Al-Jazeera head Khanfar loses seat

Arab web shuffles board

LONDON — While Al-Jazeera has been used to making headlines for its portrayal of news in front of the camera, events behind the scenes are now raising questions about the future of the Qatar-based net.

The announcement of a new board in May was most notable for who wasn’t on it: namely Wadah Khanfar, the director-general of Al-Jazeera Networks. As the man ultimately responsible for both Arab- and English-language news at the nets, as well as Al-Jazeera’s sports and docu channels, Khanfar had established himself as arguably the most powerful man in Arab TV news.

His removal from the board, as well as the appointment of general manager Ahmad Kholeifi to oversee the net’s financial and administrative operations, has led some to comment that Khanfar’s tenure may be coming to an end.

What’s more, a series of increasingly passionate op-ed pieces have been making their way around media outlets making contrasting accusations.

U.K. politico George Galloway wrote in the Guardian newspaper that, “some elements in the Qatari government have yielded to the relentless U.S. pressure” to take on a more pro-American editorial line.

Conversely, former Washington bureau chief Hafez Al-Mirazi gave a no-holds-barred interview to leading Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat in which he said the reason he left the net was because of its increasingly Islamist outlook and marginalization of liberal journos. Al-Mirazi has since decided to launch his own news channel in Egypt.

“I know what has been written, but I can assure you that Al-Jazeera will remain the same. There has been no change in our editorial line or our editorial policy,” Khanfar tells Variety. “As far as I’m concerned, I run Al-Jazeera and I’m in charge. Mr. Kholeifi is responsible for financial and administrative issues, not the editorial line of the channel. In my opinion, this separation between the executive management and senior journalists is healthy.”

Aside from the exec shuffles at the net, Al-Jazeera is also facing increasingly tough competition from a clutch of new entrants to the Arab TV news market. France, Germany and Russia all have launched their own Arabic-language news channels in recent months, while the BBC is due to bow its own news channel later this year. Meanwhile Iran launched Press TV, its own 24-hour English-language newscast, July 2.

It’s a measure of its editorial policy that the Iranian satcaster’s head of live programming Nader Rad has criticized Al-Jazeera for being “too neutral” in its coverage of the Middle East.

“All this competition is excellent for audiences and healthy for business,” Al Jazeera’s Khanfar says. “We don’t feel threatened by any channel. There is no alternative to us as No. 1. We’re always looking to expand our own network’s products.”

Only time will tell if Khanfar will still be around to oversee that expansion.

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