Al Jazeera`s Wadah Khanfar quits after 8 years..a new course for the Qatari-based network?

picture by @NazQatar “Wadah is speaking to Al Jazeera employees”
On Tuesday 20th September, the following email reached every Al Jazeera`s employee desk:

  Dear Colleagues,

This month marks my eighth year at the helm of Al Jazeera. Having served as the organisations top executive since 2003, first as Managing Director and then as Director-General, I have decided to move on.

For sometime I have been discussing my desire to step down with the Chairman of the Board. He has kindly expressed understanding and has accepted my decision. Upon my appointment, the Chairman and I set a goal to establish Al Jazeera as global media leader and we have agreed that this target has been met and that the organization is in a healthy position.

Today our network spans 25 channels that broadcast in Arabic and English, and will soon by broadcasting news in Turkish, Kiswahili and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. Each and everyone of you have played a role in building this network into world-class media organization founded on mutual respect and integrity. Through your hard work and persistence, often in times of great adversity, we now reach millions of viewers across the world. This includes inroads into the most competitive media market in the world, the United States of America. This was no easy feat – not long ago, then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld unfairly attacked our coverage of Iraq while today, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, hails our news coverage. We were not weakened by Rumsfeld’s comments nor made complacent by Clintons’. Al Jazeera Al Jazeera is still-our independent and integral coverage has not changed.

From our first Arabic news broadcast in 1996 our audience recognized the distinctive and courageous editorial agenda that was marked by our promise of independence and our motto of “the opinion and the other opinion”.

When we launched in 1996 “media independence” was a contradiction in terms. State media was prevalent and was blatantly used for propaganda and misinformation. Within such an environment the public probably doubted that Al Jazeera would fulfill its promise of independent journalism. We managed to pleasantly surprise them by exceeding all expectations.

Authoritarian regimes were terrified at the birth of this new institution and they quickly went on the offensive. From trying to discredit our reportage and staff through disinformation to lodging official protests with the Qatari government. When this did not stop our reporting, they started harassing our correspondents, detaining our staff and closing our offices. The only way they could stop us was by jamming our satellite signal. Yet we remained steadfast in our editorial policy – in fact, each attempt to silence us further emboldened us and increased our resolve.

Al Jazeera gained the trust of its audience through consistently speaking
truth to power, and channeling peoples’ aspirations for dignity and freedom. Our
audience quickly saw that Al Jazeera was of them and their world – it was
not a foreign imposition nor did it seek to impose a partisan agenda. We were
trusted to be objective and to be the voice of the voiceless.

It is through dedication and conviction of our staff that we have assumed a position of leadership in our industry. Even though we are a young organisation, in just 15 years our name is deeply associated with the very notion of news the world over. We are respected by our audience and hold the admiration of our peers.

Prior to assuming my role leading Al Jazeera, I served the channel as a correspondent in Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. It was during this time that I realized the importance of a free press with the human being at the core of its agenda. Whether it is the impact of decisions made in a country’sSituation Room or a corporate boardroom, being in the field engrains in one the responsibility to tell the story from the perspective of those affected the most. It is this culture that I have endeavored to build and maintain over the years – an independent newsroom that respects its audience, understands their collective consciousness and reports for and to them with integrity.

It is this newsroom, our correspondents, producers, presenters, cameraman, editors and technicians who provided the world with integral and fearless coverage of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Somalia and elsewhere. This newsroom that showed the world the first images of the Asian Tsunami and of the famine in Niger. In 2011 the eyes of the world watched the aspirations of millions unfold as our newsrooms broadcast, tweeted and published the events unfolding in the Liberation Squares from Sidi Bouzid to
Jissr Al-Shughur. The coverage of these revolutions is ongoing, and we continue to report the fight of the youth to achieve dignity and freedom from tyranny and dictatorship.

Contrary to the “common sense” imparted by the regimes political elite, the Arab public are not naïve demagogues or irrational believers. They are intelligent, politically astute and have a level of empathy that the political elite lack.  Our channel lives and dies by this audience and they will not forgive us if we deviate from the mission that we have lived for the past 15 years. This is perhaps the best guarantee that Al Jazeera will maintain its stellar record and lives up to its code of conduct. It is the mission for which Tariq Ayoub, and Rasheed Wali Ali Jaber gave their lives for, the mission which Tayseer Alouni and Sami Al Hajj spent years illegally detained and for which many of you were harassed. Between our audiences
expectation and your vigilance, I am confident that Al Jazeera will continue to report with integrity and courage.

I have been fortunate over the past eight years for having worked with successive Boards of Directors, each distinguished and committed to Al Jazeera. I am personally indebted to the Chairman of the Board, Sheikh Hamad Bin Thamer Al Thani, whose expertise and vision had a most profound affect onmaintaining the stability of Al Jazeera through turbulent times, while always focusing on its long-term vision of growth and excellence in
journalism.

Al Jazeera would never have accomplished its mission were it not for the support and commitment by the State of Qatar. Its people and leadership have not only provided financial backing but have endured great international pressure to ensure the independence and integrity of our newsroom and staff.

I am fortunate to have had eight years working with an outstanding group of professionals. Today Al Jazeera stands as a mature organisation and I am confident that the organisation will continue to maintain its trailblazing path. It is then with this remarkable cohort of journalists, a strong organisation and exceptional backing that I leave Al Jazeera.

My most profound gratitude to all of you and to the loyal audience of Al
Jazeera.

Sincerely,
Wadah Khanfar

(published by Foreign Policy`s Blake Hounshell)

A lot of surprise erupted from this statement and astonishment circulated everywhere, including Twitter, where Khanfar responded candidly: Entertained by all the rumors of why I have resigned. #whatdoyouthink? :-)

Palestinian-born Wadah Khanfar has been leading Al Jazeera`s operation for 8 years. Before becoming the Director General of Al Jazeera Network, Khanfar has been working extensively on the field as a journalist and a news correspondent for the Qatari-based network, covering South Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was the Baghdad bureau chief for Al Jazeera Arabic channel at the time when he was chosen as the successor of Mohamed Jassim al Ali, who had managed the channel since its very beginning (except for a very brief interim).

Too many analogies with the current situation: Mohamed Jassim was a clever manager, who had been responsible for building the network from scratch. He was fired in 2003, after  beingnamed in documents procured by a British newspaper in Baghdad and which appeared to link him with Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service.

Many had insinuated that a “spy paper” would be also the direct cause for Khanfar`s unexpected stepping down from the network leadership at a time when it seemed to be more soldi than ever, also for its close link to the Arab spring movement.

“Wikileaks` effect: Al Jazeera drops top executive”, titles Middle East Online, referring to the cable that was disclosed last August 30.

“A cable sent by the American ambassador, Chase Untermeyer, and dated October 2005, describes an embassy official’s meeting with Al Jazeera’s news director, Wadah Khanfar. According to the cable, the official handed Mr. Khanfar copies of critical reports by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency on three months of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq war”, says the New York Times.

“In at least one instance, involving a report on the network’s Web site, Mr. Khanfar said in the cable that he had changed coverage at the American official’s request. He said he had removed two images depicting wounded children in a hospital and a woman with a badly wounded face”.  

In this framework, a leak about a couple of pictures removed by Khanfar at the request of American officials would have generated all this chaos and obliged him to step down at the peak of his leadership.

Same as in Mohamed Jassim`s case, the collusion with a foreign power -whether Iraqi or American- would have pushed Al Jazeera`s board -notably the Qatari EmirHamad bin Khalifa al Thani  who established the network in 1996 and owns it since then- to sack high level employees like Khanfar.

Same as in 2003, there should be nothing so surprising about the fact that a channel like Al Jazeera has established a sort of “moukhabarati” relations in order to secure their news coverage . In a country like Iraq, and before the fall of Saddam Hussein, it was perfectly normal and therefore known and widely accepted that any news organization who wanted to work in the country should have established links and relations with the regime in a way or another. No relations, no news coverage. No news coverage, no work for the channel.

At the time, I was deeply in doubt about the main reasons behind  the sacking. I am still in doubt, indeed, right now when I hear things like that Wikileaks has toppled Al Jazeera. This sounds like admitting that we didnt know that Al Jazeera had links with the American government, which would be pretty naif. The US -led attack on Saddam Hussein`s Iraq in 2003 was started from the largest Middle East based US military base, which is in fact in Qatar.

In my book about Al Jazeera which was published in 2005 there is a whole chapter called: ” US or Saudi Arabia, who is the biggest enemy  of them all?”. At the time, Saudi Arabia certainly was, not sure if now. But the US has never been an “enemy” to Al Jazeera, despite what the average alleged anti-Americanism of the channel would let most of the people think.

I hardly believe that having a couple of pictures  removed from the website would  be enough to make clear that the US government has a say on Al Jazeera. I am sure US officials could have done something better to prove their power on the Qatari based network, and eventually required something bigger.

The all issue about Wikileaks and its cables is  something that in Italian we refer to as “il segreto di Pulcinella”, a secret that everybody knows about, while  pretending not to know.

Even the allegations made about Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim bin al-Thani (a member of the ruling royal family), i.e. Qataris might want to re-gain control over it after so many years, could be totally wrong. When Jassim al Ali was sacked, a former Palestinian news anchor, Adnan al Shareef, acted as general manager until they found the right replacement, which then happened to be Khanfar .Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim bin al-Thani could be just an interim director, while the right replacement is to be find.

So far there has been an alternation of Qataris (Mohamed Jassim al Ali and Ahmed bin Jassim al Thani) and Palestinians (al Shareef and Khanfar) at the direction general post at Al Jazeera. The fact that Jassim al Ali was a Qatari himself proves that so far Qataris have not been untouchable in the history of the alternation of power at Al Jazeera channel and they could even be sacked. This could diminish a little bit the worries of those who think that the take over of a Qatari -and member of the royal family- at Al Jazeera top management position would result in diminishing its credibility and reputation  (which are anyway already undermined by the way the channel has dealt or not dealt with the Bahrain file during the Arab spring).

Funny enough, I have to underline that Khanfar has released two TV interviews to explain the reason of his stepping down. Both of them, on Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, carry exactly the same message: eight years are enough for a leader to accomplish his mission and his goals. The mission of Khanfar`s leadership would have been to turn Al Jazeera into a fully fledged international news network and this had eventually been accomplished, so it`s time to step down.

<object width=”680″ height=”420″ ><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/4jJTliHAU7A&#8221; ></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param></object>

In the Arabic “version” of the interview (released before the English one), there is also an addition irony in Khanfar`s words and a clear reference to the Arab spring movement: “eight years are enough for any person responsible, or leader or director to accomplish his goals” . Not only the use of the words “mas`uul , qayd, mudir” makes a clear reference to the symbols that “the people want to overthrow” in the Arab revolutions. News anchor Mohamed Krishane even starts to joke with Khanfar on the fact that Al Jazeera is with the people and has embraced the “vision of change” expressed by the Arab street.

 

 

The most relevant difference between the English and the Arabic interviews, though, lies in the direct statement and then in the question that the English anchor asks the former director general: “your replacement is a member of the Qatari ruling family..do you think this is gonna change something in Al Jazeera editorial policy?

This direct question in the Arabic version simply doesnt exist. No reference to Khanfar`s successor and his ties with the ruling family, and no mention of the royal family at all. Instead, Krishane formulates another statement which is absent from the English version:

” Some people think that this is the end of a phase or rather the beginning of the phase where there will be more openness towards different political point of views”. Without mentioning it, Krishane refers here to the alleged ideological proximity of Khanfar and many others from his staff (including Ayman Gaballah, who is also believed to have stepped down, although not confirmed yet) to the Muslim Brotherhood and the “inconvenience” this was provoking in international circles, especially in Washington.

But for me the most important part to be stressed on here is the difference between the style and the vocabulary used by the two channels, that proves that in the Arabic channel is still submitted to many of the non-written rules still valid for the Arab media in Arabic, like a sort of “apprehension” towards the ruling powers.

Having said that, and with all the issues that Al Jazeera Arabic`s coverage of the Arab Springs have raised, it is undeniable that under Khanfar`s direction the network has reached an immense amount of popularity and power all across the world. Only consider the situation Al Jazeera was in few years ago in the US and the current one, after “Demand Al Jazeera” campaign. Now Al Jazeera is an established network not only in the US, not only internationally (more channels will come soon, in Turkish, in Swahili, in Serbo-Croatian), but even in the social media sphere.

Khanfar was able to build a team of talented people, like Mohamed Nanabhay and Mooed Ahmed and all their staff, that would transport Al Jazeera in the social media environment turning it onto a powerful social media brand,too. This has culminated in Khanfar`s keynote last March at TED, the “must-be” of the innovation conferences worldwide.  Wadah has been always smart to delegate what he believed to be important to a team of dedicated talented people. And this is what happened to the New Media team. I think there is no other TV news network in the entire world which has such a good positioning in the new media world and social networks.

We don`t know that much about Ahmed bin Jassim al Thani. He has a profile on Linkedin, but zero connections, which doesnt sound too promising if Al Jazeera aims to maintain the competitive advantage it has gained on new media.

In order to understand the real reasons behind the change at the top of Al Jazeera, we will have to wait a bit. For the moment, it might be an interim position, or might be a part of the “nationalization” of the work market, especially at the top positions, which is happening a bit everywhere in the Gulf. It might also be the desire to “hold” the Arab spring phenomena more tight and keep it “under the control” of the Qatari elite, in order not to become counter productive for Qatari ruling power.

The funniest explanation has been given by Syrian state news agency though.On Tuesday, Sana published a news item titled “Khanfar`s resignation due to accumulated mistakes on personal and professional level”, condemning Al Jazeera`s “fabricated” coverage about Syria.

Another evidence, according to Sana, after Beirut bureau chief Ghassan Bin Jeddo resigned, that Al Jazeera`s coverage of the Arab revolutions is biased and unreliable.