Is the rapidly expanding Middle East satellite television network and voice of the Arab Spring as independent as it claims?
- By Omar ChatriwalaOmar Chatriwala is a freelance journalist based in Doha and a former employee of Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera has been making waves in the Middle East ever since it aired its first broadcast on Nov. 1, 1996. In its news dispatches and talk shows, the pan-Arab satellite channel, which is funded by the state of Qatar, has been a strident critic of U.S. foreign policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, even while it has been a thorn in the side of many an Arab autocrat. But after the last dump of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, on Aug. 30, articles have begun to circulate — especially in Iranian and Syrian media outlets — about Al Jazeera’s close relationship with a surprising interlocutor: the U.S. government.
In particular, a newly released cable issued by the U.S. Embassy in Doha and signed by then ambassador Chase Untermeyer, details a meeting between an embassy public affairs official and Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director general, in which the latter is said to agree to tone down and remove what the United States terms "disturbing Al Jazeera website content."
There have been longstanding accusations that Al Jazeera serves as an arm of its host nation’s foreign policy, and earlier leaked documents referred to the news organization as "one of Qatar’s most valuable political and diplomatic tools," which could be used as "a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries." Another document urges Sen. John Kerry to engage the Qatari government on Al Jazeera during a visit to the Gulf country, saying, "there are ample precedents for a bilateral dialogue on Al Jazeera as part of improving bilateral relations."
Despite those assertions by U.S. diplomatic sources, both the network and the Qatari government fiercely insist that it is editorially independent and free from interference.
Skeptics take the latest leak as proof, though, that Al Jazeera is susceptible to external pressures, not least in part due to the document’s summary:
PAO [Public affairs officer] met 10/19 with Al Jazeera Managing Director Wadah Khanfar to discuss the latest DIA [U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency] report on Al Jazeera and disturbing Al Jazeera website content…. Khanfar said the most recent website piece of concern to the USG [U.S. government] has been toned down and that he would have it removed over the subsequent two or three days. End summary.
In what some are seizing upon as evidence of an American-Qatari conspiracy, the cable, dated October 2005, continues with a quote from Khanfar saying, "We need to fix the method of how we receive these reports," mentioning that he had found one of them "on the fax machine."
Later, there is a reference in the memo to a sort of understanding that’s been reached between Al Jazeera and the U.S. government:
On a semantic level, [Khanfar] objected to the use of the word "agreement" as used in the August report on the first page, under the heading "Violence in Iraq", where a sentence reads: "In violation of the station’s agreement several months ago with US officials etc". "The agreement was that it was a non-paper," said Khanfar. [A non-paper is diplomatic jargon for a proposal that is unofficial and has not been committed to.] "As a news organization, we cannot sign agreements of this nature, and to have it here like this in writing is of concern to us."
Leaving it at that, the cable appears to be a smoking gun showing Al Jazeera at the U.S. government’s beck and call. Iran-owned Press TV uses this to conclude that "the US government has previously had a say in what content to appear on the al-Jazeera website." The website ArabCrunch similarly denounced Al Jazeera for responding to U.S. pressure, and says the cable "might have revealed the reason behind the AJ one sided coverage of Iraq in the recent years." Read in their full context, though, this and other leaked cables tell a very different story.
Khanfar could not be reached for comment, and Al Jazeera has made no official response to the latest claims, but a source at the channel told Foreign Policy that these sorts of meeting between high-level Al Jazeera management and U.S. officials are standard practice, and continue today. Elaborating, he said that representatives of numerous diplomatic missions regularly bring lists of complaints to Al Jazeera, but that doesn’t mean they are heeded or given undue weight.
The controversial cable actually backs up this comment to a certain extent, detailing Khanfar arguing with some points made in the U.S. government report presented to him by the embassy representative. "Some are simple mistakes which we accept and address," he said. Other points, such as airing views not favorable to the United States, are taken out of context, given that the contrasting opinion would have its due in a later report, he said. Khanfar also tells the representative that some grievances can’t be addressed, including the use of "terrorist tapes" on air, which he insists is the network’s policy so long as they are edited for newsworthiness. And obviously, he states, he can’t very well prevent guests or interviewees from using language deemed by the U.S. government as "inflammatory."
Reviewing the "troublesome website material" Khanfar agreed to tone down, the U.S. public affairs officer cites a sensationalistic report carried by Al Jazeera’s Arabic website:
The site opens to an image of bloody sheets of paper riddled with bullet holes. Viewers click on the bullet holes to access testimony from ten alleged "eye witnesses"…
The unnamed U.S. officer tells Khanfar that the report "came across as inflammatory and journalistically questionable." It then says, "Khanfar appeared to repress a sigh but said he would have the piece removed."
Al Jazeera — while lauded internationally for the quality of its broadcasts — has more than once had to backpeddle on content carried by the Aljazeera.net website, which operates somewhat autonomously from the Arabic channel in an office across town. In 2007, for example, the site carried a poll asking readers if they "support Al Qaeda’s attacks in Algeria." A majority of the poll’s 30,000 respondents answered yes, sparking a furor from the Algerian media, accusing the channel of legitimizing al Qaeda. The website’s manager later said posting the poll was a grave error and had been done without his permission.
Beyond this specific memo, WikiLeaks has published more than 30 cables from the U.S. Embassy in Doha with the label Al Jazeera, and many more making mention of the news organization, ranging in date from September 2005 to February 2010. But the portrait the leaked cables paint is not evidence of any sort of conspiracy so much as an organization struggling to maintain professional standards.
The earliest available cable discusses preparations for the launch of "Al Jazeera International," the original name of Al Jazeera English, and the recording of a pilot called "The Hassan and Josh Show." Offering some insights into the younger channel’s development, it says operations were "still in a somewhat chaotic embryonic stage" in 2005.
Curiously, that pilot, which never made it to air, was hosted by the two stars of the 2004 Iraq war documentary Control Room — former marine Josh Rushing and veteran Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim. The cable’s author concluded that Ibrahim and Rushing were "clearly still amateur anchors and will need considerable practice to present a more professional and engaging program."
The next available cable documents an earlier meeting between Khanfar and the embassy’s public affairs officer, in which the Al Jazeera director likens the "War on Terror" to Osama bin Laden’s tactic of saying, "You’re either with us, or against us." Khanfar insists Al Jazeera belongs in neither camp.
Khanfar noted that he holds a daily 1pm meeting with an AJ quality assurance team entrusted with implementing AJ’s code of ethics and conduct, which views and anlayzes all Al Jazeera programming, looking for lapses in professionalism, balance and objectivity. "That meeting is very tight, tighter even than your list," said Khanfar.
The author of that cable concludes that Khanfar "is clearly committed to bringing Al Jazeera up to professional international standards of journalism and … seems to be not only open to criticism but to welcome it."
Following up, U.S. Embassy officials later met with Jaafar Abbas Ahmed, the head of Al Jazeera’s Quality Assurance (QA) unit, who, they said was frank about "resistance and hostility" from the channel’s older generation of journalists. Abbas told them some Al Jazeera staff treat the quality assurance team with suspicion, referring to them at times as the KGB and CIA.
"According to Abbas, the effort to professionalize Al Jazeera is an uphill one," the cable reads, indicating the biggest problem he faced was that "old habits die hard." It continues:
While AJ started out with a significant number of ex-BBC reporters, this cadre has shrunk over the years, attracted to other channels such as Al Arabiyya, Abbas said. He added that only a handful remains.
A majority of the remaining journalism staff are therefore ex-state TV reporters. They may be brilliant, but the journalistic culture they have absorbed is different from the one AJ is trying to cultivate, Abbas explained.
At least one expert who has studied the network in depth says Al Jazeera’s culture may be the very thing behind the mixed standards in output.
"[My] academic research shows influence is not something that comes on a top-down level — you have to look at the individuals working there," said Mohamed Zayani, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and co-author of the book The Culture of Al Jazeera: Inside an Arab Media Giant.
"What we got time and again was that there was a big margin of freedom… and journalists were empowered by it," he told me. But that also makes Al Jazeera more susceptible to the subjective views of individual employees, he said.
Al Jazeera has, if anything, become even more of a household name in recent years, and has been recognized in the West by no less than U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for offering "real news." The organization has aggressively covered the "Arab Spring" uprisings across the Middle East, even dropping popular programming to air around-the-clock coverage as revolts have climaxed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Justifiably or not, though, critics accuse the broadcaster of ignoring the unrest in its own backyard, the Gulf.
In the case of Syria, Al Jazeera has faced backlash for covering the brutal crackdown on opposition protesters by the government there. Syrians have accused Al Jazeera of seeking to foment unrest in the country, and at least one media outlet even accused the Qatar-based broadcaster of setting up film studios to stage some of the uprising. It comes as no surprise, then, that some might seize on the latest leaked cables as a way to discredit the news organization as simply being a mouthpiece for the U.S. government.