Al-Jazeera's top executive, Wadah Khanfar announced he was resigning today. The network announced that it had appointed Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem al-Thani, a member of the Qatari ruling family, which owns Al-Jazeera, as its new director general.
The move is significant because Al-Jazeera is considered the most important news outlet in the Arab world and has been seen as playing a pivotal role in the Arab Spring. The network carried nonstop coverage of Tunisia and Egypt and before that made its name during the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2008.
As The Guardian reports, the fact that Al-Jazeera's Khanfar is being replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family raises questions about the channel's independence:
The new boss is Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a little-known executive at Qatargas and a member of the fabulously wealthy Gulf country's ruling dynasty – pointing to a clear attempt to exercise greater control.
It is thought that Khanfar had become too independent a figure for the Qataris, and that he had come under pressure from them. Recently al-Jazeera has been accused of pulling its punches over the uprising in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia dominates regional policy. Al-Jazeera's Lebanon chief, Ghassan Bin Jiddo, resigned in April, apparently in disagreement over coverage of some of the revolts.
But on Tuesday night Khanfar denied speculation that his departure was linked to outside pressure. He told the Guardian: "I have spent eight years with the network. We have been talking in this part of the world about change, about presidents who stay for decades in their posts. I thought maybe it is good to give an example as well, while the network is at the peak of its performance. It's the right moment."
The AP notes that the resignation comes just as WikiLeaks released a series of cables that show Al-Jazeera had a close relationship with the United States Defense Intelligence Agency.
"The leaked U.S. diplomatic cable dated October 2010 indicated that Khanfar was in constant contact with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, responding to U.S. complaints of negative coverage and promising to tone down items on the station's website," the AP reports.
Reuters also notes that Al-Jazeera was criticized for what some termed timid coverage of events closer to home in Bahrain. Reuters says the network's Lebanon bureau chief Ghassan Bin Jiddo resigned in April over an apparent disagreement "over its coverage of the revolts, which have also engulfed Syria and Yemen."
On Twitter, Khanfar dismissed all that talk.
"Entertained by all the rumors of why I have resigned," said Khanfar.