Thursday, September 22, 2011

AL JAZEERA by Wikileaks

What Wikileaks Tells  About Al Jazeera

Is the rapidly expanding Middle East satellite television network and voice of the Arab Spring as independent as it claims?

Al Jazeera has been making waves in the Middle East ever since it aired its first broadcast on Nov. 1, 1996. In its news dispatches and talk shows, the pan-Arab satellite channel, which is funded by the state of Qatar, has been a strident critic of U.S. foreign policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, even while it has been a thorn in the side of many an Arab autocrat.

     Doha, Qatar capital

But after the last dump of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, on Aug. 30, articles have begun to circulate -- especially in Iranian and Syrian media outlets -- about Al Jazeera's close relationship with a surprising interlocutor: the U.S. government.

There have been longstanding accusations that Al Jazeera serves as an arm of its host nation's foreign policy, and earlier leaked documents referred to the news organization as "one of Qatar's most valuable political and diplomatic tools," which could be used as "a bargaining tool to repair relationships with other countries." Another document urges Sen. John Kerry to engage the Qatari government on Al Jazeera during a visit to the Gulf country, saying, "there are ample precedents for a bilateral dialogue on Al Jazeera as part of improving bilateral relations."

                                             Al Jazeera station

Despite those assertions by U.S. diplomatic sources, both the network and the Qatari government fiercely insist that it is editorially independent and free from interference.
Skeptics take the latest leak as proof, though, that Al Jazeera is susceptible to external pressures, not least in part due to the document's summary:
PAO [Public affairs officer] met 10/19 with Al Jazeera Managing Director Wadah Khanfar to discuss the latest DIA [U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency] report on Al Jazeera and disturbing Al Jazeera website content.... Khanfar said the most recent website piece of concern to the USG [U.S. government] has been toned down and that he would have it removed over the subsequent two or three days. End summary.
On a semantic level, [Khanfar] objected to the use of the word "agreement" as used in the August report on the first page, under the heading "Violence in Iraq", where a sentence reads: "In violation of the station's agreement several months ago with US officials etc". "The agreement was that it was a non-paper," said Khanfar. [A non-paper is diplomatic jargon for a proposal that is unofficial and has not been committed to.] "As a news organization, we cannot sign agreements of this nature, and to have it here like this in writing is of concern to us."
Leaving it at that, the cable appears to be a smoking gun showing Al Jazeera at the U.S. government's beck and call. Iran-owned Press TV uses this to conclude that "the US government has previously had a say in what content to appear on the al-Jazeera website." The website ArabCrunch similarly denounced Al Jazeera for responding to U.S. pressure, and says the cable "might have revealed the reason behind the AJ one sided coverage of Iraq in the recent years." Read in their full context, though, this and other leaked cables tell a very different story.

Khanfar could not be reached for comment, and Al Jazeera has made no official response to the latest claims, but a source at the channel told Foreign Policy that these sorts of meeting between high-level Al Jazeera management and U.S. officials are standard practice, and continue today. Elaborating, he said that representatives of numerous diplomatic missions regularly bring lists of complaints to Al Jazeera, but that doesn't mean they are heeded or given undue weight.

The controversial cable actually backs up this comment to a certain extent, detailing Khanfar arguing with some points made in the U.S. government report presented to him by the embassy representative. "Some are simple mistakes which we accept and address," he said. Other points, such as airing views not favorable to the United States, are taken out of context, given that the contrasting opinion would have its due in a later report, he said.

Khanfar also tells the representative that some grievances can't be addressed, including the use of "terrorist tapes" on air, which he insists is the network's policy so long as they are edited for newsworthiness. And obviously, he states, he can't very well prevent guests or interviewees from using language deemed by the U.S. government as "inflammatory."

Reviewing the "troublesome website material" Khanfar agreed to tone down, the U.S. public affairs officer cites a sensationalistic report carried by Al Jazeera's Arabic website:
The site opens to an image of bloody sheets of paper riddled with bullet holes.  Viewers click on the bullet holes to access testimony from ten alleged "eye witnesses"...
The unnamed U.S. officer tells Khanfar that the report "came across as inflammatory and journalistically questionable." It then says, "Khanfar appeared to repress a sigh but said he would have the piece

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