LONDON: In the dingy lobby of a London hotel, Wadah Khanfar makes room for me on the sofa and says he is feeling fantastic. “It's one of the most beautiful moments in my life. You know when you wake up in the morning and you don't have that kind of responsibility — to watch the screen and make sure there are no mistakes — it is very relieving. To be able to go swimming early in the morning and have breakfast and sit with your wife, it's amazing. I haven't done this for years.”
Three weeks ago, at the age of just 43, Khanfar left one of the best jobs in the world. As director general of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite broadcaster that made its name in the aftermath of 9/11, he led the transformation of Arab television that some believe enabled the Arab spring to take place.
On TV and Twitter he insisted the decision to resign was his own, to widespread disbelief, and last week journalism professor George Brock suggested he had sacrificed himself “to save Al Jazeera”. So is Al Jazeera, which celebrates its 15th anniversary next month, under threat? If so, where from?
The broadcaster's independence has been challenged from several directions recently, highlighting the tightrope it must walk in its dealings with the west on one hand, and Arab states on the other. Khanfar has always insisted that the hefty subsidy paid by the Qatari royal family to Al Jazeera did not buy editorial influence, and says the support of the emir and the chair of governors insulated the channel from the complaints of foreign governments.
But the situation of Qatar itself has become more complicated, as the emir has pursued an active policy of punching above his tiny country's weight and shaping a new role for Qatar in international diplomacy. WikiLeaks showed Qatar badmouthing Egypt and promoting itself as an alternative broker in the Middle East, while recent reports suggest the Taliban may soon open a Doha office from which to conduct negotiations with the Americans.
Khanfar's resignation followed the release of another WikiLeaks cable that showed him bending to US pressure over footage of injured Iraqi civilians, leading some to conclude that the Qataris sacked him to save face. His replacement by a member of the Qatari royal family, a former gas executive, has been seen as proof that the Qataris have adjusted the broadcaster's remit and drastically shortened the reins.
Khanfar says, however, that his departure has nothing to do with any of this: “OK, we have millions of rumours about why and how and who, but the story actually is, that after this year of our coverage, I think we achieved the peak of our presence.”
Journalism with a joy
He talks about journalism with a joy and sincerity wonderful to hear for a fellow journalist toiling away in an organisation battling multimillion-pound losses in a British media landscape poisoned by the cynicism of some of its owners. Since I don't want to think he's not telling the truth, I believe him. It may be that Khanfar resigned because he knew the greatest days of his editorial freedom were behind him, and that Al Jazeera's coverage of uprisings closer to home in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia could not equal the glory of those February days when 24-hour rolling news helped ensure the safety of the Tahrir Square protesters. But resign he did.
“This Arab spring is going to continue for years,” he says. “I don't think it's going to end tomorrow, but the biggest part of it is to start the revolution and that has happened. The greatest success was in Egypt and Tunisia; in Libya and the rest of the Arab world we have a more complicated situation and on a personal level, I thought this is the right moment for me to move on, to become part of the building of a new Arab world.”
Khanfar used to be a foreign correspondent, and is full of great stories of life in the field. Although he must have been brave, reporting from Kabul and returning to Iraq through Kurdistan after he was kicked out, he does not seem all that interested in war. One of his favourite tales is eating a rooster under the stars after getting lost in south-west Zimbabwe. Khanfar wrote a thesis on African democracy and thinks he would have ended up in a think-tank if Al Jazeera had not offered him a job.
He has always been keen to use the camera himself. “I discovered that in order to write a magnificent piece you should shoot the images because once you are filming, you are writing the script in your mind,” he says. Once a group of armed Pashtun farmers mistook the camera for a chemical-spraying device aimed at their poppies, but he made them laugh by playing his footage to them. “I wrote a magnificent report; they started complaining about the government, about the Americans. They showed me how they refine it [the heroin]; told me why they are doing it.”
He and seven younger siblings grew up in a village near Jenin on the West Bank. His father was a teacher and Khanfar left to study engineering in Jordan, where he met his wife, a novelist, as she gave a speech to the student union (impressed by her courage, he proposed the same day). His family remains in Palestine and Khanfar calls it “a very beautiful, simple, isolated life”, but politics was everywhere. “There was a feeling of protest and resistance in 1982-83, long before the intifada.”
He describes the mosque as a crucial part of village life. “Yes, I am a practising Muslim and I go to mosque whenever I have time — not every day, as you see. For me, Islam is a moral reference point, a source of inspiration to work collectively with people, to love people and to help them, to concentrate on universal values of mercy, co-operation and tolerance.”
The other universal value Khanfar has adopted is democracy, which he believes will eventually stretch across the Arab world, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. “Some people have started to be critical of the Arab spring, to say that extremists will be brought into parliaments and so on. In my opinion, you have to accept this and deal with the ramifications because there is no other way. If you reject this, what other way are you going to pick?—Dawn/Guardian News Service