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Foe to friend – changed US stance on Al Jazeera

Published time: September 22, 2011 06:50
Edited time: September 22, 2011 13:54

General Manager of Qatari Al-Jazeera TV network, Waddah Khanfar, speaks during a press conference in Sanaa. (AFP Photo/Khaled Fazaa)

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Al Jazeera's director general has resigned due to rumors he is linked to the CIA. Critics say that would explain the switching US attitude towards the Qatar-based news network.

Not all that long ago, the Al Jazeera news network was considered “evil” by Washington. However the White House has certainly changed its tune, recently praising the channel’s ground-breaking coverage.

That is little surprise, say critics, after WikiLeaks revelations exposed Wadah Khanfar, its director general, as having links to the CIA, prompting him to hurriedly quit. Stepping into the vacant chair is Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, an executive at Qatargas and a member of the country's ruling dynasty. This has fueled fears that Doha’s voice will get louder.

Al Jazeera, or “The Island”, is not in isolation anymore. Right now Al Jazeera English is seen in 2 million American households.

The channel’s in-your-face coverage of the violent turmoil in the Middle East and Libya, has grabbed it a cozy place alongside other local news sources in the US. The recent WikiLeaks claim about Al Jazeera’s now-resigned director general, though, indicate a longer-term interest in the channel among certain sections of America.

"The reports say that the US government has been monitoring Al Jazeera Arabic before the English channel even started .Then Al Jazeera English as well,” Omar Chatriwala, a former Al Jazeera reporter told RT. “They went through the website, both English and Arabic, and kept the detailed list of things that they found inaccurate, inappropriate, journalistically questionable or simply that they didn't like. Then they would sit down with Wadah and would discuss these points."

Afshin Rattansi, author and journalist, told RT that “the Arabic service was dearly criticized for being partisan and seeming to reflect certain elements of Qatari policy.”

Hints of new angles came earlier this year when Arab regimes started to crumble.

Tahrir Square has become a pivotal landmark in the Arab world and a symbol of the spring uprising. The events in Tahrir also marked a turning point for Al Jazeera, a channel once vilified as anti-American and labeled extremist is now being called “real media”, while their coverage is just in line with US support of a series of regime changes in North Africa and the Middle East.

Qatar these days is interested in maintaining good relations with the US, media analyst Phil Rees told RT.

“Of course many of us know that Al Jazeera and the Qatari government have for some years worked quite closely with the United States government. Remember that Qatar depends [on] its security from the United States. It has anti-missile systems based there, it has a large US military base,” he said. “Certainly for about five or six years there have been contacts between the US government and Al Jazeera, but it suited Qatar and it suited Al Jazeera. [Channel’s] anti-America stance was known about on the Arab street because that gave Qatar and Al Jazeera itself a great deal of popularity. Unfortunately these cables revealed the reality that there have been some back-room negotiations.”

Following his resignation from the station, Wadah Khanfar issued a statement saying that: “the target that was set up from the beginning was to transcend Al Jazeera into an international news network,” and that they did.

Years ago the channel used to send messages from Osama to Obama and was dubbed “Al-Qaeda TV”, but in 2004 Al Jazeera started getting live shout-outs on local US networks.

”This is a situation where media has become a war zone in itself and who controls the media?” Danny Schechter, a blogger and media critic, told RT. “We see this with Fox news, we see this with other channels around the world – now we are seeing it with Al Jazeera. I think the US will try to pressure Al Jazeera even more.”

More pressure means more praise too. Not long ago United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that, “Al Jazeera has been the leader and are literally changing people’s minds and attitudes.”

Al Jazeera’s slogan claims that the channel “is setting the news agenda”. It seems now that this is with the help of an old foe.