Today, the CONFIDENTIAL 20 October 2005 dispatch from Ambassador Chase Untermeyer in Doha, Qatar, that led to today’s ouster of the News Editor of Al Jazeera. The offense? Dancing to the U.S. State Department’s tune.
First the story, from the Associated Press:
The Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel has announced Tuesday that its director has stepped down after serving the network for eight years.
Wadah Khanfar’s resignation follows release of documents by Wikileaks, purporting to show he had close ties with the U.S. and agreed to remove some content in response to American objections.
The leaked 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable indicated that Khanfar was in constant contact with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, responding to U.S. complaints of negative coverage and promising to tone down items on the station’s website. The cables referred to Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs as “MFA” which passed him some of the DIA reports.
Al-Jazeera said in a statement that Khanfar expressed his desire to resign in July, and that his replacement was arranged one month ago to “to ensure a smooth transition.” The statement did not refer to the leaked cable.
And with that for a preface, here’s the cable, posted online here. PAO is public affairs office.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DOHA 001765
STATE FOR NEA/PD, NEA/ARP
INFO NSC FOR ABRAMS, DOD/OSD FOR SCHENKER AND MATHENY
LONDON FOR ARAB MEDIA OFFICE
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/19/2010
TAGS: PREL KPAO QA ALJAZEERA
SUBJECT: PAO MEETING WITH AL JAZEERA MANAGING DIRECTOR
REF: A. THORNE-EMBASSY DOHA 10/18 EMAIL
B. THORNE-NANTONGO 10/18 EMAIL EXCHANGE
Classified By: Ambassador Chase Untermeyer, Reasons 1.4 (b&d)
1. (C) Summary: PAO met 10/19 with Al Jazeera Managing Director Wadah Khanfar to discuss the latest DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] report on Al Jazeera and disturbing Al Jazeera website content. Khanfar is preparing a written response to the DIA points from July, August and September which should be available during the coming week. Khanfar said the most recent website piece of concern to the USG has been toned down and that he would have it removed over the subsequent two or three days. End summary.
2. (C) Per Ref A, PAO gave Khanfar a hard copy of DIA’s unclassified snippets from July, August and September. Khanfar said he had recently received hard copies of the July and August snippets via the MFA and was in the process of preparing a written response to them. He said he would include September’s points in the report and pass it to PAO during the course of the coming week. “We need to fix the method of how we receive these reports,” said Khanfar, noting that he had found one of them (presumably sent from the MFA) “on the fax machine.”
DIA’s unclassified snippets for September
3. (C) PAO told Khanfar that despite an overall decrease in negative coverage since February, the month of September showed a worrying increase in such programming over the previous month. She summarized the latest USG reporting on Al Jazeera by noting that problems still remain with double-sourcing in Iraq; identifying sources; use of inflammatory language; a failure to balance of extremist views; and the use of terrorist tapes.
4. (C) Having had an opportunity to review the July and August reports, Khanfar said he had several observations to make. On a semantic level, he 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. “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.”
5. (C) He then said that broadly, the reports’ points fell into three categories. “Some are simple mistakes which we accept and address,” he said. In the second category, he said, are points that are taken in isolation and out of context by the USG report. “This report takes bits and pieces from a whole thing and does not give the context,” he said, noting that in some instances during the AJ broadcasting day, a comment made or position taken by one person may be balanced with a different comment or position later in the same show or later on during the same day. Since Al Jazeera is live 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is not always possible to provide needed balance at the moment itself, he said. The report, he said, fails to note where balance was achieved in the following news hour, for example, or later on the same day. Thirdly, said Khanfar, there are points on which resolution does not seem possible, such as the use of terrorist tapes. “We have always said that we are going to use these tapes and we will continue to use them. The question is how. None of the tapes are used just like that,” he said, meaning that they are reviewed for newsworthiness and are edited. Concerning the use of inflammatory language, Khanfar said the station’s concern is with the language used by its own reporters and anchors. No station staff member is permitted to use loaded vocabulary. The reports’ focus on inflammatory language is on that used by non-Al Jazeera interviewees, he pointed out. “How can I control what these people say? I can only control Al Jazeera staff. All we can do is try to balance what these people say in other parts of the program,” he said.
6. (C) Commenting on the reports overall, he said they lacked balance in that they only focus on the negative. “A report like this should have both sides,” he said. “It does not report the voice we have given to American spokespeople over the recent past,” he said. “We do not always find a military spokesman, for example, but we are trying our best, and we have some success. This is not mentioned.” Speaking of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraqi referendum, he said the station provided 12 hours of continuous coverage, which featured voices from all those vested in the process — Kurds, Shia, Sunni, Americans, Britons and others. “I would really like to see that in next month’s report,” he said. Khanfar repeated that he would respond in more detail to all three reports over the coming days and pass the response to PAO.
Troublesome website material
7. (C) PAO raised the question of an Al Jazeera website piece published in the last week, listed under the heading “Special Coverage”, and containing “Live Testimony Concerning Tal Afar”. 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” who described recent military operations in Tal Afar.
8. (C) Khanfar said that, in accordance with an earlier promise to PAO (Ref B), he had taken a look at the piece and had two images removed (two injured children in hospital beds, and a woman with serious facial injury). PAO pointed out that the testimony of a “doctor” in the piece also implied that poison gas had been used on residents of Tal Afar and that the appearance of the piece, in particular the bloody bullet hole icons, came across as inflammatory and journalistically questionable. Khanfar appeared to repress a sigh but said he would have the piece removed. “Not immediately, because that would be talked about, but over two or three days,” he said.
9. (C) He said he had told the website staff that in future, when they want to add an item to the “Special Coverage” section of the website, they should send a draft of the idea over to his office. (Note: The AJ website is located in a separate building across town. End note.) He noted that until two or three months ago, the website staff had enjoyed much more autonomy. Now, however, website director Abdel Aziz Al Mahmoud attends the weekly editorial meetings at the TV channel offices, and the website staff is being pulled under the umbrella of the same editorial standards as the TV channel. “I don’t say that such things are not going to be repeated on the website, but it is a learning process,” said Khanfar.