< A Big Change at Al Jazeera

Transcript

Friday, September 23, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:

And I'm Bob Garfield. When WikiLeaks released 200,000-some US diplomatic cables, one journalist's name was mentioned more than 400 times. He is Wadah Khanfar, news director of the Qatar-based satellite news channel Al Jazeera.

Many of the mentions involved diplomatic complaints about Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq War and the Middle East, in general, which coverage the U.S. government has often regarded as populistic to the point of inflammatory.

Here's how Wadah Khanfar explained Al Jazeera’s perspective to us last year:

WADAH KHANFAR:

The amount of commitment that our audience have towards Al Jazeera, they embrace us, not because we are politically correct from the point of view of governments, which most of them are authoritarian, no. We are full of pride and determination because the public think of Al Jazeera as their own.

BOB GARFIELD:

Bu the Wikileaks revelation this week was of a very different sort, antagonizing not the United States government but Qatar’s. And Khanfar is no longer running Al Jazeera.

The reason? Possibly the emergence of one particular WikiLeak, a 2005 cable from US ambassador to Qatar, Chase Untermeyer, suggesting that Khanfar had softened coverage of the Iraq invasion, under pressure from the United States and Qatar, whose royal family funds Al Jazeera.

Khanfar has been replaced by Shaykh Hamad bin Yasim bin Muhammad Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal Family. 

Lawrence Pintak is a longtime Middle East correspondent and author of The New Arab Journalist:  Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil. Lawrence, welcome back to On the Media.

LAWRENCE PINTAK:

My pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD:

Whadar Khanfar steps down, kind of a jaw-dropping development, no?

LAWRENCE PINTAK:

This man is the figure, the most influential figure in Arab journalism, and certainly one of the most influential figures in global journalism.

For the last eight years he has piloted Al Jazeera to be the news organization that everyone turns to, whether they like it or not. And with the launch of Al Jazeera English a decade ago, that influences people around the world.

BOB GARFIELD:

Influential, powerful but not without controversy.

LAWRENCE PINTAK:

Well, he's certainly a very controversial figure. There are many in the newsroom who have complained about what they see as his pro-Hamas proclivities. Many see that playing out on the air at Jazeera, and that has brought him into conflict with his Qatari masters at times, many would argue with very good reason.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, let's get to the case at hand here, the revelation through WikiLeaks that in the wake of complaints from the Americans, Al Jazeera removed some of what the Americans considered to be inflammatory images. This revelation appears and the next thing you know he is out the door. What are we to make of that?

LAWRENCE PINTAK:

We only have a circumstantial evidence that there's a direct connection between those cables and his resignation. The pressures he was facing from his own government, the Qatari government, not to completely alienate the Americans, while at the same time trying to provide a pretty drastically different view of the war, meant that he was playing both sides against the middle automatically.

If he was ousted, I would bet a thousand dollars that it was not over these WikiLeaks cables because ultimately all he was shown doing in these WikiLeaks cables is what the Qatari government wanted him to do, placate the Americans. If, in fact, he was fired as a result of it, it was simply an excuse to get rid of him.

BOB GARFIELD:

Al Jazeera has been way out in front of everybody else on Tunisia and Syria and Libya and Egypt, but in its own backyard, neighboring Bahrain, not so much. And the question is to what extent do the Qatari royals have on the way Al Jazeera’s covering or not covering democratic protests in neighboring Bahrain.

LAWRENCE PINTAK:

There have been a lot of rumblings in the newsroom about the fact that the Qatar government has been the prime sponsor for the Libyan opposition. Jazeera’s coverage has been all Libya all the time. And at the same time the coverage of Bahrain has been, shall we say limited in the extreme or as someone in the newsroom said to me, too balanced.

It's known in the newsroom, people around him, that Khanfar has been uncomfortable with both of these extremes.

BOB GARFIELD:

One more thing, and it concerns Al Jazeera’s reputation and credibility with its audiences in the Arab world. Where does it stand in the wake of these episodes on the Arab street and in the, the halls of Arab power?

LAWRENCE PINTAK:

On the street it's very popular in countries where there are revolutions, in the halls of power not so much. There is a great deal of angst about the direction Jazeera has driven the region.

Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the richest man in the world, recently announced the launch of Al Arab, another all-news channel that will more directly reflect the views of those in the halls of power, to drive the Saudi viewpoint across the region. And Jazeera’s not taking that lightly.

So this change of leadership could be a preemptive move to try to counter Saudi Arabia's play at regaining the upper hand in Arab media.

BOB GARFIELD:

Dean Pintak, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE PINTAK:

My pleasure, anytime.

BOB GARFIELD:

Lawrence Pintak is the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and author of “The New Arab Journalist:  Mission and Identity in the Time of Turmoil”