Al-Jazeera chief replaced by member of Qatari royal family

Wed, Sep 21, 2011, 01:00

WADAH KHANFAR, seated behind a vast desk and surrounded by TV screens, deep leather sofas and a wall of global media awards, always cut an impressive figure in his director-general’s office at al-Jazeera headquarters in the Qatari capital, Doha.

But his career at the top of the most important news organisation in the Arab world ended yesterday when he was replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family. It was an abrupt and dramatic move at a time of unprecedented turmoil across the Middle East.

Khanfar, credited with revolutionising the Arab media landscape, said he was resigning after eight years that consolidated the satellite network’s reputation and his own highly influential position.

The new boss is Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, a little-known executive at Qatargas and a member of the fabulously wealthy Gulf state’s ruling dynasty – pointing to a clear attempt to exercise greater control.

It is thought that Khanfar had become too independent a figure for the Qataris, and that he had come under pressure from them. Recently al-Jazeera has been accused of pulling its punches over the uprising in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia dominates regional policy. Al-Jazeera’s Lebanon chief, Ghassan Bin Jiddo, resigned in April, apparently in disagreement over coverage of some of the revolts.

But Khanfar denied speculation that his departure was linked to outside pressure from the Qatar royal family, the US or anyone else. “I have spent eight years with the network. We have been talking in this part of the world about change, about presidents who stay for decades in their posts. I thought maybe it is good to give an example as well, while the network is at the peak of its performance. It’s the right moment,” he said.

The Palestinian-born journalist said his resignation had “nothing to do with any of the speculation” on Twitter and said he agreed “a couple of months ago” with al-Jazeera’s board to step down.

Describing the channel’s coverage this year as “amazing”, he added: “We have stood with the people and supported their freedom. I maintained the independence of the network . . . I think this will continue.”

“It’s seismic,” said one journalist on the AJ English channel. “We are all in shock. This was a guy who had had a meteoric rise and he was at the very top of his game.” Arab sources close to the Qatari government said the move had been planned six months ago.

Al-Jazeera, owned by the emir, broke the mould of Arabic media organisations that were bankrolled by, and subservient to, governments or censors when it was set up in 1996. Often technically brilliant and highly partisan, it has excelled during the Arab uprisings with the slogan – cleverly echoing the battle cry of past revolutionary struggles – “the coverage continues”.

Khanfar is a high-profile figure on the international conference circuit. Critics say his sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood shows in often favourable coverage of Islamist movements.

But he rejected that criticism. Islamist groups played an important part in the uprisings and therefore featured, he said.

Not surprisingly, he has many enemies. The PLO was furious about the leak to al-Jazeera of documents exposing embarrassing details of its secret negotiations with Israel. Reactions to news of his departure included the acid comment by one pro-regime Syrian that he had been “exposed as a CIA asset”, referring to WikiLeaks documents that show him meeting US diplomats in Doha. Khanfar shrugged off these revelations, saying he met leaders, ministers and representatives of many countries.

His resignation letter was clearly written with a view to fixing his legacy as the man who made al-Jazeera: “Authoritarian regimes were terrified at the birth of this new institution and they quickly went on the offensive,” he wrote.

Asked what he was going to do now, he said: “I’m going to continue in the same spirit of al-Jazeera. I’m going to very soon announce something related to it, related to the media and the ethics and standards of the profession.” – ( Guardianservice)