“We were stunned.”
Friday is typically a quiet day of prayer in the Muslim world. Wadah Khanfar, the director general of Al Jazeera, did not expect to spend the evening of February 11th sitting with two colleagues in his office in Doha, Qatar, watching Egypt’s Vice President Omar Suleiman announce that President Hosni Mubarak was stepping down. “It was the shortest and most important speech in Arab history,” Khanfar says.
Khanfar had been dueling with the Mubarak regime for 18 days. The government jammed Al Jazeera’s satellite signal, so that most of its audience could not watch its coverage. Thugs ransacked its Cairo office. Ayman Mohyeldin, the star reporter for Al Jazeera English, had to hide a camera on the balcony of a random guy’s apartment to broadcast live shots of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Police repeatedly threatened the network’s reporters, who stopped showing their faces on air.
Now Mubarak, like Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was gone. Khanfar couldn’t believe it. “These dictators were just a matter of fact–like nature, like air,” he says several weeks later, as we talk in that same office where he first heard the news. “They just existed.”
He recalls how he made the three-minute walk from his office to the Arabic-language newsroom, filled with employees, some of them Egyptian. He instructed the editors and producers to keep the camera on Tahrir Square and not move it. Put the audio on, he told them, but don’t let any commentators or news anchors speak. For 10 minutes, Al Jazeera showed the jubilant scene: millions of protesters whooping, clapping, jumping, and waving Egyptian flags, with not one journalist straining for a career-defining turn of phrase. Imagine Anderson Cooper trying to keep quiet in the middle of a revolution. “It was the most beautiful TV I have ever seen,” Khanfar says. “It was just public-made TV without any interference.”
Al Jazeera’s sudden ascent has been big news in the United States this year. The New York Times has written about the network and its role in the revolutionary events in the Arab world roughly a dozen times since the beginning of 2011. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended its seriousness during her March testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States,” she said. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock.” Absent from almost every major cable system in the U.S., the network has found an audience here online, deftly leveraging Twitter to drive traffic to the Al Jazeera English website. It has become the third-most-popular news outlet on YouTube. All of this is even more remarkable when you consider the lingering notion, however inaccurate, that Al Jazeera may somehow be linked to Al Qaeda.
Khanfar, effectively both CEO and editorial director, deserves the credit for growing Al Jazeera into a network capable of seizing this moment. His secret may be that, despite a decade working as a manager, he still thinks of himself as a field journalist. “There are many books written about management: ‘How to Become a Manager in Five Minutes,’ ” Khanfar says, laughing out loud. “I don’t think that’s right. The first principle of management is to observe and to understand the true spirit of the network.”
That spirit lies in Al Jazeera’s scrappiness, its diversity, and its ability to persevere amid the chaos and complexity of the Middle East. Figuring out how to circumvent an Egyptian dictator who cut off the country’s Internet and the network’s connection to the world. Trusting viewers’ cell-phone videos to tell the story of the revolution in Tunisia, where the network was then banned. Recognizing that the news industry is changing, and building additional news programs and reporting platforms around social media, particularly Twitter and user-generated video, to prepare for a different world. And finding ways to spread Khanfar’s optimism that the rest of the world eventually will view Al Jazeera as a significant news organization. “It looks so exotic to Americans, but in the Arab world, it’s CNN,” says Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who specializes in international affairs. “Fox runs a much narrower band of programming than Al Jazeera.”
Khanfar has spent a lifetime thriving amid uncertainty. Born in 1968, the year after Israel began occupying the West Bank, he grew up there, in Rama, a Palestinian farming village of about 500 residents. “I’ve seen to what extent chaos creates a sense of an unimaginable, unexpected future,” he says as we leave the daily editorial meeting. “You can’t buy a house or establish a farm. You don’t know how the political map will look next year.”
His father, a teacher, cultivated olive trees and owned a small business on the side selling olive oil. Khanfar attended high school in an adjacent town, walking the 4 miles each way or riding a donkey over the mountainous terrain. He calls it a simple, beautiful childhood, if not a stable one. He remembers listening to BBC Radio as his major source of news.
Khanfar spent his twenties traveling from one tumultuous political situation to another. He met his wife at a protest rally at the University of Jordan, picking her out of a crowd because she seemed so fierce and determined. They traveled together to Sudan, where he enrolled in an African Studies graduate program at the moment that Army Brigadier Omar Hassan Ahmed Al-Bashir led a coup to become president. In 1994, Khanfar arrived in South Africa for another graduate program as Nelson Mandela took power and the vestiges of apartheid collapsed. Listening to Khanfar recount his life story is like reading a case study of the various ways leaders try to navigate change. He notes drily that South Africa managed to encourage blacks and whites to live side by side in a way that Israel and Palestine have yet to do.
Khanfar’s wandering eventually led him to journalism. He had never considered it a profession, because being a journalist in the Middle East meant serving the government or one of its intelligence agencies. But, he says, “Al Jazeera was something different.” Khanfar started as an on-air pundit for the upstart network in 1997, positioning himself as an expert on African politics. Soon, he was filing stories on health and education. A one-man shop, he’d turn on his TV camera using a remote control, so he could simultaneously talk and film himself. He spent several years in Africa, reporting on tribal life and the clashes in Zimbabwe between farmers and the country ‘s leader, Robert Mugabe.
After 9/11, Khanfar says, “my life was interrupted.” The network transferred him to Afghanistan in December 2001, shortly after a U.S. missile destroyed the Al Jazeera bureau in Kabul. On the eve of the Iraq war, he smuggled himself into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, he moved to Baghdad to head the network’s operations, kicking off his management career and building the bureau into Al Jazeera’s largest field operation before going to Doha to join Al Jazeera’s executive team.
Even now, he loves nothing more than talking about old-fashioned, mission-driven journalism. On the final day of my four-day visit, just as I’m about to leave for the airport, Khanfar makes a roomful of people wait as he pontificates on the correct way to tell a story. “Once you look at the scene and you see the picture, you start writing the script in your head,” he tells me. “You add some words to it, not too many words.” He keeps going as his assistant nervously beckons him to move on to his next appointment. “A picture supported with just a little bit of words–that is magnificent.”
Khanfar runs the network with a mix of smarts, ambition, and playfulness. One moment, he’s professorial in his analysis of how various countries have handled regime change, sitting back in his chair and delivering fully formed paragraphs. The next, he’s joking and laughing, the dimple in the middle of his slightly unshaven chin growing more prominent with each guffaw. He’ll tease almost anyone: I watch him heckle a visitor from Milan about which farmers produce the best olive oil, the Italians or the Palestinians. In the middle of a serious discussion, he’ll turn playful, referring to his public-relations minder as “His Royal Highness.” Like President George W. Bush, hardly one of his role models, he has a propensity to bestow sarcastic nicknames on staffers he likes.
One thing he is deeply serious about is building the network’s social-media presence. The network’s seven-person social-media team–all under the age of 32, speakers of Arabic, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Turkish, Dutch, Moroccan, German, and, as one young staffer says, “various forms of slang”–is based in a small beige office down a hallway past the British anchor delivering an hourly newscast, the online editor’s office (a green sign reads get excited to make things), and a prayer room. They’re dressed eclectically, too, some in jeans, skirts, and blazers, others in white robes or abayas–and, of course, sneakers. Their boss is 27-year-old Riyaad Minty, who dropped out of university in South Africa at 18 to work for a mobile marketing startup. Khanfar hired him in 2007, first to work on the network’s mobile presence and then to head up its social-media efforts. Several Al Jazeera employees tell me this is one of Khanfar’s best leadership traits–hiring bright people and giving them lots of leeway.
“It’s a puzzle to try to use this to piece together what’s happening,” Minty acknowledges as he leans over a computer, citing the increase in violent, graphic images from Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Like many news organizations, Al Jazeera has gotten story leads from email, Twitter, and Facebook for years, but nothing like the flood of digital material that began streaming in after a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire in December 2010, triggering protests that led to the fall of the Tunisian government. The number of viewer-generated videos or photos sent to the network jumped from 150 pieces of content each day to as many as 1,400. Al Jazeera has been able to get these images on the air in a meaningful way because the online team had already built an internal platform called Sharek (meaning “participate” or “contribute”) that made it easy for viewers to submit content. The social-media crew combs Sharek each day and sends the newsrooms the best pictures and videos.
“It was the young guys on the street who provided us with the pictures and voices,” Khanfar says. “We need to pay them back.” He plans to bring groups of 40 to 50 citizen journalists across the Middle East to Qatar for free five-day training. Another 400 will be given simple video cameras. The hope is that some will turn into regular paid freelancers. The network is trying to incorporate all kinds of social media into its programming. An interactive TV show out of the Washington, D.C., bureau called The Stream was scheduled to debut in May. It’s a play on the call-in show, but rather than respond to viewers’ telephone queries, the hosts will look to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for topics to discuss. The show will start and end online, with the televised portion in the middle. “We should try every path to reach out to the people,” Khanfar says. “Whatever application brings us to the people, we will do that.”
On my second to last day in Qatar, Khanfar and I sit down to talk about the challenges he faces as he tries to maintain momentum and build Al Jazeera into a global news power. He’s had a hectic few days, negotiating with the Libyan government to free four Al Jazeera journalists who’ve been held hostage and huddling with top editors to figure out the best way to cover protests in Syria and Yemen. His air-conditioned cream-colored office, with its bookcases and separate sitting and dining areas, feels like a haven from the 24/7 news cycle–except that the five TV screens, each one tuned to a different station, are a stark reminder that Al Jazeera’s popularity could be fleeting.
One of his greatest disappointments, he tells me, is his failure to crack the American cable-television market. Since its inception in 2006, Al Jazeera English has yet to make a single distribution deal with a major U.S. cable company. Despite the attention Al Jazeera correspondents received for their fair, aggressive coverage of the crisis in Egypt, you can’t watch them on TV unless you live in Washington, D.C.; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Toledo, Ohio; or Burlington, Vermont.
Khanfar understands that he’s operating in an American political environment so charged that Fox News host Sean Hannity once ridiculed anchor Stuart Varney on air for wearing a yellow patterned tie that vaguely resembled Al Jazeera’s logo. “We have to prove our innocence,” Khanfar says. “We are not the Osama bin Laden channel. You can have news from all over the world in a professional way.”
To minimize fears about its aims and broaden its appeal to a diverse international audience, Khanfar is trying to cement Al Jazeera English’s appeal not just in the U.S. and the U.K. but also in India, Nigeria, South Africa, and the Philippines. The plan moving forward is to cover universal issues such as the emerging global middle class, or English speakers’ views of politics in the Arab world. In short, Al Jazeera English wants to cover international news in a broad, sophisticated way that few U.S. news networks can match with their reduced budgets. (Al Jazeera has the benefit of a seemingly bottomless well of Qatari cash, courtesy of the emir. Khanfar says the network lost “much more” than $80 million last year.)
Despite its financial dependence on the monarchy, Khanfar says the network’s only bias is toward covering ordinary people and the burgeoning democratic process in the Arab world, and standing up to institutions and leaders. Khanfar is reluctant to say much about the emir’s role, preferring to hold forth on the values he picked up as a field reporter. “Centers of power,” he says, “consistently lie and try to divert your camera or your message. You have to trust the people. Their intuitive sense is much more authentic.”
But I ask: “Aren’t you a center of power now?”
Khanfar laughs. He likes to be challenged. “We have to be questioned too.” Good leaders need to build consensus, he says. “It would be much easier to be a dictator like Arab leaders.” He grins. “But it doesn’t work.”
As protests sweep across North Africa and the Middle East, Al Jazeera is viewed like CNN–people watch it in airports, shops, and restaurants for minute-by-minute news. This video shows the channel’s far-reaching impact.
Watch Khanfar delivering talks at TED and The New America Foundation.
“It is their voice,” says Khanfar of the people leading the Middle Eastern revolutions. “No one must hijack that moment.”