There has been a cascade of rumours about the shock resignation of Al-Jazeera’s Wadah Khanfar. While some point to diplomatic reports of a power struggle between Islamists and secular liberals, others suggest that the former Director General had become too close to the Americans. The WikiLeaks cables, however, give a vivid insight into what was happening behind the scenes at the media giant, confirming a tussle between elements identified as ‘Islamist’ or ‘radicals’ on the one hand and ‘liberals’ on the other. There was, though, no suggestion that Khanfar had entered into a cosy relationship with the Americans. On the contrary, the 420 documents published by WikiLeaks suggest that it was an uneasy and, at times, unpleasant relationship.
Throughout his tenure, Wadah Khanfar was caught up in a maelstrom of external opposition to Al-Jazeera from the Americans and internal rivalries. Ever since his early coverage of the invasion of Afghanistan, Khanfar became the subject of a series of complaints. The WikiLeaks documents reveal a catalogue of personal attacks, as well as accusations against the channel. Both were accused of giving a platform to radical personalities, among them Faisal al Qassim and Yusuf al Qaradawi.
Under Khanfar’s leadership, Al-Jazeera reached a global audience of around 50 million. Within a very short time the channel outstripped leading American broadcasters such as CNN. Against this background, therefore, the constant flow of complaints was perceived as an attempt by the US government and media agencies to undermine Al-Jazeera’s credibility and support in the Middle East and beyond.
The killing of Al-Jazeera journalist Tariq Ayube in Baghdad in April 2003 and subsequent direct threats to bomb the Doha headquarters reinforced the perception that the US disagreement with the station was part of an overall vendetta against Arabs and Muslims. Khanfar confirmed that a former US official told him that the decision to target Al-Jazeera in Doha was taken at a White House meeting between George W Bush and Tony Blair.
In retrospect, Khanfar’s personal coverage of the war in Iraq just after the invasion won him the respect of many in the region. According to one cable dated May 2005, his subsequent management of the network over the past eight years elevated his personal status and that of the station in the region where the channel was seen as the only one capable of defying America. Despite this, there was no evidence that Al-Jazeera had gone out of its way to antagonize the US. Khanfar, in fact, told a senior official on one occasion that if the Americans wanted a partner to promote democracy they would not find a better candidate than Al-Jazeera.
As far as the Americans were concerned, however, the picture was very different. In May 2005 the prevailing consensus among US agencies monitoring Al-Jazeera was that while there had been some improvement in the station’s operations it was seen as sloppy in its editorial practices and still pursuing an “anti-American editorial bent”. Faced with these charges, Khanfar explained that the US was by no means unique since Al-Jazeera also had tense relations with several regional governments, including Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt.
Casting aspersions against Al-Jazeera was one thing; verifying them was something else. One dispatch dated 18 September 2005 said of Khanfar, “He seems to be a practical individual, and clearly much prefers dealing with criticism that details dates and times and specific instances of lapses in professionalism, rather than broader abstractions.”
A significant proportion of the leaked documents confirm that it was Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Iraq which really pitted the channel on a collision course with the US. American officials accused Al-Jazeera of using inflammatory language, failing to “balance extremist views” and broadcasting tapes produced by terrorists in a theatre of war where US soldiers were being killed. The airing of images of badly wounded civilians, especially children, was seen by the Americans as inflammatory. One example was that of a badly injured child in Tel Afar in 2005; following American protestations Khanfar investigated that particular image and found that the tape’s production contained serious shortcomings on a professional level. He therefore agreed to remove the image from the Al-Jazeera website, not because of American pressure, but because of serious breaches of professional conduct. Even so, in a subsequent document from March 2006 it is recorded that US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz said, “Al-Jazeera is killing Americans”.
By 2006, the torrent of complaints had begun to take a toll. Signs of tensions between senior Qatari officials and Al-Jazeera management were beginning to surface. One particular member of the Al-Jazeera board, Abdulaziz al Mahmoud, was especially scathing in his criticism of Khanfar. A US cable of February 3, 2006, described the US-educated al Mahmoud as “a close Embassy contact”.
Other leaked documents from that same month painted an entirely different picture about Khanfar. One confirmed that he was sensitive to the idea of being asked to do something particularly for the US and “did not want to be in a position where they would be seen doing favours”. Such observations are not uncommon in the Wikileaks cables. When taken altogether they belie the claims that Khanfar had capitulated and become too close to the Americans.
Throughout this whole affair there have been two underlying irreconcilable approaches. On the one hand there was the US demand for neutrality from Al-Jazeera, while on the other there was the broadcaster’s opposition. Khanfar holds to the school of thought that there are certain issues about which journalists cannot be silent or neutral. Perhaps he was influenced by his stint working in South Africa; Archbishop Desmond Tutu certainly espouses a similar view. He is well-known for saying, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
When asked about neutrality at a UAE media conference in 2005, Khanfar said, “Out of my experience, I can say that you cannot be neutral all the time. When I was covering Mosul in Northern Iraq, I caught on camera looters and thieves who ran into the city’s museum, one of the most important museums in Iraq. I thought for a moment about whether I should remain neutral in covering such an event, but at once decided to take a position. If I had remained neutral, I would have had to interview one of the looters and pass his opinions on to my viewers. I could never do this, in questions that are clearly black and white, you simply cannot remain neutral.”
This determination not to equivocate on democracy, the rule of law and matters of justice was demonstrated strikingly in Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the 2008-09 Israeli war on Gaza. On February 10, 2009 the US Ambassador in Doha called Khanfar to express his concern over Al-Jazeera’s coverage. He objected specifically to the showing of graphic images, claiming that they would stir emotions across the region. The Ambassador argued that “showing Israeli ‘talking heads’ or balancing the number of reports was no balance at all, not when on the other side of the scale you are broadcasting graphic images of dead children and urban damage from modern warfare.”
Meanwhile, from March 2006 onward, tensions between Al-Jazeera Arabic and its international stable-mate began to surface. The documents speak of a de facto attempt by Arab/Islamist elements to control the brand name. Significantly, that same month, the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek Arabic, Mahmud Shammam, was appointed to the board of Al-Jazeera Network. He told an American diplomat that he was appointed as a counterweight to the Islamist, anti-secular and anti-liberal elements in Al-Jazeera. Shammam, who described himself as a “secular leftist and liberal”, was critical of Al-Jazeera’s management. According to one US diplomat, Shammam “clearly is deeply distrustful of Wadah Khanfar’s views and intentions.”
In the run up to Khanfar’s resignation Shammam, a Libyan by birth and a member of the transitional council, backed the secularist elements in the government in their stand-off with the Islamists. This was after a leading Libyan scholar, Dr Ali Salabi, called for Mahmud Jibril – a former minister in Gaddafi’s government – to be removed from office. Shammam rejected the call, claiming that Jibril had the support of the Libyan people.
Wadah Khanfar was in a sense a casualty of the democratic forces he helped to unleash in the region. He said on the night of his resignation that after eight years at the top the time was ripe for new blood. This may be true but there is clearly more to his standing down than he is letting on. Was he targeted for his perceived “Islamist” credentials or his staunchly independent professionalism? The answer is, probably both.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.