After nearly suffering a nose bleed from the 11 floor climb through IAB to hear Direct General Wadah Khanfar speak on“Media Revolution in the Middle East,” Sarah Camiscoli was both star-struck by Wadah Khanfar’s presence and impressed by his thoughts on current US Policy in the Middle East, his opinions on reclaiming the responsibility and the ethnics of journalism, and his genuine humility as he spoke to what seemed like the closest thing one could get to groupies.
Peter Awn introduced Wadah Khanfar with much excitement as “one of the most Powerful People in the World by Forbes Magazine, a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (Davos), the third most influential Arab in the world by Arabian Business, and one of the most influential Muslims in the world.” To this, Khanfar ironically replied, “Thank you for pronouncing my name correctly.” Awn snickered. He was flattered.
While Khanfar was equally as pleased by Awn’s enthusiasm and the camera phones that subversively emerged from the crowd, Khanfar tried to change up the tone by starting with, “I do not have many answers to the issues of the media. However, I will just share with you some thoughts and ideas.”
The first “thought” breached by Khanfar was his fear that news reporting is “drifting away from putting human being[s] at [the] center to putting centers of power and commercial at [the] center.” To speak to “the voices that may not be able to express themselves,” Khanfar told a story from his experience covering the war in Kabul. The depth of this problem became even more haunting to Khanfar after paying the bill for tea he and several young Arab men shared over a casual conversation about their perspectives on the war. When one of the young men realized that Khanfar had paid for the tea, he chased him down, scolded him for his insult of paying as the “guest” and had “tears in his eyes” as he begged him to allow him to take the bill—it was a tradition that he should not. Khanfar emphasized how the tradition, culture, and marginal voices that are often seen as outside of politics must be reclaimed as another center for reporters and policymakers.
After speaking passionately against a US policy in Afghanistan that “plan[ned] a strategy in 10 days to replace… three and a half thousand years of government,” Khanfar spoke about how to handle centers of power while also acting as an agency that challenges the “tyranny of the state.” Quoting an interview with Edward Said, who advocated “speaking true to power,” Khanfar revealed that “if you go to Al Jazeera you will see that slogan on the wall—Al Jazeera speaks true to power.” With this philosophy, Al Jazeera operates under the belief that there is “always a way where power and journalism can benefit, but… power can overtake.”
To illustrate how Al Jazeera “speaks true,” Khanfar explained how the agency is reconciling relations with the United States after suffering the arrest of several journalists for alleged ties to the Taliban, having one sent to Abu Ghraib and recovering after two headquarters were “bombed to the ground” by the US military. In order to pacify tensions with the US while still “empowering [their viewers] with comprehensive knowledge,” Al Jazeera has hosted interviews with leaders such as Joe Biden, and Khanfar visited the Whitehouse personally to get “some answers” as to who bombed the headquarters and who can take responsibility for such acts so they can “move towards the future.” While relations may be somewhat amended with Al Jazeera, Khanfar was sure to note that “nothing has been achieved after that magnificent speech” that President Obama gave in Egypt in 2009 with regard to US policy.
As time came to a close, Khanfar made sure to squeeze in a few heavy one-liners to sum up his most poignant thoughts. Warning that, “Words can kill,” Khanfar spoke about his discontent with the media he’s been exposed to during his stay in the US. He stated, “I have seen a lot of acting. It is not what I respect… News, the news… News should not be a commodity. This should be a news for people—not for particular party, religion, group, but for the human being. Once we develop ways to create relationships with centers of power, we will get back on track.”
While Khanfar’s glorification of Al Jazeera can most definitely be challenged now that the celebrity has left the IAB, the overall appreciation for his presence, thoughts and accomplishments was undeniable. For his ability to speak charismatically, candidly and humbly your correspondent gives the man a Golden Nugget.