[News] Al Jazeera and U.S. Foreign Policy

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 22 13:57:35 EDT 2011

Al Jazeera and U.S. Foreign Policy:
What WikiLeaks' U.S. Embassy Cables Reveal about U.S. Pressure and Propaganda
by Maximilian C. Forte


"Al Jazeera is a vital component to the USG's 
strategy in communicating with the Arab world." 
E. LeBaron, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, November 6, 2008

"Al Jazeera Board Chairman Hamed bin Thamer Al 
Thani has proven open to creative uses of Al 
Jazeera's airwaves by the USG beyond 
straightforward interviews." -- 
E. LeBaron, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, February 10, 2009

The U.S. Embassy cables published by WikiLeaks 
present numerous very interesting stories about 
how Al Jazeera was brought to heel by the U.S. 
Government.  The U.S. Embassy in Doha, and 
officials from Washington, used a variety of 
direct and indirect methods of ensuring a greater 
degree of compliance on the part of Al 
Jazeera.  These methods included placing speakers 
on Al Jazeera news programs; supplying 
information approved by the U.S. Government; 
providing U.S. training for Al Jazeera's 
journalists; demanding editorial distortion of 
aired programs; securing Al Jazeera's agreement 
to check first with U.S. officials before airing 
"sensitive" programs; monitoring of Al Jazeera in 
minute detail, ranging from its news coverage to 
its internal structure and policies; lodging 
complaints with Qatari government ministers; 
constant, personal visits to Al Jazeera's 
headquarters; developing familiarity and close 
personal contacts with Al Jazeera staff; and 
going over the head of the Managing Director of 
Al Jazeera to ensure that "objectionable content" 
was removed and never repeated.

Mainstreaming, professionalism, balance, and 
objectivity emerge as the chosen tropes for a 
journalism that favors U.S. foreign policy.  U.S. 
officials did not overtly threaten Al Jazeera 
staff, nor did they engage in any crass form of 
bribery.  The intervention was more polite, 
prolonged, and intimate.  In the process of 
reading these cables we learn that, for the U.S. 
Government, Al Jazeera was valued as a strategic 
tool, as a credible proxy for U.S. "public 
diplomacy."  We hear senior Al Jazeera executives 
describe themselves as "partners" and "assets" of 
the U.S.  We also learn about the degree to which 
Al Jazeera is controlled by the Qatari state and 
used as a foreign policy instrument.  We witness 
the degree to which Al Jazeera English is almost 
entirely a foreign import, not even pretending to 
speak as the "voice of the Arabs" and operating 
as a colonial transplant.  The picture of Al 
Jazeera revealed through the cables is a grim 
one, and it is not likely that Al Jazeera can proceed unscathed.

Meet Mr. Al Mahmoud

By March of 2006, Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud, the 
director of the Al Jazeera Arabic website, had 
enough and quit.  Al Mahmoud had become 
disillusioned both with the channel and with the 
Managing Director, Wadah Khanfar (much more 
about/from Khanfar follows below).  Al Mahmoud, a 
U.S. educated citizen of Qatar and a former 
military man, was described by U.S. diplomats as 
close Embassy contact" (one of many as it turns 
out -- 
Doha has built cooperative personal relationships 
within Al Jazeera").  What about Al Jazeera had 
changed, so much so that he had to resign?  In 
the explanation related to us by then U.S. 
Ambassador, <http://www.untermeyer.com/>Chase 
Untermeyer, Al Mahmoud is 
<http://wikileaks.org/cable/2006/03/06DOHA328.html>reported to say:

In the old days [2001] . . . Al Jazeera was 
buzzing with idealism and alive with passionate 
debate between partisans of different ideologies 
(Arab nationalists, Islamists, secularists, 
socialists etc), and that it had a genuinely 
revolutionary atmosphere about it.  Now, he said, 
people come to work from 9 to 5 like bureaucrats 
and Al Jazeera has become part of the mainstream establishment.

The Al Jazeera described above, prior to its 
transformation, resembles the one shown in the 
carefully done, in-depth documentary, 
<http://icarusfilms.com/new2003/jaz.html>Al Jazeera: Voice of Arabia.

The "mainstreaming" of Al Jazeera, in part due to 
U.S. pressure and regular U.S. coordination with 
Al Jazeera directors and editors on questions of 
news coverage, is one of the persistent themes in 
the cables, published by WikiLeaks, from the U.S. 
Embassy in Doha (some of which were previously 
Becoming "responsible" and "professional" meant, 
in practice, becoming answerable to the U.S. and 
to the Emir of Qatar, just as the U.S. discovered 
the value of Al Jazeera's voice in the Arab 
world, and just as the Emir used his media giant 
to attack Arab rivals when convenient, most notably Libya.

A Day in the Life of Al Jazeera Answering to the U.S. Government

It was <http://wikileaks.org/cable/2005/10/05DOHA1734.html>October 13, 2005.

Al Mahmoud may have missed the idealism, but he 
was part of Al Jazeera's move towards greater 
service to U.S. interests in the Middle East.  On 
that day in October of 2005 he met separately 
with U.S. Ambassador Chase Untermeyer and the 
U.S. Embassy's Public Affairs Officer (PAO), 
Nantongo.  They sought out Al Mahmoud over 
objections they had to content on the Al Jazeera 
Arabic website.  Al Mahmoud "acknowledged that 
some of the material was unacceptable as 
published and had been changed on his 
instructions" -- indeed, we are told, all of the 
"objectionable" content was removed, not just 
changed, and not just in part.  (The 
objectionable content had to do, in part, with 
the image of the U.S. in the Middle East and a 
visit by 
Hughes, who was then Under Secretary of State for 
Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and would 
later visit Al Jazeera personally; and a 9/11 
slideshow that neglected to stress enough just 
how much of a victim the U.S. was and how great 
was its humanitarian record in the Middle East.)

Chase Untermeyer first went to speak to an 
official in Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 
about the website content.  Untermeyer "stressed 
that this was the sort of irresponsible reporting 
that produced problems and tensions in relations 
between Qatar and the United States" -- turning 
an Al Jazeera issue into a Qatari government 
issue and an international relations 
issue.  Right here we see how the idea of 
"responsible" journalism is framed: journalism 
that responds to the concerns of the U.S. and Qatari regimes.

Apparently the U.S. <http://www.dia.mil/>Defense 
Intelligence Agency (DIA) was also busy producing 
frequent reports tallying the 
of objectionable content."  Ambassador Untermeyer 
went to Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs armed 
with one such report to help make his case.  In 
cable, we learn that the DIA would regularly send 
such reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 
which would then pass them on to Wadah Khanfar, 
Al Jazeera's Managing Director (more below).  On 
one occasion Wadah Khanfar commented on the 
nature of a DIA report: "Clearly the person who 
writes this report is not a 
report is politically oriented."  This also tells 
us something about the politicization of 
"professionalism" as conceptualized by U.S. diplomats.

The PAO, Mirembe Nantongo, apparently gave Al 
Mahmoud quite the browbeating: "objected to the 
slide show's depiction of the 9/11" . . . "those 
attacks were cowardly acts" . . . "rejected the 
slide show's assertion. . ." . . . "gave a 
narrow, distorted view" . . . "omission of any 
mention of the US role in liberating Muslims," 
and so on.  The PAO noted that the slide show was 
removed from the site, but, not pleased enough 
with the effect of her interference in the 
editorial decisions of an independent media 
agency, she asked Al Mahmoud to confirm its 
removal.  Not satisfied even with that, the PAO 
then slapped down a packet of U.S. certified and 
authorized views for Al Jazeera to repeat:

PAO also encouraged Al Mahmoud to draw on the 
many information resources available to him and 
his staff via the Public Affairs Section, and 
left him a folder with fact sheets and links 
relating to USG [U.S. Government] assistance in 
the region, including USG emergency aid and details of USG exchange programs.

Al Jazeera's Managing Director, Wadah Khanfar, 
had not only instructed Al Mahmoud to 
remove the slideshow from the server (not just 
amending it, and not just archiving it, as Al 
Mahmoud preferred) but also was apparently the 
one to warn Al Mahmoud to expect a U.S. 
visitor.  Al Mahmoud was thus, as noted by the 
PAO, prepared for the latter's visit.  Al Mahmoud 
meekly responded that "a mistake was made."  The 
PAO surmises that Khanfar had in turn been 
pressured by the Qatari Ministry of Foreign 
Affairs, after Ambassador Untermeyer's visit.

The PAO ends one cable by commenting that:

Al Mahmoud is clearly very wary of attracting 
negative attention from his chain of command, and 
is aware that 
irritated USG means trouble for him.  He urged 
PAO to call him directly any time the Embassy 
observes troubling material on the website.

Freedom of the press, one of the values the U.S. 
asserts in inventing its public image in the 
Middle East, is belied by actual practice. Al 
Jazeera for its part failed to assert editorial autonomy.

Under the Microscope

"They [Al Jazeera] know they are under the 
microscope, and want to be taken seriously.  Al 
Jazeera's growing globalization will only 
increase the pressure upon them to adhere to 
international standards of journalism and result 
in an organization that can be dealt with upon 
familiar ground, and within a framework already 
established by the mainstream media." -- 
Embassy, Doha, February 13, 2006

Officials of the U.S. Embassy, as we see in the 
WikiLeaks cables for Doha, in fact made a 
of visiting and contacting Al Jazeera, hoping to 
build that "familiar ground" and establish a 
reliable relationship that would respond to norms 
favorable to U.S. policy.  Just as Al Mahmoud had 
told the Embassy's PAO to contact him directly 
any time the Americans noted material they found 
troubling, so the U.S. Embassy kept a detailed 
list of Al Jazeera contacts -- see 
Information for Engaging Qatar on Objectionable 
Broadcasts."  Another cable, from 
18, 2005, details a meeting between the PAO and 
Al Jazeera's Managing Director, Wadah Khanfar, a 
Palestinian, as they note.  It appears that 
Khanfar tried to be a sort of middleman, gracious 
and understanding toward the U.S., remembering 
fondly how prior to 9/11 Al Jazeera "was regarded 
by the USG and the western world as a great asset 
and symbol of progress in the region" (emphasis 
added), and yet paying some respect to being independent and critical.

When the PAO (Nantongo appears as an indelicate 
person, hardly diplomatic, rather colonial) asked 
Khanfar how he viewed Al Jazeera's relations with 
the U.S. Government, Khanfar at first held back 
and shifted the focus to Arab governments.  While 
noting "mistakes" on both sides between Al 
Jazeera and the U.S., the diplomatic Khanfar 
seemed cheered and optimistic that a 
point" had recently been reached in U.S.-Al 
Jazeera relations, that is, "when detailed, 
practical exchanges began to take place between 
the two sides."  "AJ remains open to such input 
and indeed welcomes it," said Khanfar: "We have 
been more able to respond since we have received 
input.  It is now a practical discussion, a much 
more healthy relationship."  Khanfar asserted: 
"Al Jazeera is not there to be anti-American.  Absolutely not."

Karen Hughes, Bush's public diplomacy envoy to 
the Middle East mentioned above, 
paid a visit to Al Jazeera in 2006 and had a 
meeting with Khanfar and four other senior Al 
Jazeera staff members (Chief Editor Ahmed Sheikh, 
Deputy Chief Editor Ayman Gaballa, and senior 
presenters Mohamed Krishan and Jamil 
Azar).  Hughes complained that Al Jazeera's Iraq 
coverage was not neutral and "respectful" 
enough.  In response, Khanfar made some telling 
remarks, criticizing the Iraqi resistance and 
promising partnership with the U.S. and its goals of occupation:

We see ourselves as your partners in this, not as 
something to create problems.  We are interested 
in stability in Iraq.  It is clear that 
incitement has led nowhere. . . .  We see ourselves as partners.

Hughes objected to Al Jazeera showing any 
videotapes at all that came from the insurgents 
or Al Qaeda, effectively seeking to ban the rest 
of us from ever hearing or learning from those 
fighting the U.S. (a policy mirrored by 
YouTube).  Hughes then told Khanfar that she 
would place "two or three USG spokespeople on a 
permanent basis in Dubai's Media City, who would 
be available for comment at any time on a 
complete range of issues."  Khanfar was open to 
this and requested U.S. speakers with expertise 
on U.S. policy in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian 
conflict, and other areas.  He added that he 
would appreciate having U.S. Government 
spokespeople "on tap."  In 2008, in a cable 
section subtitled 
Holding Appears to Work," the PAO notes that Al 
Jazeera had requested that the U.S. "Embassy 
provide names of well-known Americans who may be 
willing to appear" -- the PAO agreed and further 
offered "to show producers how to search for 
academics, authors, think-tank members and former 
USG officials and state officials who could offer 
their views on specific topics."  In 2008, the 
U.S. Embassy sensed "goodwill" from Al Jazeera 
and much more "balanced" coverage (i.e. favorable 
to the U.S.).  The Embassy vowed "to take 
advantage of this positive trend by seeking 
placement of more U.S. voices, both official and 
private, on Al Jazeera in the coming months and 
monitoring the performance of producers and interviewers."

Also to be noted is that when Hughes spoke of 
issues of "professionalism" she directly tied the 
notion to Al Jazeera's content, "particularly as 
it relates to Iraq coverage and to the airing of 
terrorist-provided videotapes."  It is quite 
clear here what professionalism means and why it 
become the handy trope for U.S. political 
interference.  Hughes called for a more "civil 
and respectful dialogue," a classic line commonly 
used by those who would practice 
counterinsurgency through discourse, schooling 
opponents in "manners" that will, it is hoped, 
render them more quiet and docile.  The U.S. team 
accompanying Hughes to Al Jazeera, which included 
Ambassador Chase Untermeyer, the Near Eastern 
Affairs/Press and Public Diplomacy Director 
Alberto Fernandez, and PAO Mirembe Nantongo, 
asked Al Jazeera to hand over a copy of its 
editorial policy, while complaining of the 
"caliber" of the people Al Jazeera invited as guests on its talk shows.

Two years after Hughes, during the 
of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff 
Member Perry Cammack, the point was raised with 
Khanfar about the obviously lessened coverage of 
Al Qaeda on Al Jazeera.  This was in part due to 
Al Jazeera trying to "curry favor" with the Iraqi 
government, seeking to have Al Jazeera allowed 
back into Iraq.  In a meeting that same year 
(2008) with Under Secretary of State for Public 
K. Glassman, Wadah Khanfar stated that relations 
with the U.S. Government are "much better than 
before" and that Al Jazeera no longer airs 
"extremist" recordings unedited, and it 
to check facts with the USG before airing 
coverage of incidents involving the U.S. military."

other occasions, would repeat that Al Jazeera is 
not "anti-US" and "does not espouse any kind of 
'anti-US editorial policy'."  As if sensing that 
Khanfar feared the conversation would shape up to 
be one where he would be humiliated into assuming 
the role of a mere U.S. puppet, Deputy Assistant 
Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, 
to him: "We are not asking Al Jazeera to become a 
tool of the US Government; what we are asking for 
is its professionalism."  DAS Gray asked Khanfar 
if he would like to see greater cooperation 
between Al Jazeera and the U.S. Government, "in 
the area of boosting Al Jazeera's 
professionalism"(emphasis added), and he 
mentioned the U.S. International Visitor 
program.  Note how Gray characterizes Khanfar's 
response: "Khanfar acquiesced immediately" 
(emphasis added).  Khanfar went as far as saying 
that his staff hold a very generalized picture of 
the U.S. and could benefit from more 
exposure.  Khanfar also pleaded for more U.S. 
Government officials to appear on Al 
Jazeera.  Indeed, Khanfar was openly resentful of 
the U.S. favoritism displayed toward Al Arabiya, 
its Saudi-owned competitor (and 
in 2009 he repeated this invidious complaint).

Professionalism, once more, became the way of 
framing the manner in which the U.S. government 
would exert direct influence over Al 
Jazeera.  That there has been substantial 
influence is evidenced by the range of documents 
-- but clearly that influence would only be 
acceptable to senior people at Al Jazeera as long 
as it was respectfully packaged in terms of 
professional integrity, rather than outright political subservience.

When it came to coverage of Haiti, on Al Jazeera 
English, we see a glaring example of the U.S. 
exercising pressure to fundamentally transform Al 
Jazeera's coverage and of the manner in which the 
latter quickly acquiesced.  In a cable from 
20, 2010, written by the U.S. Ambassador to 
Qatar, Joseph LeBaron, we see his hackles raised 
at the way Al Jazeera English depicted the U.S. 
"humanitarian intervention" in Haiti in terms 
similar to an occupation.  We learn that within 
hours of Ambassador LeBaron notifying Near 
Eastern Affairs/Press and Public Diplomacy, the 
U.S. had one of its officials appear on Al 
Jazeera English.  Judith McHale, Under Secretary 
of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, 
also contacted Tony Burman, Director of Al 
Jazeera English -- the U.S. Embassy in Doha first 
contacted Burman and "ensured that Burman was 
ready for the call and understood the serious 
concerns that the Under Secretary would 
convey."  The U.S. Embassy continued to monitor 
Al Jazeera's coverage, and noted that within 
three days "AJE's coverage had evolved 
markedly."  Ambassador LeBaron added the final 
note to this, 
more intervention should Al Jazeera English 
depart in any way from representing the U.S. in less than laudatory terms:

Ambassador has directed Embassy staff to continue 
monitoring AJE's reporting, and to communicate 
these observations immediately to Washington.  If 
AJE, or any of Al Jazeera's channels, revert to 
inaccurate coverage, Ambassador will not hesitate 
to intervene at higher levels, starting with the 
Qatari Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Al Jazeera Network.

Imported Journalism: High Quality Always Comes from Away (Say the Colonized)

Driven to go global, Al Jazeera established an 
advisory body, "consisting of respected 
international journalism figures to assess and 
advise on Al Jazeera operations," known as the 
"Al Jazeera International Board of 
Visitors."  This group, which would play a 
quality assurance role (more below), includes the 
input of such people as CNN's 
<http://www.franksesno.net/>Frank Sesno; 
Burt, senior adviser to the Washington Center for 
Strategic International Studies (CSIS), a former 
U.S. ambassador and a former New York Times 
correspondent; and a range of other journalists, 
from France 3 Television, Die Zeit, to the BBC.

Institutions of British and French journalism 
have worked to 
the staff of Al Jazeera, which has also developed 
a relationship with the University of Missouri's 
School of Journalism.  Al Jazeera's training 
center has no staff of its own, but "imports 
trainers on an as-needed basis from various 
British/French/US journalism institutions," 
including the UK's Thomson Foundation and 
France's Ecole Superieure de Journalisme de 
Lille.  Al Jazeera's training courses are 
conducted in English.  The training center -- 
which functions as a foreign assimilation agent 
-- aims to spread its influence throughout the 
Arab world, by training staff from the region's 
media outlets.  It reported dozens of courses in 
a single year, with thousands of 
participants.  Al Jazeera's training center also 
participated in the U.S. 
East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), established 
by Secretary of State Colin Powell during the 
first term of the George W. Bush administration, 
and supervised by Liz Cheney, to aid local "agents of change" in the region.

It should be understood that the Al Jazeera 
training center also sought to teach 
awareness" according to Al Jazeera's Managing 
Director -- keep in mind where the trainers come 
from and where the trainees go -- and that 
trainers from the UK's Thomson School of 
Journalism would teach local staff about the 
"philosophical, historical and political aspects 
of their job" (he might have meant what is now 
Institute in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford).

Al Jazeera English, launched in 2006, involved a 
fast track to mimicking mainstream corporate 
journalism by in fact hiring directly from 
mainstream corporate circles -- 
media recruits from all parts of the world" were 
to join Al Jazeera's colony in Doha (I mean that 
literally, as the journalists live in gated 
communities with little prospect of interacting 
with locals).  One of their American hires, 
Marash, "excoriated the station for taking on an 
anti-American bent" and left -- although Al 
Jazeera staff downplayed his stated reasons, 
noting that he had much more personal grievances 
and that in any case the charge of 
anti-Americanism was leveled not at the Qatari 
and other Arab staff, but rather at 
British employees.  Al Jazeera's local staff, for 
their part, complained about the British staff 
for being arrogant and "acting like colonialists."

In 2006, control of the English website was 
handed over to Al Jazeera English and its 
Merryman, a British national.  Al Jazeera's 
website director, Al Mahmoud, previously 
responsible for both the English and Arabic 
versions, was clearly 
with this rearrangement.

Even those who are not themselves outsiders to 
the Middle East and North Africa, such as 
Abbas Ahmed, are BBC-trained, Abbas being one who 
took up residence in Doha after working for the 
BBC for over a decade.  We are told that a 
"significant number" of the earliest Al Jazeera 
from the BBC.  Al Jazeera's quality assurance 
team (more on this below) will regularly "record 
BBC and CNN coverage" of an event also covered by 
Al Jazeera "and compare it critically to AJ's 
coverage."  In addition, Al Jazeera English 
produced a "code of conduct" for its journalists 
that is virtually 
from the BBC's document.

The Emir of Qatar and Al Jazeera

The Doha cables are interesting for other points, 
which contextualized how Qatar deploys Al Jazeera 
and how Qatar constructs its foreign policy.  The 
Qatari regime is, after all, one of the nations 
that actively engaged in bombing Libya and has 
been funding and arming the opposition to Col. 
Gaddafi.  One of the stated reasons for the 
foreign military intervention in Libya is that of 
creating a new democracy, with political freedoms 
for the opposition.  How ironic it is to be 
reminded of the absence of these freedoms in 
Qatar.  As the speakers in 
cable explain, "economic and political power are 
overwhelmingly in the hands of the state. . . 
.  Qatar does not have a formal opposition.  In 
fact, political parties are not legal . . . 
criticizing the government brings the risk of 
losing benefits and preferences for themselves 
and their families, such as housing and 
education."  Promised democratic reforms are 
viewed by Qatari critics as merely designed to 
enhance the international image of the 
regime.  The Emir can withdraw any amount of 
money from the Treasury, at will, and not have to 
answer to anyone: state funds are personal 
funds.  Even with the reforms, the ruling family 
remains unanswerable to any national 
institution.  Individuals can be detained and 
held without charge for up to six months (or 
longer, subject to the approval of the Prime 
Minister), in the "public interest."  Members of 
the Al-Murra tribe have been stripped of their 
Qatari nationality.  And, much as U.S. 
commentators criticized Qatar for sponsoring a 
unit like Al Jazeera, which seemingly gave play 
to jihadist voices, the fact revealed in one 
cable is that the government of Qatar 
'helps' Israel's security service."

One cable makes it clear that Qatari officials 
"view AJ, both English and Arabic, as 
tools of Qatari foreign policy."  In a meeting 
with Senator John Kerry on February 13, 2010, 
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani 
declared that 
would stop Al Jazeera for a year" if it meant 
that Egypt would alter its foreign policy on the 
Palestinians, which clearly shows where the real 
power ultimately lies in determining Al Jazeera's 
content and that the content is open to 
negotiation between the parties that have power 
over Al Jazeera.  As for Al Jazeera English, it 
is made to hew 
closely to Doha's political line as AJ's Arabic channel."

We should also note that the Managing Director, 
Khanfar, stated that the Emir does not interfere 
in Al Jazeera's 
which might be a very careful choice of words 
from someone who seems to always choose his words 
very carefully.  However, as the U.S. Embassy 
Jazeera has resolutely steered away from . . . 
reporting on anything politically controversial 
in Qatar."  The Chairman of Al Jazeera is himself 
a member of the royal family that rules Qatar.

Likewise, we must note that the U.S. Embassy told 
Washington that it was ready to help exploit Al 
Jazeera's openness 
direct diplomacy with Qatar's ruling family and 
members of Al Jazeera's Doha 
headquarters."  Elsewhere, Ambassador LeBaron insisted that,

to help improve the USG's image on the Arab 
street, we need to step up USG senior-level 
engagement of the Qatari 
relations with the ruling al-Thani family will 
translate into changes in al-Jazeera coverage 
that will gradually help improve the image of the 
United States in the Arab street.

While admitting that Al Jazeera has been great 
for Qatar's, and the Emir's, international public 
profile, Khanfar asserted that Al Jazeera did not 
see itself as part of any reform movement, 
was it the voice of the Arabs.

Responsible + Professional = Imperial

Indeed, Khanfar demonstrated how in practice U.S. 
inputs and 
assurance" to ensure "professionalism," 
"balance," and "objectivity" would tilt the news 
coverage to better favor U.S. interests.  Khanfar 
told the PAO about Al Jazeera's daily quality 
assurance meeting that "meeting is very tight, 
tighter even than your list."  (We do not know 
what list the PAO had with her.)  Khanfar 
described how Al Jazeera changed its choice of 
terms, to mollify U.S. concerns: instead of "the 
resistance," they would now refer to "military 
groups"; instead of "the occupation," they would 
now blandly speak of the "multinational force" -- 
all of which perfectly echoes the way NATO's ISAF 
frames its daily press narrative in Afghanistan.

It is also significant to note that the 
Embassy's PAO would also meet with the head of Al 
Jazeera's "quality assurance" team, Jaafar Abbas 
Ahmed, thereby having a direct input into what 
was discussed at the quality assurance meetings, 
even if the participants might not be aware of 
the PAO's prior meeting with their 
director.  Abbas notes resistance from the older 
generation of journalists in Al Jazeera and 
praises Wadah Khanfar, who opened Al Jazeera to 
the U.S. Embassy, as a "source of strength" 
(presumably in strengthening Abbas' hand 
vis-à-vis the recalcitrant holdouts).  Abbas 
describes his QA unit as a "tumor" that staff 
have come to live with -- he also promised a 
computerized database of all Al Jazeera staff, 
keeping them under surveillance for any "biased" 
remarks.  It is interesting to note Abbas' chatty 
friendliness with the PAO, as if speaking to an 
insider, or a fellow director, as they roll their 
eyes at the unruly natives.  Similarly, on 
another occasion, Abbas went as far as calling Al 
Jazeera's interview producers 
when speaking to the Embassy's PAO.

Khanfar was there to be America's "Mr. Fix It": 
"Where there is a problem -- whether we learn 
about it from you, from our QA team, or from 
another source -- we fix it 
immediately."  Khanfar in fact asked that he too 
should directly receive the DIA's reports 
analyzing Al Jazeera's coverage, because the 
Ministry of Foreign Affairs was too slow in 
passing them on.  The Embassy agreed, noting that 
Khanfar "clearly takes them seriously."  The U.S. 
continued to insist that Al Jazeera not broadcast 
insurgent videos or "provocative 
interviews."  The 
Embassy praised Khanfar as someone who is 
"clearly committed to bringing Al Jazeera up to 
professional international standards of 
journalism" and who "seems to be not only open to 
criticism but to welcome it."  On numerous 
occasions Khanfar is clearly responsive to U.S. 
criticisms of Al Jazeera content, especially on 
its <http://wikileaks.org/cable/2005/10/05DOHA1765.html>website.

Questions of Complicity

"[W]e should make strategic use of the Al Jazeera 
television network." -- 
E. LeBaron, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, February 10, 2009

It is important to note -- since some will want 
to raise this issue as solid proof that the U.S. 
related to Al Jazeera as it would to any of its 
enemies, i.e. by planning lethal actions -- that 
here too the cables are useful.  Written from 
insiders, and meant for private consumption by 
other insiders in the U.S. foreign relations 
apparatus, former Ambassador Untermeyer utterly 
dismisses as 
any notion that Bush planned to bomb the Doha 
headquarters of Al Jazeera.  As he logically 
points out, it would be absurd because it would 
in fact be a military attack on a friendly 
nation, and he calls on his government to issue a 
stronger denial than it had to date.

When it comes to the substance of U.S. relations 
with Al Jazeera, the questions that should come 
to mind are: What does responsible 
mean?  Responsible for what?  Responsible to 
whom?  What is balance, and how is the truth 
balanced when the idea itself implies that 
something else must be a lie?  Why is balance 
important, when airing long-suppressed and 
regularly marginalized voices?  What is 
objectivity, when one is subject to pressure and 
made to fear for his/her career?  What is 
professionalism and why does it always seemingly 
resolve to a default position of not upsetting the status quo?

When the U.S. government is so clearly bent on 
dominating the message, on performing routine 
acts of daily censorship through intimate and 
secretive pressure behind the scenes, and when 
notions of professionalism, balance, and 
objectivity become mere imperial code for 
subservience to U.S. interests, it is no wonder 
that WikiLeaks itself should be accused of being 
. . . guess what?  Irresponsible, unprofessional, 
and anti-American!  Long live irresponsibility, 
because journalism certainly is dead.

It should come as no surprise that there will be 
those who read these cables and yet, wishing to 
preserve a veneer of legitimacy and credibility 
for Al Jazeera, stress that it is not a "simple 
mouthpiece" for the U.S. Government.  A 
simplemouthpiece it is not -- the tilt in Al 
Jazeera's coverage is something that evidently 
needs to be negotiated and reaffirmed 
daily.  Where American journalists practice 
self-censorship, consciously or not, there are 
also broadly cultural and narrowly ideological 
reasons for doing so, and the solidarity between 
the press corps and the imperial state may be an 
"organic" one.  Not being steeped in U.S. 
politics and culture, Al Jazeera requires a more 
hands-on form of instruction -- hand holding -- 
and, here, any solidarity is more of a 
"mechanical" one.  The relationship that the U.S. 
has with Al Jazeera could put 
in a somewhat minor light: as much as many revile 
the power of Murdoch and Fox News, that outfit 
has yet to impact a population targeted by U.S. 
foreign policy as much as Al Jazeera, and is 
certainly not owned by a state, with an air force 
and troops, and an active combatant in Libya to boot.


1.  Full disclosure: Following an hour-long 
interview on Al Jazeera Arabic in 2010, I agreed 
to write a series of paid columns for the Al 
Jazeera Arabic website.  This article is not 
written on the basis of any of my very minimal 
insider knowledge, and I should indicate that at 
no point did any Al Jazeera staff seek to impose 
an editorial policy on my writing.  In my 
interactions with Al Jazeera staff I have never 
known them to be anything other than extremely 
professional, patient, and generous.  In March of 
2011 I terminated my relationship with Al 
Jazeera, for political reasons, on the basis of 
its coverage of Libya and Bahrain, and the 
political ends to which Al Jazeera was used by 
the Qatari state and its U.S. ally in the war against Libya.

2.  The complete package of 40 cables on which 
much of this article was based have been compiled 
and made available as a PDF download, which can 
also be embedded online: 
<http://www.box.net/shared/96u7jio1b62px9trp1on>please click here.

Maximilian C. Forte is an associate professor in 
anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, 
Canada.  His website is at 
Cf. Maximilian Forte, 
War in Libya: Race, 'Humanitarianism,' and the 
Media" (MRZine, 20 April 2011); Maximilian Forte, 
-- Lather, Rinse, Repeat -- Syria: Liberal 
Imperialism and the Refusal to Learn" (MRZine, 10 
August 2011); Maximilian Forte, 
<http://bit.ly/rbi7FS>"The Top Ten Myths in the 
War against Libya" (CounterPunch, 31 August 2011)

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