Al Jazeera and U.S. Foreign Policy: What WikiLeaks’ U.S. Embassy Cables Reveal about U.S. Pressure and Propaganda

“Al Jazeera is a vital component to the USG’s strategy in communicating with the Arab world.” — Joseph E. LeBaron, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, November 6, 2008

“Al Jazeera Board Chairman Hamed bin Thamer Al Thani has proven open to creative uses of Al Jazeera’s airwaves by the USG beyond straightforward interviews.” — Joseph E. LeBaron, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, February 10, 2009

The U.S. Embassy cables published by WikiLeaks present numerous very interesting stories about how Al Jazeera was brought to heel by the U.S. Government.  The U.S. Embassy in Doha, and officials from Washington, used a variety of direct and indirect methods of ensuring a greater degree of compliance on the part of Al Jazeera.  These methods included placing speakers on Al Jazeera news programs; supplying information approved by the U.S. Government; providing U.S. training for Al Jazeera’s journalists; demanding editorial distortion of aired programs; securing Al Jazeera’s agreement to check first with U.S. officials before airing “sensitive” programs; monitoring of Al Jazeera in minute detail, ranging from its news coverage to its internal structure and policies; lodging complaints with Qatari government ministers; constant, personal visits to Al Jazeera’s headquarters; developing familiarity and close personal contacts with Al Jazeera staff; and going over the head of the Managing Director of Al Jazeera to ensure that “objectionable content” was removed and never repeated.

Mainstreaming, professionalism, balance, and objectivity emerge as the chosen tropes for a journalism that favors U.S. foreign policy.  U.S. officials did not overtly threaten Al Jazeera staff, nor did they engage in any crass form of bribery.  The intervention was more polite, prolonged, and intimate.  In the process of reading these cables we learn that, for the U.S. Government, Al Jazeera was valued as a strategic tool, as a credible proxy for U.S. “public diplomacy.”  We hear senior Al Jazeera executives describe themselves as “partners” and “assets” of the U.S.  We also learn about the degree to which Al Jazeera is controlled by the Qatari state and used as a foreign policy instrument.  We witness the degree to which Al Jazeera English is almost entirely a foreign import, not even pretending to speak as the “voice of the Arabs” and operating as a colonial transplant.  The picture of Al Jazeera revealed through the cables is a grim one, and it is not likely that Al Jazeera can proceed unscathed.

Meet Mr. Al Mahmoud

By March of 2006, Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, the director of the Al Jazeera Arabic website, had enough and quit.  Al Mahmoud had become disillusioned both with the channel and with the Managing Director, Wadah Khanfar (much more about/from Khanfar follows below).  Al Mahmoud, a U.S. educated citizen of Qatar and a former military man, was described by U.S. diplomats as “a close Embassy contact” (one of many as it turns out — “Embassy Doha has built cooperative personal relationships within Al Jazeera”).  What about Al Jazeera had changed, so much so that he had to resign?  In the explanation related to us by then U.S. Ambassador, Chase Untermeyer, Al Mahmoud is reported to say:

In the old days [2001] . . . Al Jazeera was buzzing with idealism and alive with passionate debate between partisans of different ideologies (Arab nationalists, Islamists, secularists, socialists etc), and that it had a genuinely revolutionary atmosphere about it.  Now, he said, people come to work from 9 to 5 like bureaucrats and Al Jazeera has become part of the mainstream establishment.

The Al Jazeera described above, prior to its transformation, resembles the one shown in the carefully done, in-depth documentary, Al Jazeera: Voice of Arabia.

The “mainstreaming” of Al Jazeera, in part due to U.S. pressure and regular U.S. coordination with Al Jazeera directors and editors on questions of news coverage, is one of the persistent themes in the cables, published by WikiLeaks, from the U.S. Embassy in Doha (some of which were previously collated by MRZine).  Becoming “responsible” and “professional” meant, in practice, becoming answerable to the U.S. and to the Emir of Qatar, just as the U.S. discovered the value of Al Jazeera’s voice in the Arab world, and just as the Emir used his media giant to attack Arab rivals when convenient, most notably Libya.

A Day in the Life of Al Jazeera Answering to the U.S. Government

It was October 13, 2005.

Al Mahmoud may have missed the idealism, but he was part of Al Jazeera’s move towards greater service to U.S. interests in the Middle East.  On that day in October of 2005 he met separately with U.S. Ambassador Chase Untermeyer and the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO), Mirembe Nantongo.  They sought out Al Mahmoud over objections they had to content on the Al Jazeera Arabic website.  Al Mahmoud “acknowledged that some of the material was unacceptable as published and had been changed on his instructions” — indeed, we are told, all of the “objectionable” content was removed, not just changed, and not just in part.  (The objectionable content had to do, in part, with the image of the U.S. in the Middle East and a visit by Karen Hughes, who was then Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and would later visit Al Jazeera personally; and a 9/11 slideshow that neglected to stress enough just how much of a victim the U.S. was and how great was its humanitarian record in the Middle East.)

Chase Untermeyer first went to speak to an official in Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about the website content.  Untermeyer “stressed that this was the sort of irresponsible reporting that produced problems and tensions in relations between Qatar and the United States” — turning an Al Jazeera issue into a Qatari government issue and an international relations issue.  Right here we see how the idea of “responsible” journalism is framed: journalism that responds to the concerns of the U.S. and Qatari regimes.

Apparently the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was also busy producing frequent reports tallying the “incidence of objectionable content.”  Ambassador Untermeyer went to Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs armed with one such report to help make his case.  In another cable, we learn that the DIA would regularly send such reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which would then pass them on to Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s Managing Director (more below).  On one occasion Wadah Khanfar commented on the nature of a DIA report: “Clearly the person who writes this report is not a journalist.  The report is politically oriented.”  This also tells us something about the politicization of “professionalism” as conceptualized by U.S. diplomats.

The PAO, Mirembe Nantongo, apparently gave Al Mahmoud quite the browbeating: “objected to the slide show’s depiction of the 9/11” . . . “those attacks were cowardly acts” . . . “rejected the slide show’s assertion. . .” . . . “gave a narrow, distorted view” . . . “omission of any mention of the US role in liberating Muslims,” and so on.  The PAO noted that the slide show was removed from the site, but, not pleased enough with the effect of her interference in the editorial decisions of an independent media agency, she asked Al Mahmoud to confirm its removal.  Not satisfied even with that, the PAO then slapped down a packet of U.S. certified and authorized views for Al Jazeera to repeat:

PAO also encouraged Al Mahmoud to draw on the many information resources available to him and his staff via the Public Affairs Section, and left him a folder with fact sheets and links relating to USG [U.S. Government] assistance in the region, including USG emergency aid and details of USG exchange programs.

Al Jazeera’s Managing Director, Wadah Khanfar, had not only instructed Al Mahmoud to completely remove the slideshow from the server (not just amending it, and not just archiving it, as Al Mahmoud preferred) but also was apparently the one to warn Al Mahmoud to expect a U.S. visitor.  Al Mahmoud was thus, as noted by the PAO, prepared for the latter’s visit.  Al Mahmoud meekly responded that “a mistake was made.”  The PAO surmises that Khanfar had in turn been pressured by the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after Ambassador Untermeyer’s visit.

The PAO ends one cable by commenting that:

Al Mahmoud is clearly very wary of attracting negative attention from his chain of command, and is aware that an irritated USG means trouble for him.  He urged PAO to call him directly any time the Embassy observes troubling material on the website.

Freedom of the press, one of the values the U.S. asserts in inventing its public image in the Middle East, is belied by actual practice. Al Jazeera for its part failed to assert editorial autonomy.

Under the Microscope

“They [Al Jazeera] know they are under the microscope, and want to be taken seriously.  Al Jazeera’s growing globalization will only increase the pressure upon them to adhere to international standards of journalism and result in an organization that can be dealt with upon familiar ground, and within a framework already established by the mainstream media.” — U.S. Embassy, Doha, February 13, 2006

Officials of the U.S. Embassy, as we see in the WikiLeaks cables for Doha, in fact made a habit of visiting and contacting Al Jazeera, hoping to build that “familiar ground” and establish a reliable relationship that would respond to norms favorable to U.S. policy.  Just as Al Mahmoud had told the Embassy’s PAO to contact him directly any time the Americans noted material they found troubling, so the U.S. Embassy kept a detailed list of Al Jazeera contacts — see “Contact Information for Engaging Qatar on Objectionable Broadcasts.”  Another cable, from September 18, 2005, details a meeting between the PAO and Al Jazeera’s Managing Director, Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian, as they note.  It appears that Khanfar tried to be a sort of middleman, gracious and understanding toward the U.S., remembering fondly how prior to 9/11 Al Jazeera “was regarded by the USG and the western world as a great asset and symbol of progress in the region” (emphasis added), and yet paying some respect to being independent and critical.

When the PAO (Nantongo appears as an indelicate person, hardly diplomatic, rather colonial) asked Khanfar how he viewed Al Jazeera’s relations with the U.S. Government, Khanfar at first held back and shifted the focus to Arab governments.  While noting “mistakes” on both sides between Al Jazeera and the U.S., the diplomatic Khanfar seemed cheered and optimistic that a “turning point” had recently been reached in U.S.-Al Jazeera relations, that is, “when detailed, practical exchanges began to take place between the two sides.”  “AJ remains open to such input and indeed welcomes it,” said Khanfar: “We have been more able to respond since we have received input.  It is now a practical discussion, a much more healthy relationship.”  Khanfar asserted: “Al Jazeera is not there to be anti-American.  Absolutely not.”

Karen Hughes, Bush’s public diplomacy envoy to the Middle East mentioned above, personally paid a visit to Al Jazeera in 2006 and had a meeting with Khanfar and four other senior Al Jazeera staff members (Chief Editor Ahmed Sheikh, Deputy Chief Editor Ayman Gaballa, and senior presenters Mohamed Krishan and Jamil Azar).  Hughes complained that Al Jazeera’s Iraq coverage was not neutral and “respectful” enough.  In response, Khanfar made some telling remarks, criticizing the Iraqi resistance and promising partnership with the U.S. and its goals of occupation:

We see ourselves as your partners in this, not as something to create problems.  We are interested in stability in Iraq.  It is clear that incitement has led nowhere. . . .  We see ourselves as partners.

Hughes objected to Al Jazeera showing any videotapes at all that came from the insurgents or Al Qaeda, effectively seeking to ban the rest of us from ever hearing or learning from those fighting the U.S. (a policy mirrored by YouTube).  Hughes then told Khanfar that she would place “two or three USG spokespeople on a permanent basis in Dubai’s Media City, who would be available for comment at any time on a complete range of issues.”  Khanfar was open to this and requested U.S. speakers with expertise on U.S. policy in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other areas.  He added that he would appreciate having U.S. Government spokespeople “on tap.”  In 2008, in a cable section subtitled “Hand Holding Appears to Work,” the PAO notes that Al Jazeera had requested that the U.S. “Embassy provide names of well-known Americans who may be willing to appear” — the PAO agreed and further offered “to show producers how to search for academics, authors, think-tank members and former USG officials and state officials who could offer their views on specific topics.”  In 2008, the U.S. Embassy sensed “goodwill” from Al Jazeera and much more “balanced” coverage (i.e. favorable to the U.S.).  The Embassy vowed “to take advantage of this positive trend by seeking placement of more U.S. voices, both official and private, on Al Jazeera in the coming months and closely monitoring the performance of producers and interviewers.”

Also to be noted is that when Hughes spoke of issues of “professionalism” she directly tied the notion to Al Jazeera’s content, “particularly as it relates to Iraq coverage and to the airing of terrorist-provided videotapes.”  It is quite clear here what professionalism means and why it become the handy trope for U.S. political interference.  Hughes called for a more “civil and respectful dialogue,” a classic line commonly used by those who would practice counterinsurgency through discourse, schooling opponents in “manners” that will, it is hoped, render them more quiet and docile.  The U.S. team accompanying Hughes to Al Jazeera, which included Ambassador Chase Untermeyer, the Near Eastern Affairs/Press and Public Diplomacy Director Alberto Fernandez, and PAO Mirembe Nantongo, asked Al Jazeera to hand over a copy of its editorial policy, while complaining of the “caliber” of the people Al Jazeera invited as guests on its talk shows.

Two years after Hughes, during the visit of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff Member Perry Cammack, the point was raised with Khanfar about the obviously lessened coverage of Al Qaeda on Al Jazeera.  This was in part due to Al Jazeera trying to “curry favor” with the Iraqi government, seeking to have Al Jazeera allowed back into Iraq.  In a meeting that same year (2008) with Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, James K. Glassman, Wadah Khanfar stated that relations with the U.S. Government are “much better than before” and that Al Jazeera no longer airs “extremist” recordings unedited, and it “attempts to check facts with the USG before airing coverage of incidents involving the U.S. military.”

Khanfar, on other occasions, would repeat that Al Jazeera is not “anti-US” and “does not espouse any kind of ‘anti-US editorial policy’.”  As if sensing that Khanfar feared the conversation would shape up to be one where he would be humiliated into assuming the role of a mere U.S. puppet, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Gordon Gray, said to him: “We are not asking Al Jazeera to become a tool of the US Government; what we are asking for is its professionalism.”  DAS Gray asked Khanfar if he would like to see greater cooperation between Al Jazeera and the U.S. Government, “in the area of boosting Al Jazeera’s professionalism“(emphasis added), and he mentioned the U.S. International Visitor program.  Note how Gray characterizes Khanfar’s response: “Khanfar acquiesced immediately” (emphasis added).  Khanfar went as far as saying that his staff hold a very generalized picture of the U.S. and could benefit from more exposure.  Khanfar also pleaded for more U.S. Government officials to appear on Al Jazeera.  Indeed, Khanfar was openly resentful of the U.S. favoritism displayed toward Al Arabiya, its Saudi-owned competitor (and again in 2009 he repeated this invidious complaint).

Professionalism, once more, became the way of framing the manner in which the U.S. government would exert direct influence over Al Jazeera.  That there has been substantial influence is evidenced by the range of documents — but clearly that influence would only be acceptable to senior people at Al Jazeera as long as it was respectfully packaged in terms of professional integrity, rather than outright political subservience.

When it came to coverage of Haiti, on Al Jazeera English, we see a glaring example of the U.S. exercising pressure to fundamentally transform Al Jazeera’s coverage and of the manner in which the latter quickly acquiesced.  In a cable from January 20, 2010, written by the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, Joseph LeBaron, we see his hackles raised at the way Al Jazeera English depicted the U.S. “humanitarian intervention” in Haiti in terms similar to an occupation.  We learn that within hours of Ambassador LeBaron notifying Near Eastern Affairs/Press and Public Diplomacy, the U.S. had one of its officials appear on Al Jazeera English.  Judith McHale, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, also contacted Tony Burman, Director of Al Jazeera English — the U.S. Embassy in Doha first contacted Burman and “ensured that Burman was ready for the call and understood the serious concerns that the Under Secretary would convey.”  The U.S. Embassy continued to monitor Al Jazeera’s coverage, and noted that within three days “AJE’s coverage had evolved markedly.”  Ambassador LeBaron added the final note to this, promising more intervention should Al Jazeera English depart in any way from representing the U.S. in less than laudatory terms:

Ambassador has directed Embassy staff to continue monitoring AJE’s reporting, and to communicate these observations immediately to Washington.  If AJE, or any of Al Jazeera’s channels, revert to inaccurate coverage, Ambassador will not hesitate to intervene at higher levels, starting with the Qatari Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Al Jazeera Network.

Imported Journalism: High Quality Always Comes from Away (Say the Colonized)

Driven to go global, Al Jazeera established an international advisory body, “consisting of respected international journalism figures to assess and advise on Al Jazeera operations,” known as the “Al Jazeera International Board of Visitors.”  This group, which would play a quality assurance role (more below), includes the input of such people as CNN’s Frank Sesno; Richard Burt, senior adviser to the Washington Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), a former U.S. ambassador and a former New York Times correspondent; and a range of other journalists, from France 3 Television, Die Zeit, to the BBC.

Institutions of British and French journalism have worked to train the staff of Al Jazeera, which has also developed a relationship with the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.  Al Jazeera’s training center has no staff of its own, but “imports trainers on an as-needed basis from various British/French/US journalism institutions,” including the UK’s Thomson Foundation and France’s Ecole Superieure de Journalisme de Lille.  Al Jazeera’s training courses are conducted in English.  The training center — which functions as a foreign assimilation agent — aims to spread its influence throughout the Arab world, by training staff from the region’s media outlets.  It reported dozens of courses in a single year, with thousands of participants.  Al Jazeera’s training center also participated in the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), established by Secretary of State Colin Powell during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, and supervised by Liz Cheney, to aid local “agents of change” in the region.

It should be understood that the Al Jazeera training center also sought to teach “political awareness” according to Al Jazeera’s Managing Director — keep in mind where the trainers come from and where the trainees go — and that trainers from the UK’s Thomson School of Journalism would teach local staff about the “philosophical, historical and political aspects of their job” (he might have meant what is now the Reuters Institute in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford).

Al Jazeera English, launched in 2006, involved a fast track to mimicking mainstream corporate journalism by in fact hiring directly from mainstream corporate circles — “big-name media recruits from all parts of the world” were to join Al Jazeera’s colony in Doha (I mean that literally, as the journalists live in gated communities with little prospect of interacting with locals).  One of their American hires, Dave Marash, “excoriated the station for taking on an anti-American bent” and left — although Al Jazeera staff downplayed his stated reasons, noting that he had much more personal grievances and that in any case the charge of anti-Americanism was leveled not at the Qatari and other Arab staff, but rather at the British employees.  Al Jazeera’s local staff, for their part, complained about the British staff for being arrogant and “acting like colonialists.”

In 2006, control of the English website was handed over to Al Jazeera English and its editor-in-chief, Russell Merryman, a British national.  Al Jazeera’s website director, Al Mahmoud, previously responsible for both the English and Arabic versions, was clearly unhappy with this rearrangement.

Even those who are not themselves outsiders to the Middle East and North Africa, such as Jaafar Abbas Ahmed, are BBC-trained, Abbas being one who took up residence in Doha after working for the BBC for over a decade.  We are told that a “significant number” of the earliest Al Jazeera journalists came from the BBC.  Al Jazeera’s quality assurance team (more on this below) will regularly “record BBC and CNN coverage” of an event also covered by Al Jazeera “and compare it critically to AJ’s coverage.”  In addition, Al Jazeera English produced a “code of conduct” for its journalists that is virtually indistinguishable from the BBC’s document.

The Emir of Qatar and Al Jazeera

The Doha cables are interesting for other points, which contextualized how Qatar deploys Al Jazeera and how Qatar constructs its foreign policy.  The Qatari regime is, after all, one of the nations that actively engaged in bombing Libya and has been funding and arming the opposition to Col. Gaddafi.  One of the stated reasons for the foreign military intervention in Libya is that of creating a new democracy, with political freedoms for the opposition.  How ironic it is to be reminded of the absence of these freedoms in Qatar.  As the speakers in one cable explain, “economic and political power are overwhelmingly in the hands of the state. . . .  Qatar does not have a formal opposition.  In fact, political parties are not legal . . . criticizing the government brings the risk of losing benefits and preferences for themselves and their families, such as housing and education.”  Promised democratic reforms are viewed by Qatari critics as merely designed to enhance the international image of the regime.  The Emir can withdraw any amount of money from the Treasury, at will, and not have to answer to anyone: state funds are personal funds.  Even with the reforms, the ruling family remains unanswerable to any national institution.  Individuals can be detained and held without charge for up to six months (or longer, subject to the approval of the Prime Minister), in the “public interest.”  Members of the Al-Murra tribe have been stripped of their Qatari nationality.  And, much as U.S. commentators criticized Qatar for sponsoring a unit like Al Jazeera, which seemingly gave play to jihadist voices, the fact revealed in one cable is that the government of Qatar “sometimes ‘helps’ Israel’s security service.”

One cable makes it clear that Qatari officials “view AJ, both English and Arabic, as important tools of Qatari foreign policy.”  In a meeting with Senator John Kerry on February 13, 2010, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani declared that “we would stop Al Jazeera for a year” if it meant that Egypt would alter its foreign policy on the Palestinians, which clearly shows where the real power ultimately lies in determining Al Jazeera’s content and that the content is open to negotiation between the parties that have power over Al Jazeera.  As for Al Jazeera English, it is made to hew “as closely to Doha’s political line as AJ’s Arabic channel.”

We should also note that the Managing Director, Khanfar, stated that the Emir does not interfere in Al Jazeera’s operations, which might be a very careful choice of words from someone who seems to always choose his words very carefully.  However, as the U.S. Embassy noted, “Al Jazeera has resolutely steered away from . . . reporting on anything politically controversial in Qatar.”  The Chairman of Al Jazeera is himself a member of the royal family that rules Qatar.

Likewise, we must note that the U.S. Embassy told Washington that it was ready to help exploit Al Jazeera’s openness “through direct diplomacy with Qatar’s ruling family and members of Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters.”  Elsewhere, Ambassador LeBaron insisted that,

to help improve the USG’s image on the Arab street, we need to step up USG senior-level engagement of the Qatari leadership.  Better relations with the ruling al-Thani family will translate into changes in al-Jazeera coverage that will gradually help improve the image of the United States in the Arab street.

While admitting that Al Jazeera has been great for Qatar’s, and the Emir’s, international public profile, Khanfar asserted that Al Jazeera did not see itself as part of any reform movement, nor was it the voice of the Arabs.

Responsible + Professional = Imperial

Indeed, Khanfar demonstrated how in practice U.S. inputs and “quality assurance” to ensure “professionalism,” “balance,” and “objectivity” would tilt the news coverage to better favor U.S. interests.  Khanfar told the PAO about Al Jazeera’s daily quality assurance meeting that “meeting is very tight, tighter even than your list.”  (We do not know what list the PAO had with her.)  Khanfar described how Al Jazeera changed its choice of terms, to mollify U.S. concerns: instead of “the resistance,” they would now refer to “military groups”; instead of “the occupation,” they would now blandly speak of the “multinational force” — all of which perfectly echoes the way NATO’s ISAF frames its daily press narrative in Afghanistan.

It is also significant to note that the U.S. Embassy’s PAO would also meet with the head of Al Jazeera’s “quality assurance” team, Jaafar Abbas Ahmed, thereby having a direct input into what was discussed at the quality assurance meetings, even if the participants might not be aware of the PAO’s prior meeting with their director.  Abbas notes resistance from the older generation of journalists in Al Jazeera and praises Wadah Khanfar, who opened Al Jazeera to the U.S. Embassy, as a “source of strength” (presumably in strengthening Abbas’ hand vis-à-vis the recalcitrant holdouts).  Abbas describes his QA unit as a “tumor” that staff have come to live with — he also promised a computerized database of all Al Jazeera staff, keeping them under surveillance for any “biased” remarks.  It is interesting to note Abbas’ chatty friendliness with the PAO, as if speaking to an insider, or a fellow director, as they roll their eyes at the unruly natives.  Similarly, on another occasion, Abbas went as far as calling Al Jazeera’s interview producers “idiots,” when speaking to the Embassy’s PAO.

Khanfar was there to be America’s “Mr. Fix It”: “Where there is a problem — whether we learn about it from you, from our QA team, or from another source — we fix it immediately.”  Khanfar in fact asked that he too should directly receive the DIA’s reports analyzing Al Jazeera’s coverage, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was too slow in passing them on.  The Embassy agreed, noting that Khanfar “clearly takes them seriously.”  The U.S. continued to insist that Al Jazeera not broadcast insurgent videos or “provocative interviews.”  The U.S. Embassy praised Khanfar as someone who is “clearly committed to bringing Al Jazeera up to professional international standards of journalism” and who “seems to be not only open to criticism but to welcome it.”  On numerous occasions Khanfar is clearly responsive to U.S. criticisms of Al Jazeera content, especially on its website.

Questions of Complicity

“[W]e should make strategic use of the Al Jazeera television network.” — Joseph E. LeBaron, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, February 10, 2009

It is important to note — since some will want to raise this issue as solid proof that the U.S. related to Al Jazeera as it would to any of its enemies, i.e. by planning lethal actions — that here too the cables are useful.  Written from insiders, and meant for private consumption by other insiders in the U.S. foreign relations apparatus, former Ambassador Untermeyer utterly dismisses as “absurd” any notion that Bush planned to bomb the Doha headquarters of Al Jazeera.  As he logically points out, it would be absurd because it would in fact be a military attack on a friendly nation, and he calls on his government to issue a stronger denial than it had to date.

When it comes to the substance of U.S. relations with Al Jazeera, the questions that should come to mind are: What does responsible mean?  Responsible for what?  Responsible to whom?  What is balance, and how is the truth balanced when the idea itself implies that something else must be a lie?  Why is balance important, when airing long-suppressed and regularly marginalized voices?  What is objectivity, when one is subject to pressure and made to fear for his/her career?  What is professionalism and why does it always seemingly resolve to a default position of not upsetting the status quo?

When the U.S. government is so clearly bent on dominating the message, on performing routine acts of daily censorship through intimate and secretive pressure behind the scenes, and when notions of professionalism, balance, and objectivity become mere imperial code for subservience to U.S. interests, it is no wonder that WikiLeaks itself should be accused of being . . . guess what?  Irresponsible, unprofessional, and anti-American!  Long live irresponsibility, because journalism certainly is dead.

It should come as no surprise that there will be those who read these cables and yet, wishing to preserve a veneer of legitimacy and credibility for Al Jazeera, stress that it is not a “simple mouthpiece” for the U.S. Government.  A simplemouthpiece it is not — the tilt in Al Jazeera’s coverage is something that evidently needs to be negotiated and reaffirmed daily.  Where American journalists practice self-censorship, consciously or not, there are also broadly cultural and narrowly ideological reasons for doing so, and the solidarity between the press corps and the imperial state may be an “organic” one.  Not being steeped in U.S. politics and culture, Al Jazeera requires a more hands-on form of instruction — hand holding — and, here, any solidarity is more of a “mechanical” one.  The relationship that the U.S. has with Al Jazeera could put OutFoxed! in a somewhat minor light: as much as many revile the power of Murdoch and Fox News, that outfit has yet to impact a population targeted by U.S. foreign policy as much as Al Jazeera, and is certainly not owned by a state, with an air force and troops, and an active combatant in Libya to boot.


1.  Full disclosure: Following an hour-long interview on Al Jazeera Arabic in 2010, I agreed to write a series of paid columns for the Al Jazeera Arabic website.  This article is not written on the basis of any of my very minimal insider knowledge, and I should indicate that at no point did any Al Jazeera staff seek to impose an editorial policy on my writing.  In my interactions with Al Jazeera staff I have never known them to be anything other than extremely professional, patient, and generous.  In March of 2011 I terminated my relationship with Al Jazeera, for political reasons, on the basis of its coverage of Libya and Bahrain, and the political ends to which Al Jazeera was used by the Qatari state and its U.S. ally in the war against Libya.

2.  The complete package of 40 cables on which much of this article was based have been compiled and made available as a PDF download, which can also be embedded online: please click here.

Maximilian C. Forte is an associate professor in anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.  His website is at  Cf. Maximilian Forte, “The War in Libya: Race, ‘Humanitarianism,’ and the Media” (MRZine, 20 April 2011); Maximilian Forte, “Libya — Lather, Rinse, Repeat — Syria: Liberal Imperialism and the Refusal to Learn” (MRZine, 10 August 2011); Maximilian Forte, “The Top Ten Myths in the War against Libya” (CounterPunch, 31 August 2011).

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