Al Jazeera and US Foreign Policy
What WikiLeaks’ US embassy cables reveal about US pressure and propaganda
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.” -- U.S. Embassy, Doha, February 13, 2006
Officials of the U.S. Embassy, as we see in the WikiLeaks cables for Doha, in fact made a habit 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. Another cable, from September 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 “turning 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, personally 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 “Hand 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 closely 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 becomes 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 visit 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 Diplomacy, James 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 “attempts to check facts with the USG before airing coverage of incidents involving the U.S. military.” Khanfar, on 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, Gordon Gray, said 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 holds 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 again 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 January 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, promising 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.
To be continued
The author is an associate professor of Anthropology at Concordia University, Canada. His current research focuses on imperialism, ideologies of empire, colonialism, the politics of foreign intervention, and decolonization.
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