The Western and Arabic press is full of stories about Al Jazeera and the new direction it will inevitably follow with the selection of a new director-general for its operating networks. The ouster (the official statement did not mention resignation) of Waddah Khanfar has opened doors for speculation. No one really knows what goes on behind the scene and it is no secret that the Emir of Qatar really runs the networks and is fully aware of its powers, as far as Qatar is concerned. More than gas, Al Jazeera put Qatar on the regional and global map. The Emir is fully engaged with the network’s affairs and must be the person who decided to replace Khanfar. I was a year or so ago in the presence of the Emir and Khanfar and could see the extent to which the Emir keeps close tabs on the network. He follows its affairs closely and offers directions and instructions. And I also remember that when I brought up the issue of the resignation of the four female anchors (last year) and the accusations of sexual harassment (an issue that I had discussed with Khanfar before), the Emir was rather critical of the way the anchors affair was handled. I mentioned the need for more females in management and in various bureaus, and the Emir simply looked at Khanfar and said: His Islamist friends are opposed to your recipe of women’s empowerment.
Khanfar was a very able correspondent for the network before he took over as director: he has excellent command of Arabic and prepared very well for his live report. He is unflappable when questioned in the field by the anchor in Doha and can speak in full paragraphs without notes. But his reporting from Iraq was less critical than the reports of Ahmad Mansur, who — everyone believes — was taken out of the Iraq assignment simply because the US insisted on it. And the notion that Khanfar resigned because of contacts with various US officials regarding coverage of the network is just ridiculous: Khanfar is not an independent operator, and most likely he was talking to US officials to appease them at the behest of the Qatari government which is very sensitive to US criticism — and this sensitivity has only increased since Qatar repaired its relations with Saudi Arabia.
Not much will change after the ouster of Khanfar: the same government will be running the network and the early pretense of objectivity and of two sides to every issue is long gone. Starting this year, the network has not even taken itself seriously. In the case of Egypt, Libya, and Syria, the network for all intents and purposes stopped functioning as a news gathering organization and started acting like a propaganda vehicle for the Qatari royal family. Phone lines are opened and witnesses hiding under false names fill the airwaves with accounts that are sometimes real and other times are just fictitious. Delivery of news has become unimportant and only last week did Aljazeera resume its famous news talk shows. They have been suspended for months because Al Jazeera was not keen on hosting points of views different from the royal Qatari one. But the instructions seem to be that only Syria is allowed to be discussed.
It is too early to speculate on the future of Al Jazeera, but one thing is clear. The network thrived and grew when its conflict with Saudi Arabia gave it a wide margin of freedom, and when it was able to articulate the grievances of most, if not all, Arabs. The Saudi-Qatari alliance has severely limited the parameters of acceptable debate on the network and has made it yet another propaganda outlet for another Arab potentate. Furthermore, the network is increasingly keen on pushing the Islamist line of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. This may not necessarily kill the network but it will substantially change its audience and reputation.
As’ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. This article was first published in the “Angry Corner” of Al-Akhbar English on 22 September 2011 under a Creative Commons license. Cf. “90% of libyan commentators were MB on AJA” (@libyanproud, 20 September 2011); “Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a Qatargas executive is the new director-general of #Aljazeera, to manage the excess gas produced by that channel” (Sate, 20 September 2011); Maximilian C. Forte, “Al Jazeera and U.S. Foreign Policy: What WikiLeaks’ U.S. Embassy Cables Reveal about U.S. Pressure and Propaganda” (MRZine, 22 September 2011).