The Resignation of Wadah Khanfar and the Future of Al Jazeera

Why the Arab Spring Was the Best — And Worst — Thing to Happen to the Network

Speculation is swirling as to why Wadah Khanfar, the director general of the Arab world’s most powerful satellite news broadcaster, resigned his post last week. But the real question is whether the network can survive the challenges it now faces.

Philip Seib

The resignation last week of Wadah Khanfar as managing director of Al Jazeera has provoked speculation that scandal lurks beneath his departure. Many have pointed to a WikiLeaks cable stating that Khanfar had succumbed to pressure from the U.S. in 2005 and played down civilian casualties in some of the network’s coverage of the Iraq War. Others have argued that larger political matters related to its coverage of the Arab Spring — especially its unrestrained, albeit selective, endorsement of democratic reforms — forced Khanfar’s ouster.

Both suggestions contain more fancy than substance: it is hard to believe that Doha did not already know about Khanfar’s talking to the U.S. ambassador or that pro-democracy strands in Al Jazeera’s programming would end his career. (Khanfar regularly ruffled feathers during his tenure.) A far likelier explanation is that, after eight stressful years, Khanfar simply decided that he had contributed all he could to the network. Indeed, his contributions have been transformative.

The more intriguing question is what comes next for Al Jazeera. On one level, the network is doing well. It has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 1996. Al Jazeera English’s reputation for solid journalism continues to improve, as evidenced by its surge in popularity in the United States during this year’s Arab uprisings. The network is developing franchises in sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, and the Balkans. There is even talk of Al Jazeera Urdu. But despite its expanding global reach, the Arab world’s flagship 24-hour satellite news channel must now face the fact that Arabs’ dependence on it is decreasing. As more and more of the region gains access to the Internet, a proliferation of information providers is eroding Al Jazeera’s dominance. Meanwhile, the revolutions that the network helped drive have unleashed a cascade of largely local news outlets, which provide more direct competition. There is no doubt that Al Jazeera will remain a major force in the region for years to come, but its singular role as a unique provider of open, honest content may already be a thing of the past.

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