Mr. Al-Jazeera Goes to Washington

The director of the Arab satellite television network al-Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, is in Washington this week for the first time, part of a brief tour of the U.S. that will also take him to New York.

The visit comes just weeks after a deal between al-Jazeera and U.S. cable distributors made al-Jazeera’s English-language channel accessible to viewers here.

Khanfar says that now, with al-Jazeera English (AJE) available in major cable markets, U.S. citizens will be able to decide for themselves what the network is all about.

Khanfar’s visit signals a significant departure from the President George W. Bush years, which saw the administration frequently and harshly criticizing the Qatari-based network for its coverage of the two ongoing U.S. wars in the Middle East and for broadcasting recordings made by militants.

According to press reports in 2005, Bush expressed interest in bombing al-Jazeeza headquarters in Doha, Qatar’s capital, in an April 2004 meeting with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who reportedly was against the idea. The meeting was at the time of an intense assault by U.S. Marines on the Iraqi insurgent stronghold Fallujah.

The administration refused to officially comment on the allegation, but officials – like one of the two sources in the initial report — told media the comment was a joke.

A U.S. missile hit al-Jazeera’s Baghdad offices during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, resulting in the death of al-Jazeera correspondent Tariq Ayyoub. The U.S. State Department vigorously denied that the attack was intentional, although then-al-Jazeera chief editor, Ibrahim Hilal, believed the attack was not an accident.

In 2001, U.S. bombs hit al-Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan. The U.S. said it was a targeting mistake.

However, on his current visit, Khanfar says he plans on meeting with officials from the Barack Obama administration at both the White House and state Department. Such meetings would have been unthinkable under Bush, when administration officials widely condemned al-Jazeera and its allegedly biased reporting for causing the U.S. headaches in Iraq.

In a talk at the New America Foundation (NAF) on Monday, Khanfar expressed hope that the Obama administration may afford the opportunity for a period of reconciliation between the U.S., al-Jazeera, and the Arab world as a whole.

"Before Obama, it was an ‘us or them’ mentality," said Khanfar of previous administration’s relationships with al-Jazeera and Arab world as a whole. Khanfar cited Obama’s speech in Cairo as evidence that, "at least now Arabs are presented with a dialogue."

Khanfar went on to talk about why he believes al-Jazeera came to be vilified by the U.S., as well as what he sees as the failures of the U.S. media.

"From 1996 until 2001, al-Jazeera was celebrated" by the U.S., said Khanfar. "In 2001 this changed. Al-Jazeera kept doing the same thing, but we started to become criticized particularly by [former Bush Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld."

Accused of inciting violence and supporting terror by the Bush administration, Khanfar insists that al-Jazeera was merely reporting on what was transpiring on the ground.

"The victims of these wars are our audience," he said.

Khanfar also dismissed allegations that al-Jazeera ever acted as a "spokesman for al Qaeda" by covering tapes released by al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Aiman al Zawahiri.

"We cover them because they are news," he explained.

Khanfar also had harsh criticism for the U.S. media’s handling of conflict in the Middle East.

"In the last eight years media failed people. A lot of the media followed official lines," he said. "They were overcome by patriotic feelings."

Khanfar went on to say that giving a voice to the antagonists, something critics deride as evidence of al-Jazeera bias is actually a sign of objectivity.

"Our slogan is ‘the opinion, and the other opinion’," Khanfar said.

Khanfar believes the U.S. media failed in reporting on the region in part because of their lack of a nuanced understanding of the history of the Arab world. He accused a number of Western journalists of "reading a Wikipedia article" and then showing up on television screens as "experts" reporting from Baghdad.

Khanfar holds that media can "play a role in bridging the divide" between the U.S. and the Arab world — a divide that Khanfar believes might not be as wide as many would imagine.

"Arabs are not anti-American… Al-Jazeera is not anti-American," said Khanfar. "Al-Jazeera was started in a Western model. We embraced freedom of expression and these are American values."

Khanfar believes that al-Jazeera, which receives heavy subsidies from the government of Qatar, succeeded "because people did not see it as a spokesman for the Qatari government."

Not everyone in the audience at NAF agreed with Khanfar’s assessment that al-Jazeera was uninfluenced by its relationship with the Qatari government.

Tamman al-Barazi, an Arab journalist who writes for the Paris based weekly al-Watan al-Arabi, rejected the notion that al-Jazeera offered unbiased reporting.

"Al-Jazeera has a bias towards Syria and Hezbollah… this is because of the politics of Qatar," al-Barazi alleged.

Khanfar disagreed with al-Barazi’s assessment, citing a lengthy interview with the leader of the outlawed Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, that recently aired on al-Jazeera as evidence that the channel doesn’t harbor pro-Syrian bias. Al-Barazi dismissed the argument, saying that the interview was only conducted because of a recent rapprochement between the Syrian government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another Arab journalist in the audience accused al-Jazeera of treating the Saudi government "like a six-year-old ballerina" as a result of the recent Saudi-Qatari rapprochement.

However, al-Jazeera has indeed angered Arab governments — in addition to the U.S. — due to their investigative reporting.

Recently al-Jazeera had their office in the West Bank closed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) after airing an interview with Fatah member Farouk al-Qaddoumi in which Qaddoumi accused current PA president Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan of conspiring to murder the late Fatah and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat.

Late last week while covering the continuing conflict between the government of Yemen and secessionists in the south of Yemen, Khanfar said that al-Jazeera reporters were under pressure from both the government and the secessionists.

"Some of our people were beaten up by a group of protestors in the south and later threatened by the government," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jared Levy

Jared Levy writes for Inter Press Service.