Wadah Khanfar: Wadah's world

Al Jazeera's Wadah Khanfar talks about the difficult and dangerous process of establishing the channel.
Wadah Khanfar: Wadah's world
By Anil Bhoyrul
Fri 12 Oct 2007 04:00 AM

For a man who has been accused of many things in his life, Wadah Khanfar appears remarkably relaxed. "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," says the director general of the Al Jazeera Network.

Right now, Khanfar is very much having the last laugh. The television station that he heads has become one of the world's most recognisable brands and now has over 130 million viewers globally. The launch of the English version of the news channel a year ago has been an undisputed success, and now even the Americans - who steadfastly refused to allow Al Jazeera onto their networks - are taking notice of the station as a serious news broadcaster.

Had the figures within the American administration that criticised us been watching Al Jazeera carefully they would never have made as many mistakes in Iraq.

From a controversial satellite broadcaster that first hit the airwaves 11 years ago and quickly became the centre of unwanted attention for its airing of Al Qaeda video messages, Al Jazeera has now grown into a world-class operation - spanning not just English and Arabic rolling news channels, but a massive web operation, hugely profitable sports channels and even a media training centre that could one day become the Al Jazeera University of Journalism.

Thanks to the deep pockets of the Qatari government, nearly US$1bn has been spent, however group profits are some years away, but more importantly for Al Jazeera, the public perception of the channel has greatly improved.

Much of the credit goes to Khanfar - voted the world's third most powerful Arab in last year's Arabian Business Power List, the Jordanian former mechanical engineer has deflected both the criticism and quite literally, the bullets. Things came to a head last year after revelations that President Bush had even considered bombing the station's Doha headquarters, so worried was he about its influence in the Arab world.

It is something Khanfar is not about to forget easily. "In our case, someone talks about bombing a TV station, a civilian TV station with people that are working from different nationalities from all over the world. A TV station that speaks about freedom of expression, a TV station that has been leading the concept of freedom of expression. I mean that is outrageous. It is completely outside the parameters of any reasonable criticism."

He adds: "I was sad because always the concept of a free media and democracy has come to us here in the Middle East unfortunately from the West. That momentum of pushing forward for democracy came from the West. The same West was pushing in the other direction as far as that particular incident was concerned. I did not like it. This is not the America that we knew. This is not the culture that we respected. You know, sometimes lies by certain figures who are supposed to be responsible and accountable makes me angry. These people appear on television and at press conferences and repeat certain lies that fortunately have not been proved. That is something I do not understand because basically I demand much higher moral standards from people who speak on behalf of public institutions."

It is these high standards that have helped to radically transform Al Jazeera Network. The Arabic version has more than 40 bureaus across the globe, and made thought-provoking live broadcasts during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The English version now reaches more than 80 million homes and has 60 global bureaus, with the likes of Sir David Frost and Riz Khan in front of the camera.

Initially, most American cable operators refused to air the channel, claiming it was a propaganda tool for Al Qaeda. But nearly a year of broadcasting has changed perceptions in the West and Al Jazeera English is now becoming increasingly watched - and available - in the US. It is already established in many parts of Europe, South Africa and Asia.
Khanfar says: "Always when you are speaking about media institutions there will be perceptions that exist that have been promoted unjustly by some people - by certain core groups at the centres of power that were accusing Al Jazeera of promoting Osama Bin Laden. Okay, that is now fading away simply because people can see for themselves the high standards that Al Jazeera is adopting. I don't think in any moment of time that the strategy of Al Jazeera has been mistaken, even if it has invoked certain kinds of response and provocations and anger from certain politically-motivated circles."

He adds: "Had the figures within the American administration that criticised us been watching Al Jazeera carefully they would never have made as many mistakes in Iraq.

We have seen the rise of patriotism in journalism. We have seen a departure from the well-established rules of journalism. Unfortunately some media organisations have been completely taking sides.

"I mean really they should have viewed Al Jazeera because it would have given them a perspective that they have missed and therefore that led to a lot of problems in Iraq," he adds.

Khanfar knows more than most about Iraq, and working inside 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 was not only to the displeasure of the invading Americans, unhappy that their opponents were being given any kind of airtime, but even many Iraqis. But Khanfar, despite intense pressure from the US administration, refused to budge - citing the importance of balanced reporting, and giving every opinion broadcast a counter-opinion.

Eventually, the station left Iraq but Khanfar has no regrets, saying: "I was always conscious that we should never be consumed by the superficial events. A war is not about military air strikes, and the movement of armies and all these kinds of issues. It is about human beings. It is about the human being who is being killed and about the human being who is doing the killing. The proper journalist looks into this culture and is not consumed by other things. Some of our colleagues have just been consumed by giving data. It is not about giving data, it is about giving spirit. And that is important, and I think Al Jazeera has been able to capture that."

Not that this way of thinking has made his life any easier or safer. "In many cases people would see something on the television and they might respond to it and you don't know how they will respond to it. Sometimes they get angry. We have been attacked many times in our bureau by certain groups. They shot at us. Some of my colleagues have lost their lives, some have been arrested and some have been kidnapped. There is a huge diversity of people in Iraq so you cannot predict the reaction of that angry group or this angry group to what you are broadcasting."

Apart from the fact that a number of journalists have been killed while covering the war in Iraq, the style of coverage has left many media organisations bitterly divided. Khanfar himself doesn't hide his disgust with the way some broadcasters operated, saying it was a low point for the profession. "I really believe that the media coverage of what happened in Baghdad was a turning point in the history of journalism. We have seen a lot of views on the way journalism is covered internationally; we have seen the rise of patriotism in journalism. We have seen a departure from the well-established rules of journalism. Unfortunately some media organisations have been completely taking sides."

Al Jazeera is of course in the rare position of not having to chase profits. The Qatari government is not demanding to see the accounts turn from red to black, and there are few, if any, commercial pressures on the station. Nevertheless, Khanfar insists that the coverage of the war in Iraq exposed the true colours of many of his rivals. "It will be very alarming the moment we realise that this profession is threatened by two major elements - political influence and commercial influence. Both of them are tied. A lot of media organisations are owned by commercial groups that have their own political interests, so they prefer to go with the establishment rather than going against it, because at the end of the month they would like to achieve profits. This is a great danger for the integrity of the profession."

He adds: "At Al Jazeera we have been liberated from those two chains. In my opinion we need to introduce an environment that isolates journalists from all these pressures. We need to make a distance. How do we do it? Until now we are still searching for that answer because the media has been commercialised too much and that is something that we need to find a way out of. To be commercial by itself is not a problem. To make profits is okay, however, to submit your editorial standards to commercial ends, that is a problem. To play around with your editorial integrity in order to get some kind of advertising deal, that is a problem. Some media organisations have succeeded and they have become really well-established because of their integrity. And they also make money - so money is not only made by departing from the normal rules."
Ironically, it is the normal rules of making money that Al Jazeera is now tackling - they may be deep, but the pockets of the Qatari government are not a bottomless pit. Khanfar is now restructuring the way the company is run, having brought in a new commercial division. He admits profits may still be five years away, but the financial corner has definitely been turned.

"News is always expensive and will always consume money. According to my calculations most international news channels do not make money. However the news is vital to build your brand because without a brand you cannot do anything else. We have established our brand name because of the news. Now we are looking at other ideas," he says.

They shot at us. Some of my colleagues have lost their lives, some have been arrested and some have been kidnapped.

The addition of a website and subscription-driven sports channels are a huge part of this plan, and Khanfar is now looking at making more use of many of the bureaus dotted around the globe - turning them from cost centres into assets. Other new ventures are likely to be rolled out in the next 12 months, and with an expected growth in the US market, the change from loss to profit could yet be quicker than expected.

Either way, Khanfar has a lot on his plate - not that his calm demeanour shows it. Still just 39 years old, the Jordanian has excelled in everything he has tackled so far. 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 Student's 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, where he was chief of the Baghdad bureau.

He became managing director of Al Jazeera in 2003, and director general three years later. "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. Management can be achieved through many schools of thought. I prefer always to lead through inspiring people and giving them a vision for the future," he says.

Khanfar's personal vision for the future is to document many of the station's experiences and transfer them into educational uses. A dedicated Al Jazeera training centre has already been established, but in the long-term Khanfar is hopeful that the world may one day be filled with Al Jazeera Universities of Journalism.

He says, "What motivates me is the audience of Al Jazeera, they are not like any other audience. For many it is an extension of their lives. Some of them tell me that if they don't watch Al Jazeera they cannot start their day. That is very inspiring. It makes you feel that you are not doing this for very limited gain, but because there are millions of people out there relying on you. And you don't want to disappoint them, you need to give them your best."

Nobody could ever accuse Khanfar of failing to do that.

Wadah Khanfar will be speaking at the Arabian Business Media and Marketing Conference in Dubai on November 11-12.

The world on Al Jazeera

Sir David Frost, presenter on Al Jazeera

"I obviously investigated before I signed on, talking to friends in Whitehall and in Washington. That made it quite an easy decision. I think all these stories have faded away. Even before Al Jazeera English started that sort of propaganda was all vastly exaggerated. Once it went on the air people could see for themselves that these stories weren't true. None of those lurid things apply. They have received a lot of plaudits for their news coverage. I ran into Norman Lamont (former British Chancellor of the Exchequer) the other day who said he was a bit of a news junkie and that the station was always telling him things he didn't know in terms of world coverage. They cover stories abut Brazil and Indonesia and other countries that we don't often hear of. This sort of coverage sets it apart."

Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at London's City University

"As far as the US is concerned, it's still TV Bin Laden. One of its main problems there is it can't get on the air which I think is quite disgraceful in the Land of Opportunity. Nobody's going to force people to watch it, but at least they should have the choice. It does have a refreshingly different approach to stories. It doesn't have the Western spin but rather a Middle Eastern spin. If any major Western news editor had an inside track on a story of worldwide significance such as Al Qaeda it would have been manna from heaven and they did a very responsible job covering it, cutting out the worst bits. Instead they were pilloried for it."

CNN spokesperson Susanna Flood

"There's no doubt that the launch of Al Jazeera English was a significant move in terms of the expansion of international news channels - but it's important to keep it in context as one of a number of launches that have taken place over the last year or so. Among others, we have also seen the launch of France 24, funded by the French government and Russia Today, funded by the Russian government, and more recently the launch of Press TV, the English language television service from Iran. This expansion certainly helps focus attention on the 24-hour news genre and healthy competition helps supports growth more broadly in the television news business, in terms of distribution and content sales."

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