Interview: Al-Jazeera’s Chief Takes Aim at CNN

The Last Word: Wadah Khanfar
Al-Jazeera, all the time.

Newsweek International

April 10-17, 2006 issue – Al-Jazeera has its sights set on CNN and the BBC. Founded 10 years ago in Doha, the controversial Arab television network plans to launch a 24/7 English-language channel at the end of May, Al-Jazeera International. Big-name Western journalists like the BBC’s David Frost and former “Nightline” reporter David Marash have already signed on, and news centers are soon to open in Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington. Heading up the ambitious expansion is 38-year-old director-general Wadah Khanfar, appointed in late March to the network’s top spot. Palestinian by birth, Jordanian by education, Khanfar spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Vibhuti Patel in Doha about the station’s reputation and its future. Excerpts:

Why go international now?
Al-Jazeera is a Pan-Arab regional network. In 10 years, it’s become an internationally recognized brand name. Now we’re looking beyond our region to introduce a fresh perspective. Ours will be the only 24-hour news channel in English headquartered in the Middle East.

The new venture has attracted several high-profile Western journalists.
These people have high credentials; they’ve done a beautiful job in the media. Their experience will result in magnificent programming at Al-Jazeera. So far, the limitation of the Arabic language has not allowed people from all over the world to see our network. Now, with the best English-speaking journalists, global understanding of what we’re saying will be enhanced.

Right now, who watches you?
Our statistics show that most Arabs look up to Al-Jazeera as their most reliable source of news. The masses watch us; the rulers and the elite find us an important source of information; they’re concerned about what we cover. Al-Jazeera has changed the political landscape in the Middle East. People now receive the opposition’s discourse directly. Al-Jazeera opened it up for intellectuals, thinkers, critics to speak their mind. It was the first democratic exercise in the region. The Arab world is changing. Reform, democracy and freedom of speech are issues integral to this period of transformation.

But you still offer Osama bin Laden his biggest platform.
Our motto is, opinion and counteropinion. Up to 2001, Western media and governments celebrated Al-Jazeera as the foremost force for freedom in the region, but when we implemented the same motto internationally on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America protested. We report the news, so when there’s a newsworthy item, we put it on the screen, be it Osama, or Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Al Qaeda in Iraq—they are part of a developing news story and we’re a news channel. I can’t censor hard news for political gain. We are not a propaganda tool for anyone. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld complain about us, but we’ve broadcast more than 5,000 hours of Bush’s speeches, live, translated into Arabic; we have not aired more than five hours of bin Laden’s. So, no, we’re not bin Laden’s mouthpiece.

You got kicked out of Iraq after the government accused you of inciting violence. Do you want a bureau back in Iraq?
Without doubt. Iraq is a big story that we’re covering through news-agency reports and our Doha newsroom. Our presence in Iraq would allow us coverage that’s more in touch with the reality of the field. Some accusations were made against us, but now we’ve been banned for a year and a half. Al-Jazeera has not been behind any trouble or political situation. The banning makes no sense: Al-Jazeera was giving the best picture of the reality in Iraq. We urge the government of Iraq to open our bureau and allow our correspondents—most of whom are Iraqis—to return to be in touch with the day-to-day story in the field. We’ve contacted many Iraqi officials, and received many promises that the bureau will open. But so far nothing has materialized. Al-Jazeera does not sympathize with insurgents—we are not for or against anyone.

Reporting in Iraq, though, has been a struggle.
More than 20 of our journalists were detained by U.S. forces in ’03, ’04, some for a few hours, others more than 30 days. Some were tortured physically by U.S. armed forces; some were in Abu Ghraib jail. One colleague was killed in Najaf while he was filming; another was killed the day before Baghdad fell. Then U.S. forces bombed our offices. Now it’s Atwar Bahjat [who was killed by insurgents on Feb. 22] … I had recruited her personally when I was bureau chief in Baghdad.

How do you view Al-Jazeera’s success?
Our founding mission was to free the Arab media from being manipulated by authoritarian regimes in this part of the world; to give audiences choices—the right to knowledge, to be better informed, to decide for themselves without interference from political authorities. Before 1996, no one here took journalists seriously. Everyone knew that it was propaganda, the spin that intelligence agencies and governments wanted published. We introduced free journalism. Now other networks are following our model.

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

Posted in Media

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