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.