reference to a new project, without offering any concrete details. A good soldier to the end, he has praised the network’s owners and his successor, saying nothing that would jeopardize further Qatari support, financial or otherwise, for his activities. On the outside, he could make for a formidable enemy. But the Qataris are surrounded by formidable enemies, and in their rise to global prominence they have learned how to manage them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s