Al Jazeera’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, resigned suddenly on Tuesday and will be replaced by Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the Qatar royal family. Khanfar, a Palestinian-born journalist, had led the Doha-based network for the past eight years, overseeing its rise to become the “most important news organisation in the Arab world.” Indeed, Al Jazeera’s extensive and dogged coverage of the recent uprisings in the Middle East has won the network the praise of no one less than US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who had actually “criticized American coverage of the revolution.”
Al Jazeera, which is owned by the emir of Qatar, was set up in 1996. Khanfar began as a correspondent with Al Jazeera in locations such as Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. Under his leadership, Al Jazeera became a network unlike other Arab media organizations which are subservient to, and bankrolled by, their country’s governments.
The replacement of Khanfar by a little-known executive at QatarGas, a state-affiliated company, has immediately fueled speculation that Qatar intends to impose greater control over the network. The Guardian says that Khanfar had become “too independent a figure for the Qataris, and that he had come under pressure from them.” The New York Times attributes Khanfar’s departure to a leaked Wikileaks document. A leaked cable suggests that Khanfar had close ties with the US government and even censored some of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq war, removing graphic photos — of wounded children in a hospital and of a women with a serious face wound — from a slideshow, with the intent of minimizing anti-American sentiment in Arab countries.
But Foreign Policy argues that this cable is being “taken out of context”:
[The cable] was seized upon by the network’s critics as evidence of a CIA-Qatari conspiracy to manipulate Arabs in the service of U.S. foreign-policy goals.
Middle East Online is running with the headline “WikiLeaks topples Al Jazeera director.” But if Khanfar somehow had to resign because of the cable controversy, which has hurt Al Jazeera’s credibility in certain quarters, it doesn’t wash that his replacement would be a member of the Qatari royal family. Middle East Online also reports that unnamed Qatari officials were already looking to cashier Khanfar over a supposed dispute with Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian intellectual and former Knesset member who lives in Doha (and appears frequently on Al Jazeera).
Foreign Policy even says that, for the past few months, Al Jazeera’s independence seemed to be wavering to the point that it “at times seemed like the official network of the Qatari Foreign Ministry.” Its coverage of Libya has been “utterly over-the-top, enthusiastic cheerleading for the rebels,” at the same time as Qatar just so happened to be “heavily engaged in overthrowing” Muammar el-Gaddafi. Furthermore, coverage of Qatar’s neighbor Bahrain has been “noticeably lacking.”
The Guardian also cites “Arab sources close to the Qatari government” who say that Khanfar’s departure was already in the works six months ago but “had to be delayed after a leak from Syria suggesting Khanfar’s removal was imminent – to avoid the impression of caving in to pressure from Damascus.”
Khanfar is said to have been “emotional” when telling Al Jazeera staff of his resignation. But he also said that “People can think what they like.” Al Jazeera’s own story about his resignation does not mention the leaked cable and quotes from his farewell note in which he spoke of the network’s accomplishments:
“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.
“This newsroom 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.”
Without the director who oversaw its rise over the past eight years, will Al Jazeera maintain its independence and still be “objective” and the “voice of the voiceless”?
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Photo of Wadah Khanfar by Joi
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