A lot of people have been asking me what I think of the various rumors swirling around al-Jazeera. Supporters of al-Jazeera have been in a frenzy over an alleged 'pro-US coup' through the appointment of a new, allegedly pro-American board of directors and the demotion of station director Wadah Khanfar. Al-Jazeera's enemies have been ratcheting up the noise over its alleged transformation into "Hamas TV." Overall, while there are certainly more rumblings than normal, I'd say that at this point there's more noise than substance. Al-Jazeera controversies always heat up during times of regional crisis, since that's when its impact is most felt on all sides and the stakes are highest, and this is no different. I haven't seen much change in its programming yet, at any rate. At the same time, internal politics at the station do seem to be hotter than usual - or at least getting more public airing - which could lead to some changes depending on how things shake out.
First, the new board of directors and their so-called 'pro-US coup.' Since Danny Schechter and George Galloway ran pieces warning of a "Foxification" of al-Jazeera, with management imposing a new pro-American editorial line, this has been getting play in both English and Arabic. There's less here than meets the eye. My sense is that the "Qatarization" of the board reflects persistent tensions over how Qatari the station should be, rather than grand geopolitics or American pressure. I've been hearing grumbling about the "Arabs" from Qataris and about the Qataris from Arabs at al-Jazeera for many years - it's not new. The non-Qatari on the new board, the Libyan Mahmoud Shamam, is the one most often cited as evidence that the new board is "pro-US"; but Shamam is a holdover, after being appointed to the board last year.
At any rate, the board doesn't exercise much influence over day to day operations Al-Jazeera is a well-entrenched institution after a decade, with a lot of strong personalities and a clear identity and market niche. Some senior people at al-Jazeera have told me that the changes are not a big deal (one said I should take the stories with "at least ten pounds of coarse sea salt"). I haven't really noticed any changes in its coverage. I'm just not seeing this "pro-US coup" at the level of the programs - in the last week I've seen interviews with Hani al-Hassan (deeply critical of Fatah, but hardly Hamas) and Harith al-Dhari (Association of Muslim Scholars), hardly a pro-US roster.
A second strand is the removal of station director Wadhah Khanfar from the board (his future as director of the station remains unclear). A little over a year ago, Khanfar was riding high after being put in overall charge of both the English and Arabic stations. But he's always been controversial, not least in the al-Jazeera newsroom itself. Why was he removed from the board? Thus far, the most popular explanation is based on a big story in the Jordanian weekly al-Majd which claimed that Mahmoud Abbas had delivered
two files of evidence (one from Palestinian intelligence and one from
Jordanian intelligence) to the Qataris proving that Khanfar (a Palestinian who has always been seen as pro-Islamist) was an active
member of Hamas. Maybe that's the reason and maybe it isn't - al-Majd has been known to pass on sensational stories on the behalf of various parties in the past. Abbas
and Fatah have been furious with al-Jazeera for years, and are particularly angry over its coverage of the latest crisis. But it's worth noting that Khanfar's background is hardly a mystery - unless there was something more in those files, it's hard to see how the Qatari power brokers could have been surprised by what was supposedly in them. More prosaically, but I'd guess closer to the truth: he had simply risen too far, too fast, and got too big for certain people's britches (Khanfar ranked #3 in this year's Arabian Business magazine's highly ideosyncratic "Power 100" list, far higher than any member of Qatar's ruling family, which pays his salary).
If Khanfar and his editorial team were replaced then that could have a greater impact than the changes in the board - though in what direction would depend on who they chose. No replacement is likely to be able to change al-Jazeera dramatically without provoking a staff revolt, or without harming its market position. For instance, according to a story in a Lebanese paper, the highly professional and Muslim Brotherhood- sympathetic Beirut bureau chief Ghassan bin Jidu, one of al-Jazeera's biggest stars, has threatened to quit al-Jazeera if the new board imposes a pro-US direction. Likewise, it's hard to imagine superstars like Faisal al-Qassem, Ahmed Mansour, or Sami Haddad sitting by while a Qatari board told them to parrot Republican talking points - or that they could be fired. It isn't that one perspective dominates and won't tolerate dissent - it's that diversity is the rule, and imposed conformity wouldn't be tolerated. Al-Jazeera has always featured a rich mix of different political lines - Islamist, Arabist, and liberal - which has roughly mirrored trends in the Arab public as a whole (which is why Islamists may be more prominent right now and liberals on their heels, given regional realities). The creative tension between those perspectives, and the hot on-air skirmishes between their advocates, gives al-Jazeera its edge. That's deeply ingrained in the station's institutional identity, and seems unlikely to change.
While it isn't as sexy as high politics and intelligence skullduggery, don't discount the importance of old-fashioned newsroom politics in all of this. One point made by Muslim Brotherhood blogger Abd al-Monem Mahmoud is that the issue is less Khanfar than the thinning of the ranks in senior editorial staff over the last year. Mahmoud observers that this only happened after several key figures in al-Jazeera's editorial team left for al-Jazeera English (Ibrahim Halal, Hassan Ibrahim, and a few others). An unintended consequence of their departures, writes Mahmood, is that the entire editorial team is much more Palestinian and less steeped in the culture of the 'old' al-Jazeera. That would fit the complaints aired by the former al-Jazeera star Hafez al-Mirazi (one of al-Jazeera's most prominent stars and a personality to be taken seriously) in an explosive interview to al-Hayat a couple of weeks ago. Mirazi said that he quit al-Jazeera because of its increasingly Islamist edge and the marginalization of liberals; but he also complained about interference from Doha in his Washington office .
The bigger picture is that al-Jazeera always comes under attack during moments of regional crisis when leading regimes would prefer to control the agenda and information about their policies. Those are precisely the moments when al-Jazeera's audience tends to skyrocket, when it tends to have the greatest political impact, and when it is most likely to be covering news and providing a platform for voices which are shut out of most of the rest of the Arab media. Al-Jazeera is a major obstacle to the attempts by Arab regimes to control the public sphere: its sin is not that it is "Hamas TV" but that it is not
"anti-Hamas TV." Al-Quds al-Arabi captured this today in its headline for a story on the Saudi visit
to Amman: "Saudi and Jordan unite against their
common enemies: al-Qaeda and al-Jazeera." That battle will continue, it's safe to predict.