FRONTLINE/WORLD . News War . Interview With Wadah Khanfar, Director General, Al Jazeera | PBS
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Interview With Wadah Khanfar, Director General, Al Jazeera

The 39-year-old Khanfar, who is Palestinian by birth and educated in Jordan, took the helm of the much talked about satellite news channel in March 2006. In this interview with FRONTLINE/World reporter Greg Barker, Khanfar talks about the early vision for Al Jazeera and answers criticism that the network sets out to inflame more than inform its audiences. He also discusses the need to stay fair and balanced in a region in constant conflict and transition,and how Al Jazeera now in its 11th year,intends to stay ahead of increasing competition.

Greg Barker: As the director general of Al Jazeera, how many networks do you have, how many channels?

Wadah Khanfar: We have Al Jazeera Arabic news, Al Jazeera English news, of course; we have three sports channels, and we have Al Jazeera Mubasher, which is a live channel that broadcasts live press conferences and symposiums and meetings. And, of course, we have Al Jazeera commentary in Arabic.

How is business?

It's good. I think that, for 14 years so far, we have done a great job, in the news in particular. And news is the backbone of our network; the main commodity and the main successes of Al Jazeera came out of our involvement in covering the news in the Middle East.

What is the vision behind Al Jazeera?

The vision mainly was to introduce to the Arab world free reporting that is distant from propaganda, and at the same time to give the Arab world the opportunity to express opinions. This is why our motive is to give all the opinions.

Ten years ago, Arabia was controlled by governments, and therefore the media -- mainly TV stations -- were pushing only one line, which was the government's vision about reality and politics. When Al Jazeera came, it changed all of that, and suddenly you find people from different political parties and opposition leaders appearing on the screen, speaking to the audiences with their opinions, and it was a shock to Arab authoritarian regimes at that time. They started accusing Al Jazeera of all kinds of things; and lately, of course, they closed down bureaus and arrested some correspondents and so on and so forth.

Within the Arab world?

Within the Arab world. And we started to be criticized by the American mediaand by the British government as well and a few other international governments, who thought Al Jazeera was furthering an editorial line that is not in favor of the Western foreign policy in the region.

You have famously had Israeli officials on your talk shows as well.

From 1 November 1996, when we started Al Jazeera Arabic, we did allow all opinions. It was the first time that Israeli politicians, intellectuals and journalists appeared on screens to speak about issues related to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and that was actually one of the issues that we started with and one of the taboos -- not the only one -- but one of the taboos that Al Jazeera did break.

What was your own involvement when the channel launched?

Myself, I was actually in South Africa at that time, and I joined Al Jazeera, you know, almost 20 years after its launch.

What were you doing in South Africa?

In South Africa, I was doing graduate study in international politics and African studies at the time. And I was a researcher and consultant in Middle Eastern economics and political affairs.

So what drew you to television?

I started actually as an analyst on African affairs, mainly on Al Jazeera. I remember the first few series were about Saudi students, and the negotiations between the government and the Sudanese rebels in the south. And then, slowly, I was speaking about Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and a few other places. Then I started packaging some histories; and then I became the correspondent for Al Jazeera in South Africa, then in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. And then, of course, I ended in Bahrain.

Over the past 10 days, while we have been filming this busy news period, we had, of course, the assassination in Lebanon a couple of days ago, a huge death toll in Iraq. Are those the kind of stories that Al Jazeera covers well? And tell us a bit about how you have been covering those stories.

During the last 10 days, we had a historical period. There was the Gemayel [Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel] assassination in Lebanon, and we covered that through live, open coverage from Lebanon. We hosted almost all political parties and factions of the Lebanese ethnic and political parties. And, of course, all of them expressed their dismay and rage over the assassination. Of course, we know the polarization of the Lebanese society. So, in order to be fair and balanced, you need to cover all types of opinions -- religious, ethnic, sectarian and so forth. Lebanon is a very specific matter, so when we deal with it, we try to measure and to balance our coverage in an appropriate way.

The issue of Iraq is ongoing. I mean, unfortunately, during the last few days, the ethnic fighting actually has become much more obvious than ever, because after the bombing of Sadr City, 150 to 200 people have been killed, and a few hundred were injured.Then the retaliation started immediately against the Sunni and their mosques; there were Sunni executions. Fighting is unfortunately escalating, and we do not have a view about that. We depend mainly on our Iraqi desk in our newsroom. We have a group of Iraqis who cover the events on the ground. They have an excellent network of contacts on the ground.

Why don't you have a bureau in Baghdad?

Because, as you know, more than two years ago, the Iraqi government, during the time of [interim prime minister] Iyad Alawi, decided to close down all bureaus. The environment for our presence in Iraq was actually uncomfortable after the fall of Baghdad. The Americans started accusing us of inciting emotions against the American troops.

Were you?

Of course not. Actually, at that time, I was the bureau chief. And we did really make sure that we covered the story from all sides. We interviewed Paul Bremer twice at the time; we interviewed a lot of spokespeople at the CPA [the Coalition Provisional Authority] and [U.S.] Central Command, and we got out to officials -- military spokesmen and -women -- and we tried our best to present the American point of view. This is besides carrying live all the press conferences of Mr. George Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld and everyone else. So we did try to put forward the American point of view, but I must say that maybe all the people were not convinced by this point of view.

There was frustration and anger in the Arab world, and that frustration and anger will eventually appear on the screen regardless of what you put there. So we did not have a political agenda against the Americans. But, the environment then was very tense, and I think they thought closing down the bureau would enhance the opportunity of projecting another image about Iraq. Unfortunately that was not the case. During the last two years, things have escalated in Iraq. It was not Al Jazeera that was responsible for giving that image of Iraq.

You mentioned being impartial, and all journalists struggle with that. Did you have strong personal feelings about Iraq when you were there, and how did you reconcile those with your coverage?

We all of us are humans, and I do believe there is no way that a human being can be absolutely objective when it comes to issues related to any event that he covers. But we try to balance the story. We try to realize the biases of the story and of the human being covering the story. We try to balance it on the ground or through our newsroom. This is the job of the editors and the senior editors and producers in our newsroom -- to realize the correspondent's or the journalist's affiliations sometimes.

Of course, if you are Iraqi -- I'm not an Iraqi -- but if you are an Iraqi living in Iraq, if you are Sunni or Shiite, that can make a difference sometimes. But we need to be aware of that and try to balance that through our screen. Sometimes, some of them make mistakes. We try to correct it and rebalance or to re-edit the story. But in general we have developed a code of conduct in dealing with Iraq that I think everyone is observing. We try to maintain certain kinds of procedures in authenticating the news item and try to get the opinions of various parties for that particular item.

Let me ask you about criticism that we have heard from some of your prominent competitors in the making of this film. It's that you may try to be objective, but you emphasize the sensational in a bid to attract a big audience. How do you respond to that?

I will say the following: In the last few years in the Middle East, the main hot spots in the world are here, around us, around the territory of Al Jazeera. If you speak about Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Darfur -- wherever -- Iran, Lebanon -- these areas have all become open conflict zones. And a state of conflict also means a state of transformation. People become more emotional, moreoverwrought, and, at the same time, you may see less rational behavior in dealing with issues related to the conflict than you would see with ordinary situations. Therefore, we Arab TV stations have to project a certain reality. On the ground, if you interview heads of political parties, all politicians, all ordinary people, all of them could have a degree of emotion that is higher than ordinary because of the conflict.

That is the reality that Al Jazeera is covering. So, I do reject the accusation that Al Jazeera is presenting sensationalism. I think that it is projecting what we have in the Middle East, rather than trying to influence a course of events.

We interviewed some of the top people from Al Arabiya. They didn't mention you by name -- they are very polite -- but they said their prominent competitors did not reflect the reality of what an Arab is.

If you like to consult the audience, I think they would say different, because Al Jazeera has been ranked as the most credible source of information in the Arab world. So, first of all, if the audience thinks that Al Jazeera is presenting evidence on the ground much better than others, obviously they will watch it. And this is what's happening right now. Al Jazeera is the most-watched [satellite TV network] in the Arab world. Second, I would ask if Al Jazeera coverage of the Palestinian conflict or the Iraqi situation or the Afghani situation during the last few years has proven much more accurate or not.To my knowledge, we have not been confronted with any factual mistakes or errors that Al Jazeera has made. We have made some casual mistakes, and always, I say, we do make mistakes and we do apologize like everyone else, because we are humans.

Have we taken an editorial line to magnify certain eventsor to reduce the influence of certain events? I don't think so. We have not been challenged with that, and no one was ever able to prove it. So for me, Al Jazeera has accepted the fact that it does report from within the Middle East. It does respect the collective mind of the Arab world. It does see through Arab eyes, and, therefore, it does offer a perspective that might be different from others, but definitely it is very respectful of the Arab world.

When we were in Lebanon, one of the Al Arabiya correspondents said to us -- again, without mentioning you by name, but clearly he was talking about you -- that during the war, you all were much more pro-Hezbollah, in hereyes and in the editor's eyes, than was warranted. Where is that coming from?

Again, this is a conflict zone. How are you going to measure the balance of the story? We had five correspondents in Lebanon, and we had also five correspondents in Israel reporting from the other side. We carried press conferences for the Lebanese movements and parties, and we carried press conferences for the Israelis whenever they occurred. We hosted Israeli spokesmen and -women and also Lebanese. In the list of guests for any day, you will find it balanced in a way in which the Israeli voice is there, the American adviser is there, the Lebanese voice is there, and so on.

Now, on the ground, if you cover the rest of the Arab world, most of the Arab world during the war in Lebanon was for the Lebanese party, the Lebanese fighters or Hezbollah at that time. So when you come up with a story from Morocco or Algeria or Palestine or wherever you go, and these people are supporting Hezbollah, that doesn't mean that Al Jazeera is supporting Hezbollah.

That is the difference between us and others. We were reflecting the situation in an Arab world. We are not trying to interfere. While other TV stations did take a political line, supporting a certain kind of financiers, who maybe have an opinion regarding the conflict, Al Jazeera did not.

Give me a pro-American line.

Three of the major countries in the region -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt -- did take a line that was critical of Hezbollah fighting in the south, and they described it as a sort of adventure that was not calculated. Some of the media that is attached to these countries also took that particular line of criticism. Why Al Jazeera did not take the Qatari official line, for example, is because the Qataris have their own official line on many issues. And Al Jazeera has its own professional line that it follows. Sometimes it's in line with what the Qataris believe; sometimes it might not be.

Why did you start Al Jazeera English?

When we started 10 years ago, we started with a new spirit of reporting -- a new feeling came out from Al Jazeera reporters and journalists. We thought the brand during the last 10 years had become very powerful. And it was acknowledged as one of the best and strongest brands in the world … in the media world, at least. So we thought, OK, why don't we invest in expanding the brand? So we are moving from being a pan-Arab regional TV station to being an international media corporation. We thought, OK, let's start the English channel. English is the biggest language, and if we succeed with the English channel, it means we have progressed from a regional to an international brand.

Whom are you trying to reach? Who is your target audience?

It's the English-speaking person.

And it's well documented that you've had trouble getting into the U.S. market. Does that really matter for you? Were you looking beyond that?

Politics, unfortunately, often plays against us, but also for us. When the Americans decided to criticize Al Jazeera, they first criticized, and after that they attacked Al Jazeera. As you know, the American forces unfortunately bombed two of our buildings in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.

I think that has created a perception within the United States of America that Al Jazeera is not a TV station only. Al Jazeera could have links with terrorist organizations -- that kind of image. Unfortunately, that perception could pressure the cable companies to not put Al Jazeera on their list. But in my opinion, once they realize that Al Jazeera is a professional voice from the south that is necessary to complete the picture about what is happening in this part of the world, which is important for American foreign policy as well, I think it will be a necessity for the Americans to watch Al Jazeera. And therefore we will get this credibility, and I'm sure that Al Jazeera will also very soon be in the American market.

So you want to get into the American market? That is a priority for you?

Definitely. Very important. For us, the American market is important. For us, the American politics in the region and the American involvement in the world has become very important. So, therefore, definitely America is the strongest power on Earth right now, and you need to be there.

Do you feel that the American public doesn't fully understand this region?

In my opinion, it's not only the American public. I think, outside the region, this region is not very well known, and I do blame sometimes the media for that. When journalists come to this region, they come to explore, to discover what is happening. They spend a few days, maybe a few weeks, if they are lucky. They package some stories quickly, and they just put it on the screen. This region is so complicated. It is a mosaic of cultures, a mosaic of ethnicities, a complicated civilization with historical growth that has deep roots in many realities. So you need to look into it from within. You need to understand it. You need to understand the complexities. And I think Al Jazeera was much better than others in understanding the complexity of the Middle East. This is why our coverage of the Iraqi war or the Afghani war, in my opinion, was much more forward looking. And we were able to foresee what's going to happen in the future better than many others.

Yesterday, there was a U.S. military spokesperson on your network, Captain Frank Pasqual, who, I think, is based in Dubai. We actually did some filming with him. Now, it seems like there is what some have called "an American charm offensive" in this region. CENTCOM [the U.S. Central Command] makes available some spokespeople. The State Department now has a representative dedicated to the Arab media based in Dubai. Is it helpful for you to have those spokespeople available here in the region, and do you think, from the American perspective, that it's going to make any difference?

Actually, it is always helpful for me as a network. Always we would like to get more opinions about reality in order to give fair and balanced coverage. That's definitely true. Now, to what extent that influences the audience or not, I don't know if it has been measured yet. But definitely from the network perspective, from a journalistic perspective, the more access you have to people who are decision makers or stakeholders is important.

In terms of changing America's image in this region, which is a priority now for the Bush administration, what's it going to take?

A much more deep understanding of what's happening in this region, which is a paradigm that is deeply rooted here rather than in the north, basically. If you would like to deal with the people from one angle, which is the American foreign policy interest, then most likely the foreign voice will be rejected, and, therefore, people might not understand it and might revolt against it. I think Americans need to convince the people right now that they are working for the same goals of proper democracy, proper reform for their interests as nations, to develop their own tools of governance, their own tools of freedoms, freedom of expression and so forth.

But take -- take, for example, Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is known in the Arab world as the voice of freedom of expression. And it has formed within the last 10 years. It was heavily criticized by the American administration. It was militarily attacked. It was, you know, condemned. So what kind of image does that present to the Arab world? Is it actually the voice of the democracy that America is trying to send to the Arab world, or is it a way of looking at the Arab world that will appeal to certain important interests?

That is not clear in the mind of the Arab world. It is a blur. You need to be very clear, very specific, and go direct to the people to understand the interests that they prefer.

You are here in Qatar. You are owned by the Qatari government or the governing board, a very close American ally. There is a huge U.S. military presence here. Israel has an economic office in this country. Why does Qatar allow Al Jazeera to exist, and how can you keep your independence? I should add that one of your competitors admits that Al Arabiya struggles with covering Saudi Arabia and admits that it can't fully cover it. Can you cover Qatar well?

We do cover Qatar. But I must tell you something very important. Maybe the presence of Qatar on the screen is less than the presence of Egypt or the presence of Saudi Arabia simply because Qatar is much smaller as a state. So it is not as present as other countries in the region. We cover Iraq; we cover Palestine. We cover others. We are a news-driven network; therefore, if there is news in Qatar, we put it on the screen. Before Al Jazeera, the governments that sponsored TV stations pushed all the news of their countries on the screen. Qatar didn't do that. So we are definitely distant from the Qatari local and international political agenda.

However, to answer the first question: Why did Qatar allow Al Jazeera? Qatar did sacrifice and did face up to the problems and the pressure from international sources, and even from the Arab governments, regarding the issue of Al Jazeera.

Arab governments were unhappy with the coverage?

They closed down a lot of bureaus. Just recently, Tunisia closed down its embassy in Qatar … just a few weeks ago. They closed down the embassy and they left, and Tunisia issued a statement saying that it is because Al Jazeera is biased against the Tunisian government.

In my opinion, just as Qatar provided Al Jazeera with the space to operate and finance, I think Al Jazeera also provided Qatar with prestige and status in the region and internationally. The success of Al Jazeera definitely was credited to Qatar. The success of Al Jazeera as a media corporation came because Qatar distanced itself from the editorial policies of Al Jazeera. Had Qatar intervened, it would have been apparent to our audience that this is a Qatari TV station. But our audience do not know if this is Qatari or not Qatari. This is why Al Jazeera succeeded. It has distanced itself from two things: from the political agenda and from the commercial agenda. So we are not commercially driven, and we are not politically driven. Therefore, I think the audience felt that they owned Al Jazeera rather than that they were dealing with something owned by a second party or a third party to promote either commodities or politics on the screen.

It has also helped put Qatar on the map, hasn't it?

Of course, it did put Qatar on the map.

What was here when you began, in terms of the physical city?

Nothing. It was just a small piece of land. It's like a desert. And then they started putting a small structure in, which I think you have seen, very small. They called it a "matchbox" -- itwas actually called a matchbox by the Egyptian president.

Mubarek came. What did he say?

You know, Egypt ... there is room there. In Egypt, in the newsroom building, they have about 30,000 people.

That's big.

A huge place. So when Mubarek came here, and Al Jazeera was this massive name, he entered the building, and he found about 10 or 15 people working there in the newsroom in a small space. He said, "This is Al Jazeera? This is like a matchbox."