What Wikileaks Tells Us 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. 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.

In particular, a newly released cable issued by the U.S. Embassy in Doha and signed by then ambassador Chase Untermeyer, details a meeting between an embassy public affairs official and Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera's director general, in which the latter is said to agree to tone down and remove what the United States terms "disturbing Al Jazeera website content."

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."

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.

In what some are seizing upon as evidence of an American-Qatari conspiracy, the cable, dated October 2005, continues with a quote from Khanfar saying, "We need to fix the method of how we receive these reports," mentioning that he had found one of them "on the fax machine."

Later, there is a reference in the memo to a sort of understanding that's been reached between Al Jazeera and the U.S. government:

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 removed."

Al Jazeera -- while lauded internationally for the quality of its broadcasts -- has more than once had to backpeddle on content carried by the website, which operates somewhat autonomously from the Arabic channel in an office across town. In 2007, for example, the site carried a poll asking readers if they "support Al Qaeda's attacks in Algeria." A majority of the poll's 30,000 respondents answered yes, sparking a furor from the Algerian media, accusing the channel of legitimizing al Qaeda. The website's manager later said posting the poll was a grave error and had been done without his permission.

Beyond this specific memo, WikiLeaks has published more than 30 cables from the U.S. Embassy in Doha with the label Al Jazeera, and many more making mention of the news organization, ranging in date from September 2005 to February 2010. But the portrait the leaked cables paint is not evidence of any sort of conspiracy so much as an organization struggling to maintain professional standards.

The earliest available cable discusses preparations for the launch of "Al Jazeera International," the original name of Al Jazeera English, and the recording of a pilot called "The Hassan and Josh Show." Offering some insights into the younger channel's development, it says operations were "still in a somewhat chaotic embryonic stage" in 2005.

Curiously, that pilot, which never made it to air, was hosted by the two stars of the 2004 Iraq war documentary Control Room -- former marine Josh Rushing and veteran Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim. The cable's author concluded that Ibrahim and Rushing were "clearly still amateur anchors and will need considerable practice to present a more professional and engaging program."

The next available cable documents an earlier meeting between Khanfar and the embassy's public affairs officer, in which the Al Jazeera director likens the "War on Terror" to Osama bin Laden's tactic of saying, "You're either with us, or against us." Khanfar insists Al Jazeera belongs in neither camp.

Another document from 2005 describes steps Al Jazeera has taken to shore up shifting standards in quality:

Khanfar noted that he holds a daily 1pm meeting with an AJ quality assurance team entrusted with implementing AJ's code of ethics and conduct, which views and anlayzes all Al Jazeera programming, looking for lapses in professionalism, balance and objectivity. "That meeting is very tight, tighter even than your list," said Khanfar.

The author of that cable concludes that Khanfar "is clearly committed to bringing Al Jazeera up to professional international standards of journalism and ... seems to be not only open to criticism but to welcome it."

Following up, U.S. Embassy officials later met with Jaafar Abbas Ahmed, the head of Al Jazeera's Quality Assurance (QA) unit, who, they said was frank about "resistance and hostility" from the channel's older generation of journalists. Abbas told them some Al Jazeera staff treat the quality assurance team with suspicion, referring to them at times as the KGB and CIA.

"According to Abbas, the effort to professionalize Al Jazeera is an uphill one," the cable reads, indicating the biggest problem he faced was that "old habits die hard." It continues:

While AJ started out with a significant number of ex-BBC reporters, this cadre has shrunk over the years, attracted to other channels such as Al Arabiyya, Abbas said. He added that only a handful remains.

A majority of the remaining journalism staff are therefore ex-state TV reporters. They may be brilliant, but the journalistic culture they have absorbed is different from the one AJ is trying to cultivate, Abbas explained.

At least one expert who has studied the network in depth says Al Jazeera's culture may be the very thing behind the mixed standards in output.

"[My] academic research shows influence is not something that comes on a top-down level -- you have to look at the individuals working there," said Mohamed Zayani, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and co-author of the book The Culture of Al Jazeera: Inside an Arab Media Giant

"What we got time and again was that there was a big margin of freedom... and journalists were empowered by it," he told me. But that also makes Al Jazeera more susceptible to the subjective views of individual employees, he said.

Al Jazeera has, if anything, become even more of a household name in recent years, and has been recognized in the West by no less than U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for offering "real news." The organization has aggressively covered the "Arab Spring" uprisings across the Middle East, even dropping popular programming to air around-the-clock coverage as revolts have climaxed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Justifiably or not, though, critics accuse the broadcaster of ignoring the unrest in its own backyard, the Gulf.

In the case of Syria, Al Jazeera has faced backlash for covering the brutal crackdown on opposition protesters by the government there. Syrians have accused Al Jazeera of seeking to foment unrest in the country, and at least one media outlet even accused the Qatar-based broadcaster of setting up film studios to stage some of the uprising. It comes as no surprise, then, that some might seize on the latest leaked cables as a way to discredit the news organization as simply being a mouthpiece for the U.S. government.



Abkhazia's Independence Farce

The push for Abkhaz statehood makes a mockery of international law -- and recognition would represent a chilling validation of ethnic cleansing.

So-called presidential elections took place last month in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. The fact that the European Union and the United States rejected them as totally illegitimate, however, did not prevent the proponents of the Abkhaz "cause" from continuing their campaign to achieve recognition as an independent state. Russian ministers, of course, praised the ballot. The international community, however, should not be fooled.

The Abkhaz regime exists only because Russia backs it with military might and financial support. Calls for international recognition conveniently overlook how it was established: through the killing of around 10,000 civilians in the 1990s and the expulsion of more than 300,000 people from Abkhazia over the past two decades.

It is for the international courts to define the legal nature of the atrocities committed by the Abkhaz militia and their Russian allies. But no one should ignore these acts while considering the future of a region that has been forcefully emptied of the overwhelming majority of its population.

The 1992-1993 conflict and the 2008 Russian invasion -- together with the constant harassment and intimidation of the non-Abkhaz civilian population -- have radically altered Abkhazia's demographics. According to Soviet census data, ethnic Abkhaz comprised 17.8 percent of the 525,000 residents of Abkhazia in 1989, while ethnic Georgians accounted for 45.7 percent, numbering roughly 240,000. By 2003, the ethnic Georgian population had decreased by 81 percent to just 46,000 (mostly in the Gali and Tkvarcheli districts); Armenians had been reduced by 41 percent, Russians by 69 percent, Greeks by 87 percent, and others (Ukrainians, Belarusians, Estonians, Jews) by 81 percent.

In the same period, the Abkhaz were the only ethnic group whose ranks increased -- from the prewar tally of just 17 percent to about half the population. The outrageous process by which this occurred has been denounced as "ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and many others.

The Georgian side that participated, mostly in the form of militias, in the war that raged during the early 1990s, was also involved -- like the Abkhaz -- in abject crimes. But since then, Georgia, as a government and society, has held its criminals to account. The militias were dissolved and banned, and their leaders jailed. Nothing similar has happened on the Abkhaz side. Nobody was prosecuted, and criminals were rewarded with fame, medals, and stolen property. Not a single person among the Abkhaz presidential candidates has ever even acknowledged -- let alone condemned -- the ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, proponents of the Abkhaz cause ask a powerful question: Why not apply the precedent of Kosovo, which achieved international recognition after a violent separation from Serbia, to Abkhazia?  

But replicating Kosovo (a process of recognition that can hardly be described as flawless) is not applicable. The differences between the two cases are stark. First, the most heinous crimes in Kosovo were committed by Serbians, the adversaries of secession; in Abkhazia, they were committed by the secessionists and their Russian allies. Second, the right of return of refugees to Kosovo was a precondition for self-determination; in Abkhazia, the so-called self-determination is linked with the refusal to allow the return of internally displaced people.

Put simply, Kosovo's independence was a way of punishing ethnic cleansing. In Abkhazia, such recognition would represent a chilling validation of ethnic cleansing, and a reward to its authors.

And there's more that makes the Kosovo parallel problematic. The processes leading to independence and recognition also could not have been more different. Abkhaz leaders have refused several peace plans proposed by the Georgian government, the United Nations, and Germany. In Kosovo's case, however, it was the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic that rejected peace efforts. After the war, Kosovo came under U.N. administration for nine years before its independence was recognized by a vast coalition of countries, including the United States and most European nations. In Abkhazia, international organizations have been denied entry, and its so-called independence has been recognized only by Russia and three other non-European countries, which all receive Russian financial support.

But the illegitimacy of Abkhazia's independence is not solely due to the failure of the international community to accept its sovereignty. It stems from deeper problems: the past and current actions of Abkhazia's leaders, their ideology of ethnic supremacy, and the Russian military occupation of its territory.

The Abkhaz people do need cooperation with Europe, and they deserve to be part of the world community. But the manner in which this happens is crucial. It cannot be done by validating ethnic cleansing, by ignoring the annexation of Georgia's sovereign territory, or by recognizing elections held in a society that is built on apartheid -- where a vast majority of the population has been expelled and most ethnic Georgians still remaining are not allowed to vote.

Instead, the international community should insist on the implementation of the 2008 cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Russia brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which stipulates the withdrawal of Russian troops. The next steps must be security guarantees and arrangements provided by international organizations, including ensuring the right of return of all internally displaced people.

Anything short of this throws international law in a waste bin. And any election held before the return of the people who have been expelled can only be a tragic farce.