Wikileaks and the sudden departure of Al Jazeera’s Wadah Khanfar

On Monday, Omar Chatriwala reported in Foreign Policy on revelations from cables newly released by Wikileaks on pressure applied to Al Jazeera by the Bush administration. On Tuesday, the Qatar government suddenly replaced Wadah Khanfar, the director-general of the al-Jazeera satellite TV network, with Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, an executive at Qatargas and a member of the country’s ruling dynasty.

Al Jazeera has been making waves in the Middle East ever since it aired its first broadcast on Nov. 1, 1996. In its news dispatches and talk shows, the pan-Arab satellite channel, which is funded by the state of Qatar, has been a strident critic of U.S. foreign policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, even while it has been a thorn in the side of many an Arab autocrat. But after the last dump of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, on Aug. 30, articles have begun to circulate — especially in Iranian and Syrian media outlets — about Al Jazeera’s close relationship with a surprising interlocutor: the U.S. government.

In particular, a newly released cable issued by the U.S. Embassy in Doha and signed by then ambassador Chase Untermeyer, details a meeting between an embassy public affairs official and Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director general, in which the latter is said to agree to tone down and remove what the United States terms “disturbing Al Jazeera website content.”

There have been longstanding accusations that Al Jazeera serves as an arm of its host nation’s foreign policy, and earlier leaked documents referred to the news organization as “one of Qatar’s most valuable political and diplomatic tools,” which could be used as “a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries.” Another document urges Sen. John Kerry to engage the Qatari government on Al Jazeera during a visit to the Gulf country, saying, “there are ample precedents for a bilateral dialogue on Al Jazeera as part of improving bilateral relations.”

Despite those assertions by U.S. diplomatic sources, both the network and the Qatari government fiercely insist that it is editorially independent and free from interference.

Skeptics take the latest leak as proof, though, that Al Jazeera is susceptible to external pressures, not least in part due to the document’s summary:

PAO [Public affairs officer] met 10/19 with Al Jazeera Managing Director Wadah Khanfar to discuss the latest DIA [U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency] report on Al Jazeera and disturbing Al Jazeera website content…. Khanfar said the most recent website piece of concern to the USG [U.S. government] has been toned down and that he would have it removed over the subsequent two or three days. End summary.

In what some are seizing upon as evidence of an American-Qatari conspiracy, the cable, dated October 2005, continues with a quote from Khanfar saying, “We need to fix the method of how we receive these reports,” mentioning that he had found one of them “on the fax machine.”

Later, there is a reference in the memo to a sort of understanding that’s been reached between Al Jazeera and the U.S. government:

On a semantic level, [Khanfar] objected to the use of the word “agreement” as used in the August report on the first page, under the heading “Violence in Iraq”, where a sentence reads: “In violation of the station’s agreement several months ago with US officials etc”. “The agreement was that it was a non-paper,” said Khanfar. [A non-paper is diplomatic jargon for a proposal that is unofficial and has not been committed to.] “As a news organization, we cannot sign agreements of this nature, and to have it here like this in writing is of concern to us.”

Leaving it at that, the cable appears to be a smoking gun showing Al Jazeera at the U.S. government’s beck and call. Iran-owned Press TV uses this to conclude that “the US government has previously had a say in what content to appear on the al-Jazeera website.” The website ArabCrunch similarly denounced Al Jazeera for responding to U.S. pressure, and says the cable “might have revealed the reason behind the AJ one sided coverage of Iraq in the recent years.” Read in their full context, though, this and other leaked cables tell a very different story.

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