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Wadah Khanfar: People should be at the heart of journalism

January 28, 2014 at 4:11 am

The former Director General of the Al-Jazeera Network became the first Muslim and non-Western journalist to deliver the annual James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University in London on Thursday. The anticipation buzzed through the crowd waiting to hear from Wadah Khanfar, one of the most influential figures in world journalism who had been at the helm of Al-Jazeera for 8 years, as the lecture theatre filled to capacity. A number of significant figures were in the audience, including journalists from the Guardian and the Financial Times as well as lecturers and media pundits. The high calibre of the audience highlighted just how significant Al-Jazeera under Khanfar’s leadership has been in the development of journalism in the Arab world and beyond.

Beginning his speech following enthusiastic introductory applause, Khanfar went straight to the issue of his resignation and noted that he had chosen this year of all years to step down because “this year is unique”. Referring to the eruption of protests across the Middle East, the Arab Spring was not unnaturally the dominant theme of the talk; this was the year, said Khanfar, when “something that was hidden” spread across the region as the people “regained their confidence”. Mr Khanfar captivated his audience when he noted that after years of learning to retain his emotions, he had been brought to tears many times in 2011.

Highlighting the fact that people are at the heart of the Arab Spring, Khanfar noted that it was people who were also at the heart of Al-Jazeera’s editorial policy. Of the incidents that had brought him to tears, Khanfar said on the night of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall he had been stuck in traffic caused by Qataris celebrating the event. When he was recognised by the crowds, they opened his car doors to “hug and kiss” him and thank him for the role that the network had played during the Egyptian uprising. That was the moment, said Khanfar, that he fully appreciated the significance of Al-Jazeera.

The focus on “people being at the centre of the editorial policy”, he suggested, was crucial to protecting the “public interests” of the network. One of Al-Jazeera’s unique selling points, he added, was that it has not been governed by political or commercial interests in the same way that many other news channels are. As a result the network had been able to ensure that the spirit of the Arab people could be reflected in the channel’s reports. It was a lack of understanding of the Arab people, Khanfar claimed, that was one of the reasons for the huge failing of American policy in and towards Iraq. Pointing to the diametrically-opposed approaches to Iraq by Al-Jazeera and the US, Khanfar said that 79% of coverage from Iraq had been field coverage: “I believe in field coverage, I believe in people.”

When asked why Al-Jazeera had paid less attention to the protests in Bahrain, Mr Khanfar explained that although the station had been the first on the ground in Bahrain, after being forced to shut down its bureau there he had no choice but to follow the story through the people – local activists, Facebook and YouTube. Khanfar also said that he had to make strategic editorial choices about how much time to devote to Bahrain given that the fallout from the protests was not the same as in Egypt, Syria or Libya. His “belief in people” resurfaced when he praised the work of independent journalists, activists and stringers and noted that Al-Jazeera would not have been able to carry out its work had it not been for individuals like them across the Middle East.

Through some clever manoeuvring, Wadah Khanfar did not offer a full explanation for his departure from Al-Jazeera, despite being asked directly by a member of the audience. He referred back to his belief that people are at the heart of journalism and that this would have to be reflected in the editorial policies of the network under the new leadership (a member of the Qatari royal family). If it isn’t, he warned, “then what Al-Jazeera has achieved in 15 years could be wiped out in 15 days”. The theme of his lecture reflected what has been a momentous year in the Arab world – people leading the revolutions; the reporting, said Wadah Khanfar, centred on “people from the nation reporting on the nation”.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.