As the media mega-force of the Arab and Muslim world, the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television station has always comported itself like a superpower which is not bound by the principles of journalism because it lays down the political and religious principles for its viewing audiences.
Al Jazeera's hundreds of millions of viewers empower its editors to dictate the destinies of rulers and regimes in those worlds too.
Therefore, the dismissals Tuesday, Sept. 20, by Qatari leader Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of the station’s two senior managers, News Director Wadah Khanfar and Direct News Director Ayman El-Jabali, made waves almost as high as the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
It looked very much as though the Arab Revolt had reached Al Jazeera. After helping to topple rulers, it was now the turn of the media giants to get a taste of their own medicine.
The emir cautiously appointed a member of the royal family, a businessman called Sheik Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad al-Thani as the new top director of Al Jazeera. His only known qualification for running a big TV station is his total obedience to the Qatari ruler. The communiqué announcing his appointment carried no details of his career because he is not known to have had one.
Emir Hamad's choice of director could not have been safer.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources, the Qatari ruler sacked News Director Wadah Khanfar, a Palestinian identified with Hamas, for two reasons – both interwoven in the mishmash of the Middle East's post-revolution politics:
Hamad now bets on Assad as Washington turns against him
1. Khanfar led the station’s militant line against Syrian President Bashar Assad and his works, openly championing the Syrian protesters' campaign to unseat him and his family.
This was not always the Al Jazeera line. In March, when the Syrian uprising erupted, it backed Assad to win. But in May, when the Qatari ruler fell in line behind Saudi Arabia, Al Jazeera switched its editorial policy and turned against the Syrian ruler.
Now, in late September, when Assad looks like turning the tide against him and stamping out the opposition, Sheikh Hamad thinks it may be time for another shift and has therefore decided to stop blasting the Syrian ruler in case the station ends up on the losing side of the Syrian conflict.
He may or may not have got his sums right. Al Jazeera is after all situated on the shifting sands of the region.
From Washington, the view is different:
US sources were quoted Wednesday, Sept. 21 as saying that, all of a sudden, the US is “increasingly convinced that President Bashar Assad of Syria will not be able to remain in power. The Obama administration has begun to make plans for US policy in the region after he exits."
After months of shying away from telling Assad to go in the same blunt way as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi were given their marching orders, Washington now decides he cannot last in power – at the very moment that he looks like winning his savage no-holds-barred contest with his people.
Pro-Hamas newsman dropped ahead of prospective Palestinian upheavals
2. The other reason for Khanfar's dismissal had to do with the Palestinian arena. In the light of events in places like Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the Qatari ruler concluded it was not wise to let a senior man identified with Hamas have control of a tool as powerful as Al Jazeera – especially in view of the next chapter in Palestinian history.
It is assumed that he was convinced by a Saudi intelligence evaluation, which found that even if Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' bid for UN endorsement of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders triumphs, he will return home to Ramallah to face a savage war of succession. This contest could quickly degenerate into another Palestinian fraternal war, with Iran and Syria taking sides through their radical Palestinian proxies.
The Saudi analysts did not rule out a fresh Palestinian terrorist offensive against Israel as part of the coming upheaval. All this unrest might well precipitate an uprising against Abbas and the Palestinian Authority on the same lines as the revolts in neighboring Arab countries.
In these circumstances, Al Jazeera's proprietor found it prudent to get the pro-Hamas Palestinian news executive out of the way.
Getting cozy with Egypt's transitional military junta
The firing of Al Jazeera's Direct news director Ayman al-Jabali, was related, according to our sources, to the open warfare between the station and the Supreme Military Council ruling Egypt.
Sunday, Sept. 11, the day after an Egyptian mob broke into and ransacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egyptian soldiers and security officers raided Al Jazeera offices and studios.
Egyptian spokesmen described the raid as "a crackdown on the news media as part of the military-led transitional government's effort to maintain law and order after allowing an angry mob to invade the Israeli Embassy over the weekend."
A week earlier, Egypt’s minister of media, Osama Heikal, warned that the government would take legal action against media that “endanger stability and security.” Clearly, Egypt's rulers viewed Al Jazeera as a threat to the country's stability and security.
Since the Qatari ruler is lining up behind the Saudi policy for cultivating close ties with Egypt's transitional rulers, he decided to distance top people taking the opposite view from key positions at the network.