Al Jazeera reaches hundreds of millions of homes around the world, in spite of facing fierce opposition by the governments of the Middle East and the United States. Wadah Khanfar, Director General of Al Jazeera, explains how the organization continues to expand, and how their mission continues to evolve.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the Middle East, a region roiling with economic disparity, repressive government, religious intolerance, western meddling and western neglect, a revolutionary force has arisen that no one could anticipate - a truly independent news outlet of nearly unbounded influence. Al-Jazeera, launched by the Emir of Qatar in 1996 and built by journalists trained at the BBC, now comprises a series of satellite channels reaching hundreds of millions of homes around the world. Al-Jazeera’s bureaus have been tossed out of nearly every country of the Middle East by angry governments. The Bush White House often attacked Al-Jazeera’s war coverage, and U.S. missiles struck its bureaus more than once in what the Pentagon called “accidents.” As the years pass, Al-Jazeera’s reach and influence, and coverage, from Sudan to Haiti to Iowa, expands. But though the Al-Jazeera English Channel is available in Washington, DC, so far it lacks an American distributor. Wadah Khanfar is director general of Al-Jazeera. Welcome to the show.
WADAH KHANFAR: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you see a big difference in how you cover stories in the region, versus how Western journalists cover them?
WADAH KHANFAR: Yes, I do. Because we are living in the region, we do understand the accumulative history, memory and culture of that region, so definitely Al-Jazeera has introduced a different way of reporting the Middle East.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a cultural and historical frame that Al-Jazeera can apply to reporting the events in the region that western reporters, reporters from elsewhere, can't use.
WADAH KHANFAR: A lot of reporters, when they come to the region, they just start from the last few minutes’ news, as if the story has just been developing, without understanding that the story in the Middle East, in particular the Middle East, has great historical and cultural and religious connection.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've distinguished between Al-Jazeera and foreign reporters. Can you distinguish between Al-Jazeera and the state of the Arab media in general?
WADAH KHANFAR: No doubt. I mean, Al-Jazeera in 1996, when we started, we initiated this culture of independent journalism. So this is why most of the Arab governments did stand against Al-Jazeera. Most of our reporters were jailed. Some of our bureaus were closed down. And until today, we face a lot of difficulty. But, of course, now Al-Jazeera has become a reality, therefore, governments have to deal with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s far more than a reality. According to The Columbia Journalism Review – and I have a couple of questions based on that article – Al-Jazeera is so influential, it has the power to kill the Middle East peace process.
WADAH KHANFAR: [LAUGHS] Maybe what the article said about our influence is correct, but the peace process itself is going through huge difficulty. [LAUGHS] The process itself is not working, so this is why when we reflect on reality, we are not actually making it. We are trying to report independently on evidence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me talk about a couple of the cases that CJR cited and you can tell me what you think about them. One of them has to do with Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Goldstone Report. That was the UN investigation of war crimes during the 2009 Gaza War. Israel was found to be guilty of a range of violations. The White House pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to defer discussion to the UN. The White House was trying to reopen peace talks, and they thought that this would be a negotiation killer. Al-Jazeera’s primetime talk shows and newscasts practically every day focused on Abbas’ capitulation. CJR credits Al-Jazeera’s immense influence in creating a - such a dust-up within Fatah, Abbas’ party, that he had to reverse his position; there were calls for his resignation, and so on. Are you saying that that impact wasn't intentional?
WADAH KHANFAR: We are not, definitely, like channels whereby we mix comment and opinion with the news. I have been watching the debate about the health care in this country, and I can tell you frankly that a lot of channels, when they are debating this issue, it’s very clear for me, who’s coming from outside this country, that they are taking sides. It is not the case in Al-Jazeera.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did anybody take the side for Abbas’ position?
WADAH KHANFAR: Of course. I mean, Abbas’ position was presented on the screen from the first moment. The first guy who came out publicly to speak about Goldstone Report was from Abbas’ team, it was not from the opposition. The issue of Goldstone, it was a huge story. It was too big to be ignored.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you disagree with The Columbia Journalism Review that you turned the tide against Abbas’ decision by a preponderance of coverage that was intensely critical every single day, twice a day.
WADAH KHANFAR: We have to challenge centers of power. When they are trying to hide facts, facts, people should learn that governments from now on cannot brush away stories and cannot hide the truth, and they cannot just come out publicly in front of the screen, say things and deceive people, without giving proper evidence and without being accountable for what they are doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can I give you one more example?
WADAH KHANFAR: Please.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In July of last year, a prominent Fatah member, Faruq al-Qaddumi, made a surprise announcement at a press conference in Amman, Jordan that Abbas and an accomplice had conspired to kill Yasser Arafat. Many Palestinian analysts quickly concluded that his documents were bogus, but Al-Jazeera’s coverage kept the conspiracy alive, doing more damage to Abbas. Do you think that Al-Jazeera was fair?
WADAH KHANFAR: We did not, in Al-Jazeera, campaign for Faruq al-Qaddumi. We did not say Faruq al-Qaddumi’s magnificent and correct. Actually, we grilled him. When we interviewed Faruq al-Qaddumi that night, he had tough time on Al-Jazeera because our anchor was challenging him about his evidence. But he is the second in command in Fatah, accusing his boss of conspiring against Yasser Arafat, who’s the previous boss. This is a huge story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When somebody in power says something that is extremely unlikely or untrue, how much attention do you give it day after day? Do you report it once, do you report it twice? Do you keep reporting it, even when you know that it’s bogus?
WADAH KHANFAR: We never said that Faruq al-Qaddumi’s right or wrong. We invited Fatah to come on. We invited Mahmoud Abbas and his team, in order to give explanation, and they came, and they dismissed the document. They were given much more than equal time. Some people wanted us to - not to talk about it. I don't think it is fair. This is the first time we have high-profile politician within the institution, the Palestinian institution, coming publicly and talking about it. That was the issue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you have internal arguments? Do you have different factions within Al-Jazeera that argue one case or another, and how do you adjudicate those?
WADAH KHANFAR: Yes, we do have argument. We do have differences. We sit down for hours and hours. Actually, I told the guys our newsroom looks like a think tank, rather than just [LAUGHS] another newsroom. It is not quiet like other newsrooms which I visit. You know, sometimes I go around, I find magnificent, neatly arranged newsrooms where people are busy, just everyone doing his – No, our newsroom is actually a celebration of democracy, a celebration of diversity. People are arguing, debating, discussing. They believe in what they do, and they are willing to sacrifice. They have escaped from the tyranny of government-sponsored broadcasters. And they have escaped from the tyranny of intelligence agencies and governments who wanted them to say whatever they want, these governments, to, to be said. They came to us because they feel there is freedom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When do you think Al-Jazeera is most challenged when it comes to fairness? In a region where you are so influential, I would think that you have to be constantly examining yourself.
WADAH KHANFAR: Yes, the region that we are in is very complicated. We have eight hot spots - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Palestine. You know, all these kind of issues are complicated. Not only that, we have Sunnis, Shias, Arabs, Kurds, and so on and so forth. So we cannot afford to take side. We can afford only, when it comes to the issues related to the region, to examine and reexamine ourselves. This is why we have daily reports about our fairness presented to our editorial board. This is why we are the only TV station that I know of that opens air for audience to phone in and to criticize and to correct our coverage. Our credibility is our capital. If we lose it, we are out of business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can't afford to play sides within the region. What about sides outside the region? We know that it’s a region that feels very beset by western powers coming in and mucking about, and you have that cultural frame. Do you think that that cultural, regional frame enables you to report fairly on the actions and the motives of the world outside?
WADAH KHANFAR: Oh, definitely, definitely. Of course, there is nothing called absolute objectivity when it comes to issues related to the human being. However, at least we try to be aware of our biases. Let us take America, the biggest player in the region. We were victims of the American pressure on us. Al-Jazeera Bureau in Kabul was attacked by American jet fighters. Al-Jazeera Bureau in Baghdad was attacked. Correspondents were killed, arrested, tortured. A cameraman spent six-and-a-half years in Guantanamo, you know. So we have been under pressure, but we have never, ever used the screen to settle our dispute with the American Administration when it comes to the issue related to the region. Whenever there is an opinion related to the Americans, an American spokesperson from the military or a politician comes on the screen and defends and speaks and responds. Unfortunately, we have been accused. The channel that broadcast Osama bin Laden tapes, the channel that broadcast beheadings, the channel that broadcast enmity against the Americans - all these kind of accusations were false.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Al-Jazeera never broadcast bin Laden tapes or beheadings?
WADAH KHANFAR: We did broadcast bin Laden tapes, based on very clear code of conduct, very clear professional standards, like many other international networks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WADAH KHANFAR: We have portions of these tapes, followed by contextual analysis and opinions from all over, especially American opinions. The second issue, which is important, the issue of beheading, we have never, ever shown one frame of beheading. Factually, they are wrong, and we corrected them, and I wrote to them but none of them wanted to stop criticizing Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera was a scapegoat for a lot of failures and a lot of mistakes in the region.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s Al-Jazeera’s relationship with the Obama Administration?
WADAH KHANFAR: Developing - in a positive direction. We have much better dialog at this point in time. This is my second visit to the States. I have been to the White House, I have been to the State Department, and we have hosted on our screen Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden. And I think they are more aware at this moment in time of the role that Al-Jazeera is playing in defending democracy, expanding the issue of human rights and introducing a different paradigm of thinking to the region. So definitely it is much better than before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Al-Jazeera has a couple of dozen [LAUGHS] channels, and one of them is Al-Jazeera English, which broadcasts all around the world and is available in Washington, DC. However, it’s had trouble finding a national distributor. Can you tell me why the world needs Al-Jazeera English?
WADAH KHANFAR: Al-Jazeera English has a philosophy of reporting the voice for the voiceless. Al-Jazeera has the most diverse newsroom in the world; we have 50 nationalities from all backgrounds, religions and races. We are trying to create a great model, whereby the Asians are reporting about Asia, through a broadcasting center in Kuala Lumpur. Europe, we have broadcasting center in London. In Washington, we have a broadcasting center with at least 200 people working in it. So we are a TV station that is truly global, and at the same time trying to enable journalists, regardless of their origin and culture and religion and backgrounds, to practice journalism, based on the principles that the forefathers of this profession created decades ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that principle is “voice for the voiceless.”
WADAH KHANFAR: Don't you feel that sometimes our media is trying to concentrate on stars, superstars and ignoring the margin, ignoring the human being? The amount of commitment that our audience has towards Al-Jazeera, they embrace us, not because we are politically correct from the point of view of governments, which most of them are authoritarian, no. We are full of pride and determination because the public out there think of Al-Jazeera as their own. They own it. So, therefore, yes, we will continue. But definitely we will face trouble. So what? Let us face troubles. We are journalists. If we choose this profession, we should choose it for a mission, to be committed to the audience, to truth, and to allow space for transformation to be correct and right. How could the Arab world build future if 65 percent who are under 30, you know, 65 percent are, are ruled by authoritarian regimes - no democracy, aging regimes, corruption and so on, and so forth. The only voice that has the strength to challenge this status quo and say there is something wrong, please let us fix it, is Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera is on the foremost power of creating democracy and freedom of expression in, in the Arab world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wadah, thank you very much.
WADAH KHANFAR: You are most welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wadah Khanfar is director general of the Al-Jazeera Network.