Conference notes IRRI-KIIB

Round Table-Discussion

" What influence has "AL JAZEERA" on Arab public opinion?"

Mr. Wadah Khanfar,

Director General of Al Jazeera Network.  
Brussels, May 30, 2006

Summary; this is not an official record of proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

In his address Mr. Wadah Khanfar stated the following. He started by saying that today’s media suffer three main problems, including:





After having elaborated on the three main problems faced by the media today, Mr Khanfar continued by addressing the fact that media should have done more in covering core issues and root causes of terrorism. For example, it was known by many that Bin Laden was active since 1996, nonetheless, this was apparently not important enough to cover. As Mr. Khanfar stated: “9/11 was not a surprise to journalists who were in touch with international issues of the time”. He relayed that although Al Jazeera did comprehensive coverage they could have done much more to present the causes of this phenomenon and equally provide solutions.


Mr Khanfar similarly analysed the coverage of the Iraq war. For obvious reasons, it was impossible to expect that its regime could change overnight from a dictatorship to a democracy. Covering this transition implied taking into account various important and deep rooted explanatory elements. Unfortunately, this was not done by the media or the American administration. Both parties belatedly acknowledged this lack of perception however, they did not undertake any steps to identify where mistakes were made in order to rectify and provide the real facts of the event.


An important perception that should be acknowledged is the fact that the Arab world today feels victimised. As a consequence, a lot of resistance from within society arises, taking on many different shapes. Terrorism is just one example. Other forms of resistance have been identified on economic, political, social levels… The various means to tackle these forms of resistance have often been the use of hard power. Mr. Khanfar stressed the fact that the best way to approach these problems would be through the use of soft power” through dialogue, media, and so on. Today, it seems that the use of soft power has progressively decreased to that of hard, military power.


In this respect, Mr Khanfar took the initiative to open Al Jazeera’s Studies and Research Centre with highly qualified researchers and specialists within Al Jazeera in order to elaborate a better methodology for understanding and explaining the context of issues that are covered. Mr Khanfar noted that the Western media has not spent a lot of resources on such initiatives.


Mr Khanfar linked this argument by taking the example of Afghanistan. Al Jazeera covered everything from inside Kabul and also showed the civilian casualties. A lot of networks covered the launch of missiles but only Al Jazeera showed their impact on the ground. Al Jazeera provides a platform for all people to freely express their opinion. Mr Khanfar stated that “you cannot hide something or allow only one party to talk in a conflict”. Every aspect of a conflict should be covered, even the aspects that are disliked such as that of suicide bombings in Iraq. Professionalism means independence and responsibility. This approach has not been appreciated as Al Jazeera was accused of supporting American ideology which resulted in the closing of its Baghdad office.


Mr Khanfar continued his speech by referring to Osama Bin Laden’s speeches. He explained that broadcasting these did not, to the contrary of what many people may think, increase the support for ‘terrorism’. Quite the contrary, for him, this helped demystify the jihadi movement and its pretension to incarnate the sole resistance to the West. “We have been taught from the West that freedom of expression is very important. In order to create an environment of tolerance, you have to enlighten the dark corners of society”…”By doing so, however, Al Jazeera was accused by the Bush administration of giving a platform to terrorists. But the growing extremism is not a consequence of the activities of Al Jazeera; it results from rising frustration and anger that prevails in Muslim society and amongst minorities in Western societies.


Mr Khanfar finally gave some suggestions on how to reflect reality.


First, he stressed the fact that think tanks, media, etc. could start confronting the conventional approach to reality. He mentioned the importance of history and the way it should be interpreted and understood.


Secondly, unfortunately, it is often the case that the actual people concerned, are never asked for their opinions and insights, rather they just state number and facts. He therefore stressed the necessity of increasing open-minded sessions of hearings whereby people are allowed to elaborate on their visions. Putting the latter into practice could have allowed identifying the core issue of the whole cartoon matter. Politicians and academics could have then pointed to the different pillars on which both Muslim and Western societies are built. The Western society is built on individuality. The Muslim society however is built on the pillar of collectivity implying that the society is more important than the individual. These are very important elements that should have been acknowledged while covering the cartoon story. The awareness of these differences would have enabled the dialogue between the different societies to be free of the 'barrier of perceptions' that would have otherwise existed.


To conclude, Mr Khanfar stated: “I am not negative for the future. The good side of conflict is to allow proper discussion and the understanding of each other and each others problems”… “I want to warn against building walls”.