Guardian questions Al Jazeera’s editorial independence after newsroom incident

A recent disagreement in the Al Jazeera English newsroom has prompted the Guardian to write a piece questioning the channel’s editorial independence from Qatar, which pays most of its bills.

The incident took place last week after the Qatari Emir’s address to the United Nations, urging Arab countries to take military action in Syria.

Producers put together a video report of the Syria debate, but led with excerpts of US President Barack Obama’s speech. News director Salah Negm apparently ordered the package to be re-edited to start with the Emir’s remarks, AJE journalists confirmed to Doha News.

Here’s the rejigged package:

The Guardian report goes on to say:

The episode left a bitter taste among staff amid complaints that this was the most heavy-handed editorial intervention at the global broadcaster, which has long described itself as operating independent of its Qatari ownership.

An al-Jazeera spokesman said the emir’s speech was “a significant development” that day and the broadcaster “consequently gave it prominence”.

Whether Negm’s directive was a sign of Qatari interference or just a question of news judgment is up for debate, and one that the AJE staff don’t seem to be able to agree on.

“I disagree with many of his decisions, but on this one, the Qatari angle was the most newsworthy re: Syria. I think he made the right call,” one producer who was working that night told Doha News.

Another AJE producer told us:

Salah definitely influences editorial direction (that’s his job anyway) and the decision to lead with that came from him…

Syria’s almost the default lead these days if there’s nothing else. But yes, there is a feeling that this was the most heavy-handed editorial edict in a long time.

Al Jazeera staff we spoke with are not being identified as the network bars employees from speaking to the media without permission.

Perceptions of bias in the newsroom have grown since last year, in part spurred by the resignation of Wadah Khanfar as the network’s director general after eight years at the helm of Al Jazeera. He was replaced by Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a Qatari with no journalism experience. 

A number of Al Jazeera staff – from both the Arabic and English channels – however, say that Al Thani has kept himself away from editorial matters since he began his post in September 2011, leaving it to the channels to sort out.

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo by Paul Keller

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