Inside the mind of Wadah Khanfar

Al Jazeera’s former director general lifts the lid on his shock resignation, the rise of social media and why America needs to do more, not less, for the Middle East

"I think I do love Al Jazeera more than ever."

For the first time in the interview, Wadah Khanfar laughs.

“Do I miss it? Actually I think I do love Al Jazeera more than ever — because I never really had a chance to watch the programmes. I used to watch it sometimes, but when I watched it I saw it as a business that I needed to correct and get involved in. Now I am much more relaxed — I focus more on the content, I enjoy myself, and I appreciate what Al Jazeera is doing more than ever.”

If anyone can be said to have earned a well-deserved rest, it must be Khanfar. After eight years turning Al Jazeera from a military target into the network that shaped the coverage of the Arab Spring, he resigned his position in mid-2011 amid a fanfare of speculation.

This week, Khanfar will address an audience at the World Public Relations Congress — being held in Dubai — where he will discuss the rise of new forms of media, a subject both close to his heart and one that has helped drive the success of Al Jazeera.

“The most important issue I’m going to concentrate on is the concept of integrated media,” he says. “That’s a concept I use to describe the third generation of interactivity between social networking, mainstream media and businesses. It’s a new concept and is the solution for the future of media, and for the question as to how mainstream media can co-exist with social networks in an environment that could be multimedia, dynamic, interactive, and people-centric.”

This sounds complex. But Al Jazeera owes its continued success to its ability to meld traditional forms of media — the roving reporter, the newsdesk and the 24-hour rolling news — with a willing audience who want to participate and provide their own content. On 29 January last year — the day after the first ‘Day of Rage’ in Tahrir Square, the then-Egyptian government shut down Al Jazeera’s signal via the Nilesat satellite. In an instant, viewers all over North Africa lost coverage — an until-then unprecedented step.

“Our relationship with the Egyptian government was never very warm,” Khanfar says, with a degree of understatement. “That move was a major challenge to our coverage and to our existence. So we resolved it through a thing that was born at that moment.”

Within hours, fourteen small television networks got in touch with the Doha-based network, offering to drop their own programming and carry Al Jazeera’s signal instead.

“Our next test was — how could we tell our audience that they could follow us on these channels?” Khanfar adds. “We used social media — Twitter, Facebook and we used our network of communication with internet activists to spread the word.”

But Al Jazeera’s somewhat unique relationship with the Arab world’s online community was not a sudden development. The former director general recalls that the network’s first new media desk was actually set up in 2005 in what he terms as “the first phase of co-existence between classical media and new media”. However, it took the Arab Spring for the true results of that move to become apparent.

Like most other networks, Al Jazeera had a minimal on-the-ground presence in Tunisia. As Khanfar admits, most news organisations were taken by surprise at the speed and depth of the popular protests that quickly put paid to the 23-year rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“The first few days of activities and protests which started in Sidi Bouzeid did bring to our attention that there was a movement, but no-one expected that this movement would go beyond protests, which usually happen in the Arab world,” he says. “We did not have a sufficient existence in Tunisia, but we did have a wide network of relations with internet activists and journalists that corresponded with us on a non-official basis.”

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