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Thu 8 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Wadah Khanfar on a life and death struggle

Al Jazeera’s boss speaks out about the importance of promoting a free press in the Arab world.

Wadah Khanfar on a life and death struggle
Smear campaign Khanfar says the network has never been anti-American and claims Al Jazeera became the victim of propaganda during the Bush administration.(Getty Images/Isidora Bojovic/ITP Images)
Wadah Khanfar on a life and death struggle
Global reach Al Jazeera already has 60 bureaus across the world — including twelve in Africa — and by the end of 2010 plans to open a further ten.(Getty Images/Isidora Bojovic/ITP Images)
Wadah Khanfar on a life and death struggle
The Frost effect Al Jazeera employs a number of high-profile presenters, including Sir David Frost.(Getty Images/Isidora Bojovic/ITP Images)

Al Jazeera’s boss speaks out about the importance of promoting a free press in the Arab world.

News in the Arab world is a matter of life and death, it is not television," Wadah Khanfar says passionately. We are sitting in the headquarters of the Al Jazeera Network in Doha. Both the English and Arabic newsrooms are buzzing; their content is currently enjoying airtime in half of all Arab homes as well as 200 million English-speaking homes.

Then there's the small matter of a two-day conference, which will include keynote speeches from the likes of Robert Fisk and the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, to add the finishing touches to.

Despite the organised chaos that surrounds us, Khanfar - Al Jazeera's director general - is concentrating on the task ahead; making his views clear about the importance of media in the Arab world. "In some countries if you don't know and you don't watch the news you might find yourself in trouble, especially in danger zones and hotspots. And we have a lot of hotspots in the region so there is a huge responsibility to our people," he says.

Khanfar has been the public face of (arguably) the Arab world's most successful broadcasting network since his appointment thirteen years ago. The Qatar-state funded firm has been credited with revolutionising the media landscape in the Arab world and now Khanfar plans to take the Al Jazeera message global.

The broadcaster already operates 60 bureaus across the world - including 12 in Africa - and plans to open another ten by the end of this year. "We are trying to take Al Jazeera content wider than ever. Our concentration at this moment in time is to take Al Jazeera into various states in North America," says Khanfar, adding that he is also "exploring geographic areas and languages" as well as looking at building "some kind of model that will build on Al Jazeera's success, use Al Jazeera's material, its network of correspondents and bureaus and rebrand it."

Last year, just weeks after Al Jazeera signed a deal with a US-based cable distributor to make its English-language channel accessible in America, Khanfar made his first trip to country.

"Whenever I go to Washington, I see more and more people are engaging the Al Jazeera model and more and more people are becoming fans of Al Jazeera, even within the administration and congress."

His visit marked a changing of the tide in relations between the station and America. Under Bush's administration, Al Jazeera was frequently criticised and on several occasions its bureaus were attacked, once killing an Al Jazeera correspondent.

Although America claims the attacks were unintentional there have been repeated accusations that Bush planned to bomb its Doha headquarters in 2004.
Khanfar - who was himself reporting in the field during the Iraq invasion - recalls the moment he heard about Bush's intensions. "I felt that I was in front of an administration that had lost vision as far as dealing not only with the media but dealing with the Arab world completely."

He is quiet when he remembers hearing the news about his colleague who was killed. "When [I found out that] our bureau in Baghdad had been bombed I was reporting from the northern part of Iraq. I was shocked," he says. "I was being interviewed and I was due to speak about an issue related to the front but I could not actually speak. I told the presenter ‘I cannot help but talk about our colleague who has been killed, Tariq Ayyoub, who was killed in Baghdad because of the American bombing'. That day no one can surely forget. It was as if all of the anger and frustration of the war was summarised, condensed and put into focus around one person."

In response to criticisms of anti-Americanism, Khanfar fights back, claiming Al Jazeera was instead the victim of propaganda. "We have never been anti-American, the perception was created by Donald Rumsfeld [the former Bush Defence Secretary] and Bush in the previous administration. During the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Al Jazeera was projecting the reality on the streets and I think that led to certain kind of propaganda against Al Jazeera in the US," he explains.

Still, the perception in the West hasn't been easy to shake off. Although its English network was granted permission to broadcast in Canada last year, the Arabic station was denied permission in 2003 over fears of its anti-Semitic content. Jazeera hopes its Canadian operation, which is run by the former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Tony Burman, will be the catalyst for wider interests across North America.

America hasn't been the only battle Khanfar has had to contend with. Despite the network's rising popularity, it has continued to dodge controversy. Many accuse it of sitting on the fence, especially when it comes to issues concerning Qatar. Last year one journalist quit, condemning it for succumbing to pressure from its owners. Other hiccups recently included the resignation of five female presenters, who accused a senior editor of making "offensive remarks" about their appearance.

May also saw the network's only Bahrain correspondent banned from the Gulf state following a reported breach of media and press laws. Some experts blamed Bahrain's decision on maritime disputes between the two countries and, although Khanfar doesn't deny this could be the reason, he is keen to stress that the network distances itself from home issues. "We at Al Jazeera do not act on behalf of Qatar. Qatar is not our editorial policy so if Bahrain really has a problem with Qatar I'm not sure Al Jazeera should be involved. We have never tried to punish any country because Qatar upset them."

Al Jazeera might have been credited with paving the way for a free press in the Arab world but Khanfar remains concerned about the region's ambiguous media laws. In fact, he goes as far as to say government censorship has tightened. "Unfortunately during the last four to five years the opposite has happened. There was a growing trend of opening up but suddenly - and especially after the war on so-called terrorism - Arab governments started going back and coming up with new regulations and laws. Now some countries have courts called media courts, press courts, that's crazy," he continues.

"In the last few years there has been confusion [surrounding ] issues of freedom of expression, [it is] ambiguous but it also shows to what extent the Arab regime is shaping. The Arab regime is not very stable, a government could get angry because of an article and the government goes crazy because of a report on TV, it means that that government or that state is not as solid, confident, and stable as it should be."
Much more stable is Al Jazeera's commitment to expansion. Khanfar's grand plans are a far cry from shrinking Western networks who are struggling with advertising revenues amid the downturn. According to some reports Qatar pumps around $400m into Al Jazeera's coffers every year but, despite the gas-rich Gulf state's vast wealth, Khanfar denies the network has an open cheque book. "It's not whatever we ask we get," he says.

But it is about finding a happy medium. While the network's ever growing bureaus are unlikely to provide much in terms of profits, its sports channels are set to become a lot more profitable. Last year, Al Jazeera Sports was reported to have paid $1bn for the rights to all sports content, rights of broadcast and trademarks of the Arab Radio and Television. The deal, coupled with the exclusive rights to the likes of the FIFA World Cup 2010 and 2014 and the African Cup of Nations from 2010 to 2016, is likely to see its sports division become its biggest money-maker. "I cannot say [Al Jazeera Sports] will cover the rest of the station but it will definitely start contributing very considerably," he says.

Khanfar has never been shy about the fact that news channels will struggle to make profits in this day in age. "News will generate some profits with advertising but it is minimal compared with the budgets that are spent on news, especially when you're going out to the field," he explains. "Field reporting is not cheap; if you are going to sit in the news room and do reports through agencies then we can do it with minimal budgets, but if you want us to run 70 bureaus all over the world, that's very expensive. The quality of journalism we are producing is expensive compared with any other model."

One of the most inexpensive forms of journalism to emerge in recent times has been the advent of social networking. Last year's Iranian elections are a good example. While traditional forms of media were banned from the Islamic Republic, hundreds of Iranians posted videos filmed on mobile phones onto websites such as YouTube and Twitter.

Khanfar believes the rise of social networking can be an ally, not just to Al Jazeera but to other news stations across the world. "We are not available in every corner of the world and they are many people who carry their mobile phones so [in terms of] news gathering I see in them great allies. I'm not really scared of it," he continues. "All of this nonsense about new media, there is nothing called new media and publishing media; there is media.... Things are certainly evolving and integrating to one model."

That's not to say he doesn't see issues arising. For Khanfar the most important aspect of social networking is ensuring its authenticity. "Social networking and blog is opinion-centered rather than information-centered. If there is a development that should happen it is to train whoever is successful in the news gathering mechanisms of new media in adopting professional standards that might maintain authenticity."

For several years media organisations have been struggling to find solutions to monetise their websites. Last year, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp announced plans to charge for all of its online readers within twelve months. Al Jazeera, however, plans to adopt a very different approach. Last month Khanfar announced his intention to make all of the news from both its English and Arabic stations available on all Apple devices including the iPad for free. "Murdoch is going around charging for everything, I think let us search for other models. Okay, you may get a little bit of money here and there but in the long run it will harm the industry," he says.

"I am an advocate of it [not charging for content] and I hope Al Jazeera will be a pioneer in it." With Khanfar behind it, Al Jazeera can only continue to pioneer.

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Dastagir 10 years ago

Before the launching of Al-Jazeera, the western junk channels like CNN,BBC,FOX,SKY, etc were vomiting biased reports, lies and venom to its audiences. So, naturally America was furious against Al-Jazeera when it aired the news that hurt its business interests in Middle East, especially news about the Middle East wars and conflicts and that resulted in the bombing of Al-Jazeera bureau. And US had also put pressure on Qatar to stop the aid to the channel but, failed. Al-Jazeera's reporting on the Middle East wars and conflicts bought anti-American feeling throughout the world. It was huge change from the reporting of the Western media. We know how the CNN and BBC aired the Gulf wars through their embedded journalism, giving the news and clipping that suits the aggressors. Al-Jazeera made impact even among its opponents, and here are some opinions about Al-Jazeera by them. "It's a legitimate news service. They've told me things I never knew before, which surprised me. Their reports are much longer than American news reports."-Reese Schonfeld, Former President of CNN. "[Al Jazeera's] efforts at neutral journalism ... are making much-needed waves in the Arab world, while the same ethic may be slipping away in the West"-The Jerusalem Post. "Like all of the networks, Al Jazeera gives constant hard-hitting interviews with politicians and analysts from Israel, the West Bank, and the rest of the Arab world. But while others can only balance pundits with more pundits, Al Jazeera has been taking the viewer to the scene to weigh the words of politicians against the reality on the ground."-New America Media. "The world it presents, more from the impact than the launch point of U.S. missiles, is one that must be understood... [America] needs to watch Al Jazeera... Al Jazeera English should be widely available"-Roger Cohen, New York Times. "Al Jazeera offers news diversity to U.S."-Edward Luce, The Financial Times.

Raf 10 years ago

To me, Al Jazeera is another media outlet without identity. Though some of its stories remind me of BBC of 90s. In terms of content and reporting ethics - mostly junk, especially when it comes to reporting from the former Soviet Union. Al Jazeera's bias reporting on Garabagh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia may be considered as a benchmark of how to tweak the news from the ground. My overall ranking for this media outlet is therefore B-.

Dastagir 10 years ago

The Western media influence hang around the Middle East where the oil is abundant. The US and most of its NATO friends are not interested for a permanent peace in Middle East. It hurts their business interests, especially the weapon sale. The news coverage of Al-Jazeera certainly hurts their interests in Middle East, and that is why they came with some Arabic channel to counter Jazeera. Most of the media barons and some politicians have business in oil and weapons companies. Some are trying to infiltrate to Middle East media, like Rupert Murdock who is trying to take a stake in Prince Waleed's company. All know how the Halliburton corporation in which former US president Dick Cheney has a considerable stake benefited after overthrowing Saddam. Middle East is the epicenter of World's economy and its peaceful nature is essential to the world's security. Citing an instance on Azerbaijan alone, rejecting Jazeera is not right. It is better than many news channels.