The news that media giant Wadah Khanfar has quit Al Jazeera has been celebrated and mourned in equal measures
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.
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