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. Continue reading