Can Al Jazeera English cure what ails North American journalism?
· Photographs by Ryan Carter
Gold National Magazine Award Winner: Society
“My hope is that once people see that the sun still shines, kids still go to school, people still laugh at good jokes, and the republic holds,” he says, “they will give it a shot.”
Al Jazeera built its name on opposing the status quo. The first twenty-four-hour news channel in the Arab world, it was launched by the Emir of Qatar in 1996, a year after he overthrew his father while the old man was holidaying in Switzerland. The coup, which ushered in an era of liberalization in the emirate, was nothing compared with the revolution the channel would create — one arguably as significant for the Arab world as Martin Luther’s legendary nailing of his dissident theses to a church door was for Europe. (That old-school press conference, which ignited the Protestant Reformation, took off thanks to a new technology: the printing press. For the Arab world, that technology is the satellite dish.)
The birth of Al Jazeera marked the first time in modern history that a plurality of viewpoints was included in the Arab public discourse — and there was something to outrage just about everyone. With a mandate to broadcast “the opinion and the other opinion” through a mix of news and audience-participation talk shows, the channel gave Israeli and American commentators a voice, along with religious skeptics, Islamic fundamentalists, women’s advocates, and political dissidents. The result was accusations from all quarters — that it was an instrument of the Mossad, the CIA, or, of course, al Qaeda. As American political science professor Marc Lynch, author of Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, has said, the channel provided “a relentless criticism of the status quo, of political repression, of economic stagnation.” It pried the stranglehold on information from the hands of state leaders, and allowed formerly heretical views to enter the living rooms and coffee shops of the Arab public, forcing their politicians to, as Lynch puts it, “at least think about what will play well on Al Jazeera.”
By contrast with AJE’s bright new premises, the Arabic channel’s headquarters are spare — nothing more than a series of high-end trailers with stained industrial carpeting and the scent of coffee laced with cardamom floating through the hallways. Just inside the front entrance is the original production facility, recognizable from Control Room, the 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera filmed during the early days of the Iraq invasion. On this particular afternoon, Wadah Khanfar, the forty-year-old director general of the network (which encompasses the Arabic and English channels, plus a documentary channel, and a handful of subscription-only sports channels — the network’s primary money-makers, given an ongoing Arab advertising boycott) has been contending with two new sources of outrage. Today it is Egypt, which is claiming that the “state of Al Jazeera” is plotting to overthrow its government; and Sudan, where an adviser to the president wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes has stated that Al Jazeera is too “stupid” to understand the concept of national interest.
For Khanfar, an imposing figure in a navy blue pinstriped suit and red tie who wields stock phrases like “speaking truth to power” and clearly relishes the role of the muckraker, it’s just another ordinary day. Seated in his first-floor office next to the newsroom, where a beautiful woman with blown-out hair and full TV makeup is preparing to anchor a segment, he complains about the authoritarianism of Arab states. “You know what is the national interest for every leader in the Arab world?” he asks. “To protect his seat.” He pounds the leather armrest on his chair for effect. “Can you believe that most of them, when they die, their children take over?”
Like in Qatar? “Everywhere. I don’t think of Qatar as a haven for freedom and democracy, but it has done this: it allowed Al Jazeera to exist while every other Arab government either closed down bureaus or arrested journalists or put them in jail. And for this the Arab world, I must tell you, is experiencing something different.”
Having begun his career as an Africa correspondent, Khanfar went on to report for Al Jazeera from the Kurdish region of Iraq in the lead-up to the US invasion. He presented, he says, the facts: that the Kurds hated Saddam Hussein and wanted him gone. Khanfar’s broadcasts so enraged Iraq’s then minister of information (not to mention viewers who supported Saddam Hussein) that he marched into Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau with his Kalashnikov and a security detail and promised that Khanfar would be hanged in the main square in Baghdad. Within days, however, the government had fallen.
Khanfar became Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau chief and in October 2003 was named director general.
If the channel has made enemies among Arab states — it’s currently banned in Iraq, Tunisia, and Algeria, and was prohibited in Saudi Arabia until this summer — it has found a weightier opponent in a former friend, the United States. Prior to 9/11, Al Jazeera was greeted by US officials as good news for Arab democracy. All that changed in October 2001, when it aired the first videotaped message from Osama bin Laden after the attacks on New York, and then began reporting on civilian casualties during the American invasion of Afghanistan. That year, the US bombed Al Jazeera’s Kabul bureau, an event echoed two years later when it bombed the one in Baghdad, killing a correspondent. On Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, meanwhile, Sami al-Hajj, a rookie cameraman with the station, was captured in what he believes was a case of mistaken identity (another cameraman named Sami had filmed an interview with bin Laden); he spent six years in Guantánamo before being released in 2008. The forty-year-old Sudanese national, who now walks like an old man, told me he was interrogated more than 300 times — almost exclusively about Al Jazeera, on whom he was asked to spy.
America’s obsession with Al Jazeera has inadvertently handed the network star power. A week before my arrival, surfer-haired Virgin CEO Richard Branson and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez both dropped by to visit. Such establishment figures as Tzipi Livni, Shimon Peres, Madeleine Albright, Ban Ki-moon, and General David Petraeus have also made the pilgrimage. Even former British prime minister Tony Blair came by for a private meeting. Blair had reportedly discussed with George Bush the possibility of bombing the channel’s Doha headquarters in the wake of its reports on heavy civilian casualties during the 2004 battle in Fallujah — an issue Khanfar made sure to bring up. (Blair, he says, brushed him off, laughingly suggesting that such matters were in the past and might not have been what they seemed.)
Well before the Bush-Blair discussion, international demand was mounting for an English version of Al Jazeera’s contentious brand of reporting. The network’s response was to create an entirely new entity, which would share some footage with the Arabic channel yet have a completely separate staff, management, and editorial mandate. “We wanted it to be an authentic English channel that broadcasts from within the mainstream but carries the ideas Al Jazeera has established,” Khanfar says. The ideas he’s referring to are editorial independence, an emphasis on field reporting, and a diverse staff who reside in the regions they cover, “so they understand and interpret and forecast much better than those who come overnight equipped with intensive reading from Wikipedia.”
He continues: “We are at the centre of a lot of troubles — Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine, Sudan — a curse for us as individuals but a blessing for us as journalists. The developing world is generating a huge number of stories, and a TV station headquartered in one of the most complicated and news-producing regions is a great opportunity for audiences all over the world to see a different angle.” AJE is already the most watched international channel in sub-Saharan Africa, and Khanfar argues that the wealthy countries of the North, too, will benefit from an inside view of such developing-world issues as terrorism, immigration, oil, and energy: “If they are not explored properly from within the South, the North is going to suffer as well.”
AJE has poured resources into Africa, Asia, and Latin America, building on the Arabic channel’s access in the Middle East. This at a time when other networks, driven by commercial agendas, are scaling back, which Khanfar considers a “disaster” for the profession. “I mean, a journalist who used to go for a month to do something investigative will find it shortened to a few days, if it’s commissioned at all.” Given that his network is funded by the emir of the richest nation in the Middle East and is therefore free from commercial pressures, he knows he has an advantage in steering AJE through the current financial crisis. “We would like to appear, later on, as the player when it comes to English news internationally.”
In the lobby of the Four Seasons Doha, where I am waiting for Tony Burman, a young Qatari woman in a rhinestone-encrusted black abaya and head scarf checks her text messages, then floats across the marble floor clutching her Louis Vuitton bag. It’s a far different setting from the rundown auditorium at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where I first met Burman earlier this year. There, he was launching a Canadian speaking tour, a kind of pre-emptive strike to address concerns about AJE as it applied for a broadcast licence from the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission. In 2004, the Arabic channel had been granted a CRTC licence that was essentially useless, freighted with the onerous condition that its content be monitored continuously. This time would have to be different, and so on a cold Tuesday evening in February several hundred people turned out to see a panel discussion on the future of international news — the first of many appearances at which Burman would deliver his message. Though there were other luminaries on the panel, which was moderated by Global national news anchor Kevin Newman, it was clearly Burman they had come to see.
Burman readily acknowledges, as we sit at the Four Seasons patio bar with the waters of the Persian Gulf lapping up beside us, that his stature in Canadian media is part of the reason he was tapped for the managing directorship at
AJE. “I think, to speak as dispassionately as I can about myself, that it’s better it be a North American,” he says, pausing to order a gin and tonic, “because like any Canadian I feel I’m a Ph.D. student on the US. And obviously the Canadian system I know.”
When Burman left CBC, he initially planned to go small — to take on manageable creative projects as a consultant, which is what he initially did for AJE. Pressed to take on an expanded version of his job at CBC, he was resistant. He would have to leave Toronto just as he was finally becoming reacquainted with his two adult children, and planning his marriage this past summer to Jane Ferguson, an Ontario Superior Court judge. Yet as someone who had devoted his life to understanding the wider world, he couldn’t pass up the chance to oversee one of the most ambitious ventures in global news. His timing has been fortuitous, not only because competition in international newsgathering has withered, but because of the channel’s biggest scoop to date.