Former Al Jazeera Head on Quitting, the Arab Spring, and Qatar's Role

Wadah Khanfar's sudden resignation last week could mean a new course for the channel he led and its role in the world

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Former Al Jazeera Director-General Wadah Khanfar / YouTube

DOHA, Qatar -- It's been a rough week for Wadah Khanfar, but you wouldn't know it to see him.

Earlier this week when I caught up with the former chief of the sprawling, pan-Arab Al Jazeera news network, who abruptly resigned last Tuesday under unclear circumstances, he was slumped happily into a sofa in a glittering Sheraton suite, his hair still wet from a dip in the hotel pool.

Khanfar's resignation came just days after the release of a Wikileaks cable suggesting he'd bowed to pressure from U.S. officials in 2005 to change Al Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq war. The timing of his departure brought intense scrutiny onto Khanfar, whose direction of Al Jazeera's early and aggressive coverage of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is often credited for contributing to the course of the Arab Spring.

The choice of Khanfar's successor didn't help matters. Sheik Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad Al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, has no experience in media, and his appointment reinvigorated long-time accusations that Al Jazeera is, or will become, merely a foreign policy tool of Qatar. This tiny, energy-rich nation hosts and funds the network, and its turbaned royals dominate the board of directors, which "is the ultimate decision making entity in the Al Jazeera network," Khanfar told me.

Critics of Al Jazeera accuse the network of aggressively covering the unrest in Syria and Libya, while all but ignoring the protests in Bahrain, Qatar's small neighbor in the gulf, which Qatar's ruling elite has an interest in seeing remain stable. Last month, Al Jazeera produced a lengthy, in-depth documentary on the events in Bahrain, but abruptly pulled it from schedules after its first airing.*

When I asked Khanfar why he resigned when he did, he responded, "The Wikileaks report has nothing to do with my resignation." He had discussed his departure with the chairman of Al Jazeera's board of directors a month earlier; the timing of his actual stepping down was merely coincidental, he said.

"These last eight years were not easy for me. It was very intense, a very condensed time," he said. "I put my vision, my whole self into Al Jazeera. My whole life was Al Jazeera, my whole life! What is much better is leaving in a predetermined time, so eight years was a I figure I thought, after that, I am afraid I will not do justice to Al Jazeera."

Khanfar's "main battle" as Al Jazeera's top chief for eight years, throughout the course of four wars in the Arab world and the ongoing Arab Spring, was to keep the news room "independent from the Americans, from the Arab governments, and from any other governments," he said.

"We do not listen to pressure from any government ever, even when they are pressurizing our bureaus, arresting our correspondents, even destroying our bureaus in Kabul and in Baghdad, even threatening to bomb our AJ headquarters in Doha like George Bush did. All that really happened!" he said, laughing. "My main battle this whole eight years was to keep the independence of Al Jazeera from the Americans and from the Arab governments and from any other governments involved. My job was to keep them far away."

Khanfar, in discussing his retirement, also talked about his wife and family. He wanted to see them more. He talked about getting two or three hours of sleep per night through most of the Arab Spring, and the horrors and injustices he had to witness daily and up-close in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Southern Lebanon, and Gaza. He said they were "horrible, unjust, bloody wars" that were his life for eight years.

So what about the Wikileaks cable in question, which indicate that both the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and the Qatari Foreign Ministry had provided him with months of detailed American complaints about Al Jazeera's coverage of the war in Iraq?

"The Americans used to complain all the time. Not only the Americans. The Chinese, the Arabs, the Russians, everyone! They used to complain about Al Jazeera's coverage, and we always have a very simple principle. If your complaint is professionally accepted by us, we will change it. If the complaint is political, and has no professional meaning, we will not listen to you. If you bring me something wrong that Al Jazeera has done, we will remove it, we will fix it, and sometimes we will even apologize about it. That is professional. Nothing political in it," he said.

"The Americans demanded thousands of times that certain things to be removed, but we never removed anything. This one time [described by the Wikileaks cable] they were right. This particular time they came with a story that was not balanced on the Al Jazeera website. It was not balanced based on our standards. So we decided to remove it because of our professional standards, not [because of] their pressure. Their pressure is nothing." He later added. "Sometimes we do mistakes, and we correct them. But this is not corroboration with the Americans."

Since Khanfar's tenure began in 2003, Al Jazeera has grown from one television channel, broadcast only in Arabic, to a massive, international network of more than 20 channels broadcast in Arabic, English, and soon in Turkish, Swahili, and several Balkan languages. With its expansion has come unprecedented influence in the Arab world and a host of vehement new enemies. In the last eight years, Al Jazeera's bureaus have been bombed, raided, and shuttered and its reporters imprisoned and killed. Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha now unfolds like an inner city high school campus behind cement walls, two layers of security, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and armed guards.

Khanfar described the network's editorial approach, a key part of its success, as "supporting democracy, freedom of expression, and the people." This editorial line, evident in Al Jazeera's coverage of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Southern Lebanon and Gaza, reached a triumphant crescendo during the Arab Spring, which may not have unfolded as it did without Al Jazeera's aggressive and sometimes sensational broadcasts.

While Khanfar said Al Jazeera does not aspire to political activism ("We are journalists; we are not political activists!"), he acknowledged the network's role in "participating in creating the environment for the Arab Spring."

"We provided the opinion, giving people a feeling about their rights, making them confident that they can do things with out any pressure. That was Al Jazeera's role: liberating the Arab mind. We created the idea in the Arab mind that when you have a right, you should fight for it. Definitely," he said. Their role was a "matter of life and death for a lot of people. If Al Jazeera wasn't there in the street, in the march, covering the story, [it was as if] it didn't happen."

He seemed to waffle when asked for a precise definition of Al Jazeera's editorial vision under his leadership. "From the beginning we set up in our mission statement that we will stand for the people and for their right for democracy, and right for freedom of expression. If we don't stand for the people, who is going to stand for them? If the Arab World has a chance to liberate itself from authoritarian regimes and to go to the future with confidence for democracy, there is no way we could have stood indifferent," he said.

But, at another point in our conversation, he defined the network as emphasizing objectivity rather than advocacy. "We always wanted to have balanced coverage. Take Yemen for example. From the beginning, we were very keen to have a government spokesperson every time we had a Yemeni opposition," he said. "But the Yemeni government closed down our bureau, confiscated our equipment and banned our correspondents. When our only outlet to the government was shut down, we started covering the through the people, through new media, through activists on the web, through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and so on. With all of that, we never stopped phoning representatives of the government every day."

Khanfar gestured at the images of bloodied protesters in Yemen flickering on a flat screen TV tuned to Al Jazeera Arabic on the wall of the suite. "When the government closed our bureau, they also closed a platform that could have been used by them. They were mistaken. They made a lot of mistake in dealing with media. In Syria, they stopped every correspondent from going anywhere so how are you going to cover a story like that unless you have undercover people, or you have activists providing you with YouTube or Twitter stuff like that?"

Presented by

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a journalist who covers Central Asia and the Middle East and currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. She recently lived in Yemen on a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant.

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