“Saudis want to eradicate Al Jazeera for defending freedom of expression”

Wadah Khanfar, who led the network through a huge expansion, criticizes the Qatar blockade

Former Al Jazeera managing director Wadah Khanfar in Madrid on Monday.
Former Al Jazeera managing director Wadah Khanfar in Madrid on Monday.Jaime Villanueva / EL PAÍS

Many springs have gone by since those few months in 2011 when Wadah Khanfar decided that the television network he headed, Al Jazeera, would focus on a series of similar-looking youthful protests taking place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Born in the Palestinian town of Jenin in 1969, Khanfar soon realized that nothing has been more damaging to the Arab people than the deep divisions cultivated by foreign powers and local elites since the 19th century.

“We are at a historic moment,” he proclaimed during a memorable address, in which he argued that the Arab world was living through its own democratic spring following the ice age of authoritarianism. And even as the Arab world was undergoing revolution, Khanfar was expanding Al Jazeera ambitiously, turning the Qatari network into a giant that now airs in Arabic and English, among other languages, and has 80 bureaus across the globe. He quit when he was at the top of his game, and now spends his time defending democracy in the Arab world through institutions such as the Madrid-based international Common Action Forum, over which he presides.

Khanfar was in the Spanish capital just as the ultimatum issued by Saudi Arabia and its allies to force Qatar to permanently close down Al Jazeera was expiring.

Question. The ultimatum is expiring. What is Al Jazeera doing that is so threatening to Riyadh?

Answer. I think it is the fact that Al Jazeera stands for democracy and for freedom of choice. That is very dangerous in a region that still fears the effects of the Arab Spring. To eradicate the concept of an Arab Spring after the counter-revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Yemen and a civil war in Syria, the Saudis’ best bet is to eradicate Al Jazeera because it has been at the forefront of defending freedom of expression.

Q. So you admit that Al Jazeera was instrumental in spreading the Arab Spring through the Arab world?

A. The fact that we have freedom of expression through Al Jazeera and the independent media created an atmosphere where the Arab Spring was born. I cannot claim that Al Jazeera was behind the Arab Spring, but I would say Al Jazeera was important in shaping the atmosphere and the environment that encouraged young people to go out and demand their rights.

Q. What led you to expand Al Jazeera all over the Arab world?

A. The Arab world has been, for the last 100 years, dismantled into small territories that we call states. But there is a common understanding and perception, a common language and a common DNA in the region. What Al Jazeera did is create that conceptual and virtual connection between the Arabs above their states.

Q. You said the Arab spring was a historic moment for the Arab world. Do you still think the same way?

A. Yes, I do, because the battle for freedom and democracy in the Arab world is not over. Now there are bloody conflicts taking place in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya, in Egypt. But those who revolted against the Arab Spring, the counter-revolutionary forces, are not producing a good alternative. They might succeed in ruling Egypt, Yemen or Libya for a few years, but they will fail because they are not promising freedom, democracy or economic development.

Q. Is the blockade against Qatar part of that same operation?

A. Of course. They think that by shutting down Al Jazeera no one is going to speak about democracy, but they are mistaken. The debate has already moved beyond Al Jazeera. We have young people who communicate with everyone in the world through social media, which they are also trying to close down. To tweet something in United Arab Emirates or in Saudi Arabia that the powers that be do not like might see you sent you to jail for up to 10 years.

Q. You see no possibility that this blockade is going to succeed?

A. No, because they have miscalculated the balance of power in the region. The Saudis thought during the first few days that they could make Qatar succumb. They forgot that Turkey and Iran are major powers in the region that will never allow these countries to shape the region as they wish.

Q. You expanded the network into the English-speaking world and opened a huge bureau in the US. Why did you decide to go into America?

A. We thought the narrative of the South is not very well presented in the North, especially in America and in Europe. And most of the international news agencies and networks, like CNN and BBC, are located in the North. Al Jazeera is the first major international network that is based in the South.

Q. You were born in Palestine. Was it difficult to open a bureau in Israel?

A. As a journalist, I cannot afford to be sentimental and emotional. You can’t give the Palestinian side or the Arab side and ignore the Israeli or the American side, because we have a journalistic duty. You present the facts and you allow your audience to judge. A TV network is not a political party.

Q. Did you have freedom to report on Qatar, considering that the Qatari government owns the station?

A. There are many stories that we cover in Qatar that the Qataris don’t like, including the issues of the American base in Qatar and the treatment of immigrant workers. The government was very critical of Al Jazeera in public. Our relationship with them was difficult. It is true that Qatar’s public funding allows Al Jazeera to operate, but if this were simply a political tool, it would have ended up like Abu Dhabi TV or Al Arabiya and other TV stations in the Arab world that didn’t really make a name for themselves. Al Jazeera became famous because of its independence.

Q. I was in Egypt during the 2013 coup and I have never seen such persecution of journalists as that against Al Jazeera reporters. Is there an added risk to working there?

A. We have never been comfortable to the centers of power. We have always been dealt with harshly by most of the Arab countries and by the Americans, the British sometimes, and sometimes the Russians. We stand for a mission and this mission is to narrate an independent and balanced picture of the world. If we pay the price for it, it will be worth it.

Q. How will the Arab world emerge from this conflict?

A. The Arab world is now full of jails. There have never been so many activists, especially young ones, in jail across the Arab world. They are trying to imprison a generation and prevent it from progressing toward the future. That means, in my opinion, that there is going to be another revolution, but this time it’s going to be much worse than the first one. It’s not going to be as peaceful or easygoing. It’s going to be extremely violent, because the amount of pressure being placed on young people in the Arab world right now is beyond belief.

Q. Has the Western world been up to the challenge?

A. Since the collapse of the Arab Spring the word democracy has disappeared from the lexicon of European and American politicians, as though it were a dirty word for the Arab world. They all began supporting what they perceive as stability. Stability means jails, oppression, confiscation of opinion. That’s not what is going to lead to stability. It’s going to lead to chaos. There is a burden on democratic voices across the world. If they side with tyranny in the Arab world, they are going to be punished by a young generation that is not going to take this much longer.

English version by Susana Urra.

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