x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Royal family member put in charge at Al Jazeera

Wadah Khanfar, the Palestinian-born journalist who had been at the helm of Al Jazeera for eight years, is to be replaced by a member of Qatar's royal family, Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad Al Thani.

DOHA // The appointment of a member of Qatar's royal family as the head of Al Jazeera will bring the influential satellite network's coverage more in line with government policy, analysts said yesterday.

Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad Al Thani, an executive at Qatargas, was set to replace Wadah Khanfar, the Palestinian-born journalist who had been at the helm of the broadcaster for eight years.

Speculation has grown that Khanfar resigned as director general because a document published by the anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks said he was influenced by Washington to alter the network's coverage of the Iraq war.

Khanfar, who announced his resignation on Tuesday, yesterday denied he had ever bowed to editorial pressure from the United States or any other government. There have been numerous - and often contradictory - political attacks against Al Jazeera since its founding in 1996. The network's Arabic channel has been called a "mouthpiece for bin Laden" because of its perceived anti-American bias; it has also been accused of being a front for Mossad, the CIA and Saddam Hussein.

Sheikh Ahmad's appointment was likely to lead to a "repositioning" of Al Jazeera's coverage, said 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.

"This is a political decision rather than a professional one," Mr Jaber said. "It should indicate a displeasure of the shareholders of Al Jazeera about the political performance of the station lately.

"It will reflect in a clearer way the direct interest of the state of Qatar and the royal family," he said. "It can only change towards a less troublemaking editorial."

The Qatar government is known to fund Al Jazeera's operations but has always been distanced from any overt influence over the network's editorial line.

The appointment of Sheikh Ahmad changes all that, said Mr Jaber. "This is the first time that there is a visible connection between Al Jazeera and the Al Thanis," he said. "They can no longer say that they have nothing to do with the coverage."

Matt Duffy, an assistant professor of journalism at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, said it was likely that the change of management would mean the Qatari royal family have "even more say" in the operation of Al Jazeera.

"It sends a message that there will be a surer line of communication between the Emir and the management of the station," he said.

However, Mr Duffy said it would be a mistake to assume that Khanfar had not fallen under the influence of the Al Thani family.

In a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks on August 30, Khanfar was accused of removing images from the network's website that depicted Iraqi children and a woman wounded in a hospital.

When an American official raised the complaint, Khanfar reportedly sighed and said he would have the piece removed.

"Not immediately," he said, according to WikiLeaks, "because that would be talked about, but over two or three days".

Khanfar, now in his early 40s, yesterday said he was repeatedly asked to tone down coverage and not broadcast Osama bin Laden tapes or videos showing American army forces in Iraq many times over the years. But he denied he had ever caved in to pressure from the US government.

"We have never had a relationship with any government in the world or with any agency in the universe that could dictate on us what to do," he said in an interview with Al Jazeera."

"I would like to say that my resignation has to do with the fact that I have completed my eight years at the management of Al Jazeera and I think that is enough for any leader or manager to give his best and his energy to give his vision," he said.

Employees at Al Jazeera yesterday said they believed Khanfar's plea that he was leaving simply to "move on".

"It would be surprising to me that he would leave because of that," said one employee, referring to the WikiLeaks cable. "No one knew what was coming when he resigned. He was a very charismatic leader and it will be very hard to replace him."

Another long-term employee said the change of management would not have any effect on Al Jazeera's editorial policy and the "boldness of its news coverage".

"Al Jazeera is in need of new management with new vision and dynamism to enable it to face the challenges and reflect the media that young generations in the Arab world and elsewhere are aspiring to," he said. "I guess the new boss, Sheikh Ahmad, fits the profile."

Both employees requested to remain anonymous.

The Doha-based managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, Blake Hounshell, said on Twitter yesterday that he was "increasingly convinced that @khanfar's departure has nothing to do with WikiLeaks".

The more interesting debate, argued by many, was why the network has selected a member of Qatar's ruling family, with no experience in journalism, to take the leadership.

The move has been seen by some as an attempt to appease native Qataris who were in the minority amid a growing expatriate population.

"A Qatari at the helm will help Al Jazeera provide balanced coverage," said Khaled Al Sayed, the Qatari editor of The Peninsula, an English language newspaper based in Doha.

Khanfar has reportedly been in talks to leave the network for the past six months.

"I heard a lot of people were crying, the Arabic staff," said Omar Chatriwala, a freelance journalist and former Al Jazeera employee. "The English channel's staff were also very sad. This has reignited the question whether this is the end of the Al Jazeera decade."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* Ben Flanagan reported from Abu Dhabi