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Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

Wadah Khanfar: What made Mr Al Jazeera jump?

Profile: The satellite news station grew in size and reputation under the leadership of Wadah Khanfar, who started working with the network as a correspondent in 1997 and resigned as its director general on Tuesday. Reasons for his exit remain unclear.

The satellite news station grew in size and reputation under the leadership of Wadah Khanfar, who started working with the network as a correspondent in 1997 and resigned as its director general on Tuesday. Reasons for his exit remain unclear, writes Ben Flanagan

Wadah Khanfar faced a barrage of challenges during his tenure as director general of Qatar's Al Jazeera Network.

There was the US missile strike on the network's office in Baghdad in October 2003, which claimed the life of cameraman Tariq Ayoub.

There have been numerous, and often contradictory, political attacks: after September 11, 2001, the network's Arabic-language channel was called a "mouthpiece" for Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, because of its perceived anti-American bias.

Yet under Mr Khanfar's control, Al Jazeera Arabic has also been accused of being a front for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, the CIA and Saddam Hussein. Some critics have said it is some kind of Zionist conspiracy to dismantle the Arab world.

Mr Khanfar has faced controversies far and wide: the New York Stock Exchange barred Al Jazeera reporters from the trading floor in 2003; countries including Bahrain and Iraq have expelled its reporters. There have even been attacks in cyberspace - hackers once redirected visitors to Al Jazeera English's website to a page showing American patriotic messages.

For years, it was open season on Al Jazeera, although many of the political attacks lacked credibility or were downright nonsensical.

But despite announcing on Tuesday that he is leaving the Qatari-owned television service, Mr Khanfar finds himself back in the trenches, this time fighting for his own reputation over an allegation that seems more substantial.

Mr Khanfar, who was born in the West Bank town of Jenin, joined Al Jazeera in 1997 as South Africa correspondent. He worked his way up to director general, and even his fiercest rivals spoke highly of his meteoric rise at the network.

Al Jazeera was formed in 1996 by the emir of Qatar. Since then it has grown from a single Arabic-language news channel to a media network with multiple brands - propelling Mr Khanfar into the international media spotlight. In 2009, Forbes magazine ranked him number 54 on its list of "the world's most powerful people".

The network's growth has been facilitated by hefty injections of cash from the Qatari government, reportedly amounting to more than US$400 million (Dh1.46 billion) a year.

The English-language news channel, which is editorially separate from its Arabic counterpart, began broadcasting in 2006. Al Jazeera's two main news stations now have more than 60 bureaus between them, including key studios in Doha, London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur.

Al Jazeera also launched a children's channel in 2005, and a documentary channel in 2007. In a bold move, Al Jazeera Sports in 2009 paid a reported $1bn for the sports rights held by Arab Radio and Television, including rights to the Fifa World Cup tournaments last year and in 2014.

In a 2007 interview with the US television programme Frontline, Mr Khanfar provided a colourful illustration as to the fledgling nature of Al Jazeera's early operations. According to Mr Khanfar, the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, on a visit to Al Jazeera's Doha headquarters in the early days, described the newsroom as "a matchbox".

But that matchbox proved sturdier than Mr Mubarak's rule. The network has even been credited with helping to ignite the anger of Egyptian youths in toppling Mr Mubarak from the presidency. Its coverage of the uprisings this year in the Middle East and North Africa won international plaudits and, for the first time since September 11, public acceptance from the upper echelons of the US political establishment.

Disclosures by the anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks were said to be another catalyst behind what came to be known as the Arab Spring. And one of several ironies surrounding Mr Khanfar's resignation is that WikiLeaks revelations have also been blamed for his departure.

When Mr Khanfar announced via Twitter on Tuesday that he was leaving Al Jazeera after eight years as its senior executive, a wave of speculation as to the reason for his departure swiftly followed. His successor is Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad Al Thani, a businessman and member of Qatar's royal family with little or no journalistic experience.

One theory is that Mr Khanfar was forced out after WikiLeaks published a document stating that the executive had been influenced by Washington to alter the network's coverage of the Iraq war in at least one instance.

Mr Khanfar strongly denied this in an interview with Al Jazeera English on Wednesday in which his trademark confidence and eloquence seemed undiminished.

"My name in WikiLeaks was mentioned more than 400 times," he said. "We have never had any relationship with any government in the world, or with any agency in the universe, that could dictate [to] us what to do and what not to do."

Yet the possibility remains that the WikiLeaks revelations were the real reason behind Mr Khanfar's resignation. "It would be ironic if it turned out that WikiLeaks was the reason for his departure," says Matt Duffy, an assistant professor of journalism at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. "It's come full circle."

Another irony of the WikiLeaks case is that - of all the accusations levelled against Al Jazeera, including its so-called anti-American slant -is the implication of a cosy relationship with the US government that is rumoured to have toppled Mr Khanfar. Qatar is, of course, a US ally.

"Did Al Jazeera become too mainstream? I doubt it, because if anything, the Qataris would be happy for them to tone down their perceived anti-US bias," says Prof Duffy.

The public nature of the WikiLeaks exposure may have been more of a problem than the actual allegations within them, another analyst suggests. "Everyone knew these things were happening. WikiLeaks has gone out and proved it," says the media commentator Ali Jaber, speaking in his capacity as dean of the Mohammed Bin Rashid School for Communication at the American University of Dubai.

"Wikileaks is all about the negation of this plausible deniability," adds Mr Jaber. "It would really put the shareholders of Al Jazeera into an embarrassing position."

Some argue that Mr Khanfar is leaving on a high note, at the peak of Al Jazeera's success. Under his watch, Al Jazeera expanded its reach to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Its Arabic-language channel is available in about half of all Arab homes, and Al Jazeera English is beamed to more than 200 million households.

But until recently, Al Jazeera had failed to crack one potentially lucrative market: the US. Despite launching in Canada and a few US states, the channel has found it virtually impossible to win space on US cable and satellite networks.

Tony Burman, the former managing director of Al Jazeera English, told the Associated Press last year that the channel had faced "very aggressive hostility" from the Bush administration. Yet Al Jazeera's coverage of the Arab Spring, under Mr Khanfar's leadership, led to the network's acceptance in the unlikeliest of corners.

This year, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, lauded the channel, saying that "viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news".

In another sign that Al Jazeera had come in from the cold, the US senator John McCain praised the network's role in the Arab Spring uprisings, saying he was "very proud of the role that Al Jazeera has played".

It can be no coincidence that, shortly after these proclamations, Al Jazeera - once a pariah of the global media industry in the eyes of the US government - managed to broker a distribution deal in New York.

After years campaigning for wider distribution in the US, Al Jazeera English recently became available to 2 million homes across the New York City region, the centre of the US media industry. Al Jazeera executives said the company was engaged in talks with numerous cable and satellite broadcasters over distribution in other parts of the US.

Recognition by Mrs Clinton marked the culmination of Mr Khanfar's achievements, said Prof Duffy.

"It was the day that his work there really paid off," he said. "He got Al Jazeera over the hump of the perception that they were totally biased."

Yet other commentators believe that Al Jazeera failed to be impartial in its coverage of the Arab uprisings, with some commentators saying that it encouraged, rather the merely covered, the events.

"Khanfar has led Al Jazeera into many successes - its coverage of Iraq and the war in Lebanon, and the controversial coverage of the Arab Spring," said Mr Jaber. "I think the objectivity of the reporting has been compromised during the Arab Spring."

And so, as ever, opinions remain divided over Mr Khanfar's record at Al Jazeera. Perhaps he revels in the uncertainty. Writing on his Twitter feed shortly after announcing he had stepped down, Mr Khanfar mischievously punctuated speculation over his departure with a smiling emoticon. "Entertained by all the rumours of why I have resigned," he wrote. "#whatdoyouthink? :-)".

bflanagan@thenational.ae

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