Did he jump or was he pushed?

The news that media giant Wadah Khanfar has quit Al Jazeera has been celebrated and mourned in equal measures
By Claire Ferris-Lay
Sun 25 Sep 2011 01:02 PM

Muammar Gaddafi called it his “biggest enemy”, Bahrain blasted it for “slanders and lies” and Hosni Mubarak shut down its offices in Egypt as anti-government protestors stormed Tahrir Square.

In recent months, the Doha-based Al Jazeera Network has itself become as much a part of regional news as coverage of the Arab Spring.

Last week was no different. The resignation of the network’s longstanding director general, Palestinian-born Wadah Khanfar, dominated media pages across the world. But while headlines in the West talked of his shock departure and blamed the release of WikiLeaks documents that showed Khanfar agreeing to tone down some coverage of the Iraq War that the US objected to, other media experts were not surprised.

“Al Jazeera changed its course [and] changed its policy in the last few months after all the events in the Arab world so it is only normal to see changes at the top,” Antoine El-Hage, managing editor of the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper tells Arabian Business.

The decision to replace Khanfar with an executive at Qatargas and a member of the royal family, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, has been seen by some as a clear demonstration of the Qatari royal family’s efforts to retain its grip on the network’s coverage.

“I think [the WikiLeaks controversy] is a cover story for Qatari royal politics and an effort to rein in the organisation that was distancing a bit too far from what the Qatari royal family thought it should be doing,” says Shawn Powers, author of Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism.

Others disagree. “The Qatari royal family founded the company; they were there before Wadah Khanfar and they are there now. There won’t be any fundamental changes taking place,” says Farhad Bin Sauood, a manager with Al Arabiya.net.

Khanfar himself, during an interview with Al Jazeera in the days following his resignation, called his replacement a “great manager and a great director.”

It’s no secret that Al Jazeera’s coverage of anti-government demonstrations across the Arab world, including neighbouring Bahrain, has infuriated many. The Bahraini MP Hassan Al Dossary in August called on the Qatari leadership to intervene following the airing of a 50-minute documentary, which catalogued human rights abuses in the Gulf state and showed how Facebook was used to target pro-democracy activists.

But Khanfar, who has been at the helm of Al Jazeera for the past eight years, has never been shy of controversy. In spite of regular criticism for his sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and sitting on the fence when it comes to issues concerning Qatar, he is widely credited with revolutionising the Arab media landscape.

Article continues on next page...

The network, which is owned and bankrolled by the Emir of Qatar but remains editorially independent, broke the mould of traditional Arabic media organisations.

“Al-Jazeera’s Arabic news channel has always been a lightning rod for criticism, and the job of running it was supremely difficult,” says Jim Crane, author of Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City. “For eight years, Khanfar was a master of the tight-rope walk between the political sensibilities of Washington and the Arab capitals, and the channel’s devotees on the Arab street. He was a crucial builder of the Al Jazeera empire, and helped shape Qatar’s most famous export.”

The Palestinian’s rise to the top of Al Jazeera was meteoric: between 1985 and 1990, while studying at the University of Jordan, he started a student's union that soon spread to several other universities. By 1989, the union was playing an active role in debating the future of the democratic process, and Khanfar started making a name for himself as a charismatic and natural leader - not to mention a great public speaker. His first job for Al Jazeera was as a correspondent in South Africa in 1997, before heading to Afghanistan and later Iraq.

He set up Al Jazeera's operation in Baghdad before the start of the second Gulf War, and at the time of the American invasion, was running a team of more than 100 people. The station's output not only raised the hackles of the invading Americans - who were unhappy that their opponents were being given any kind of airtime - but also irked many Iraqis.

But for the most part, the station’s coverage won many plaudits. Khanfar’s reward was to become managing director of Al Jazeera in 2003, and director general three years later.

Soon after his appointment as director general 2006, he told Arabian Business: “Al Jazeera should be led by someone with a vision. To run a place like this, management is very important but you need to have visionary leadership.”

Few can argue he did that. By the time he cleared his desk last week, the Al Jazeera Network had grown to 65 bureaus across the globe. The English channel was reaching 220 million households in 100 countries, having just inked a deal with Time Warner to broadcast in New York. During the first few days of the revolution in Egypt, the network’s viewing figures soared by a staggering 2400%.

But the bigger the channel, the bigger the challenge. Shortly before Khanfar resigned, WikiLeaks released documents purporting to show the close ties between Khanfar and the US. The leaked 2010 documents indicate that the former director general was in constant contact with the US Defense Intelligence Agency.

So was he pushed? Khanfar says not, saying last week. “My resignation has to do with the fact that I have completed my eight years. I think that is enough for any leader...to give his best.”

For now though, the accusations, claims and conspiracy theories are in overdrive. But Khanfar is unlikely to be losing any sleep. In an interview with Arabian Business, he once explained: “Working for the Israelis. Working for the Americans. Then working for Saddam Hussein, then working for this group and that group. There is no surprise in the accusations any more. It makes me laugh but it doesn't make me angry."

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.