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Al-Jazeera Director General resigns

a little night musing's picture

(from Care2, of all places, but I do get some good tips from them!)

Al-Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar has resigned yesterday (Tuesday), to be replaced by a relatively obscure member of the Qatar royal family. (Al-Jazeera is owned by the emir of Qatar.)

As I don't have time to give this (to me) breaking story the research it desrves, I'll give you the essential part of the Care2 story with its links:

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”:

I can't read the NYT article yet because my workaround to the firewall is not working for some reason.

The Foreign Policy article is rather interesting:

Khanfar is at the top of his game. So why did he resign? In his departing note to staff, he said only that it was because he had "decided to move on" and that he had been discussing his "desire to step down" for some time.

"Upon my appointment," he wrote, "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."

But is that the whole story? A couple theories are making the rounds, none of which seem to be based on any inside information. So what follows is purely speculative.

One potential clue is Khanfar's replacement: Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the royal family. Al Thani is not a journalist; he is an executive at QatarGas, a state-affiliated natural gas producer. Given that the chairman is Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, another royal family member, this may not ultimately be such a big deal. But the optics certainly don't look good.

There were already strong reasons to question just how much editorial independence the network really has. The U.S. State Department clearly views Al Jazeera as a tool of Qatar's foreign policy; one cable from November 2009 claims that the Persian Gulf state uses the channel "as a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries, particularly those soured by al-Jazeera's broadcasts, including the United States." Al Jazeera devotes suspiciously little time to covering the politics of the Gulf; for instance, after Qatar's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, criticism of the Saudi royal family dropped dramatically.

In recent weeks, the details of conversations between U.S. officials and Al Jazeera executives, including Khanfar, had been the subject of much chatter in the Arab world (Omar Chatriwala details that story for FP here). One October 2005 cable describes U.S. officials presenting Khanfar with the findings of a Defense Intelligence Agency report complaining about the network's coverage, and him agreeing to remove a particularly inflammatory slideshow from Al Jazeera's website. The cable was taken out of context and 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).

So perhaps something else is going on. My sense from watching the Arabic network's coverage over the past few months is that it had more or less dropped the pretense of independence, and at times seemed like the official network of the Qatari Foreign Ministry. For instance, its Libya coverage was utterly over-the-top, enthusiastic cheerleading for the rebels -- and it just so happened that Qatar was heavily engaged in overthrowing Muammar al-Qaddafi. When Qatar brokered a peace agreement between warring factions in Darfur, Al Jazeera broke away from its normal coverage for two hours to show the final announcement. And, as many have noted, the Arabic channel's usual aggression has been noticeably lacking when it comes to Bahrain.

It's hard to imagine a hard-charging guy like Khanfar -- who clearly has his own ideological leanings -- putting up with that sort of thing for very long. So maybe he just didn't want to toe anybody's line. Whatever the reason, Arabs will be watching closely to see if his successor clips Al Jazeera's wings.

I'll also be watching closely...

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Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

For instance, its Libya coverage was utterly over-the-top, enthusiastic cheerleading for the rebels -- and it just so happened that Qatar was heavily engaged in overthrowing Muammar al-Qaddafi.

I'd noticed that bias, and had wondered why I was seeing it. That it was other news organizations that broke the stories of massacres at the hands of the rebels struck me as very odd, given AJ's roots in the region.