The often controversial Arab satellite TV channel launches a global English-language service on Wednesday. TIME’s Scott MacLeod caught up with the network’s managing director, Wadah Khanfar
You may not have heard of Wadah Khanfar, but this week, he becomes one of the world’s most influential news executives. Besides being head of the 10-year-old Qatar-based Al Jazeera television channel since 2003, the Palestinian-born former reporter is now the overall boss of the network’s global channel, Al Jazeera English, that goes on the air starting Wednesday. In an interview with TIME’s Scott MacLeod, Khanfar, 38, explained the English channel’s alternative agenda, and defended the Arabic channel against charges of bias and sensationalism.
TIME: What is the purpose of Al Jazeera English?
Wadah Khanfar: Al Jazeera is the only international network that is based in the developing world, and that will be the departure point for the English channel. I am not speaking about the geographical south, but the cultural, social and political south. The ‘south’ has not been presented in the international media properly. Why? Because most of the international media organizations are centered in the West. We would like to present a new model. We will take the south into consideration. We will cover the world, but will take the south as a departure point and a priority.
TIME: What does that mean?
Khanfar: When an international news organization covers a story in Somalia, Yemen, Sudan or wherever, they will fly a crew to go there, spend a few days, interact with some officials and analysts, most of the time English-speaking elite, and file the story and go home. At Al Jazeera, we are getting our local Somalis, Yemenis and Sudanese, local correspondents from within the society, who understand much better than the people who come from overseas. We will get a much better insight.
TIME: What is the Al Jazeera perspective compared to the western media perspective?
Khanfar: Some people call it the Al Jazeera spirit — courage, re-thinking authority, giving a voice to the voiceless. We have never been favored by the authority. The human being is the center of our editorial policy. We are not a TV station that rushes after stars, big names, press conferences, hand-shake journalism. The international media concentrates on the famous, the big names. Al Jazeera goes to the margins, investigates stories that are still developing and in the future become very big. Why did the Arabic world love Al Jazeera? Everybody felt he was represented in the newsroom and on the screen. That kind of belonging is ours. Hopefully the international channel will do the same. We want more diversity in our newsroom, for a dialogue of cultures on the screen.
Al Jazeera English will explain the region. We will be much more qualified to speak about the Middle East because of our presence in the region. The role of the media is to give an honest understanding of reality. Had we been able to deal with the issue of the Middle East a long time before September 11, the roots of anger and frustration, maybe the decision makers would have taken steps to stop it before it becomes al-Qaeda.
TIME: What problems is the Arabic channel having with Arab governments nowadays? Khanfar: Each country has its own politics. Saudi Arabia has never allowed our bureau to operate in Saudi Arabia. Jordan was critical recently. Their official newspapers waged an official campaign against Al Jazeera, accusing us, again, of implementing a Zionist conspiracy to dismantle the Arab world. They had many complaints, one of them started with a prison protest that Al Jazeera covered.
TIME: Do you still hear from the U.S. government?
Khanfar: Less than before. Maybe because the situation in the Middle East has become more complicated than blaming a single TV station. Some American officials are still skeptical and very critical. By now, I expect that the American administration has discovered that they have committed a great mistake by accusing Al Jazeera of inciting emotions and violence against the Americans. Al Jazeera’s bureau has been closed in Iraq for almost two years. The level of violence in Iraq has not subsided. Things are going much worse. Is it Al Jazeera that kept the Iraqis upset with the Americans, or something else?
TIME: Have you ever received pressure from the Qatari government, the financers of the channel?
Khanfar: The Qatari foreign minister criticized us in many cases. I consider that an opinion, not pressure. The only asset we have right now is our editorial independence. If the editorial independence is compromised by the Qataris, Al Jazeera will lose its edge over the rest of the Arab media. The status that Al Jazeera has given Qatar is high and very useful.
TIME: Do you really believe President Bush spoke with Tony Blair about bombing Al Jazeera in Qatar, as was reported by a British tabloid?
Khanfar: It has not been confirmed. We are demanding to know what happened. We are considering all our options.
TIME: Do you stand by Tayseer Alouni, the Al Jazeera correspondent convicted in Spain of having links with Al Qaeda?
Khanfar: We think that Tayseer is innocent and did not commit any crime. He was very professional in the way that he dealt with Al Qaeda. We are going to continue the legal battle to prove his innocence. If Tayseer followed the same steps every journalist does to have an interview with Osama bin Laden, I don’t think he can be accused of cooperation.
TIME: You think it was a political verdict?
Khanfar: There is a mood in some countries right now because of the issue of terrorism. Tayseer was unique because he was a symbol of the coverage of Afghanistan. He was the only reporter in Afghanistan. Sentiment and feelings do influence legal proceedings. We have to stand with him. As with cameraman Sami Al Hajj, who was arrested as he was entering Afghanistan. He is in Guantanamo. His lawyer told me he doesn’t see anything against him. Sami was interrogated and all of the questions were about Al Jazeera. So, it is about Al Jazeera.
TIME: So how does Al Jazeera get the Bin Laden tapes?
Khanfar: There is no secret. There is no direct link between us and Al Qaeda to receive a tape. No one from them phones and calls and says, “Please, I am going to bring you a tape at this moment in time, so prepare for me to drop it wherever.” We are a TV station. We are not an intelligence agency. In all cases, we received them through people we do not know. We cannot figure out who has delivered these tapes. If somebody brings me material, and I feel that this material is a scoop, I will use it. I am not ashamed of that. We are not going to stop doing that.
Scott Macleod-Time Magazine 2006/11/20
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