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(Hatem Omar / Maan Images)

Al Jazeera roiled by US manager’s decision to censor Joseph Massad article

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Ehab Al Shihabi (right), with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has promoted himself as the public face of Al Jazeera America. (Source: Al Jazeera America)

  • Al Jazeera restores Massad’s article and denies political pressure.
  • Massad expresses disappointment in network’s actions.
  • The Electronic Intifada reveals the political and commercial fears that motivated top manager Ehab Al Shihabi’s move to remove article.
  • Azmi Bishara condemns “cowardly” decision.

Days after a top Al Jazeera executive ordered the removal of an op-ed critical of Zionism by Joseph Massad, the article was today restored to the network’s English-language website.

Imad Musa, the head of Al Jazeera English Online, also posted a statement on the Editor’s Blog denying that Al Jazeera had “succumbed to various pressures, and censored its own pages” when it removed the article.

The about-face follows a growing uproar inside and outside Al Jazeera over the article’s removal, amid fears for editorial independence and freedom of speech as the Qatar-based network prepares to launch Al Jazeera America.

Musa’s statement claims that “After publication, many questions arose about the article’s content. In addition, the article was deemed to be similar in argument to Massad’s previous column, ‘Zionism, anti-Semitism and colonialism,’ published on these pages in December.”

However, Musa acknowledges that “We should have handled this better, and we have learned lessons that will enable us to maintain the highest standards of journalistic integrity.”

Massad “heartened” by reaction

Massad, who has written for the Al Jazeera English website for two years, welcomed the restoration of his article, but expressed disappointment in Al Jazeera’s statement in a response sent to The Electronic Intifada:

I am heartened to know that there has been a huge and widespread upheaval among Al Jazeera journalists and staffers against this arbitrary decision, which flew in the face of professional journalistic standards and the freedom of expression. Their opposition along with the reaction and outrage expressed by the general public internationally in the last two days clearly tipped the balance against the peremptory power of the profit-seeking executives and has put the latter on notice.

While the restoration of my article is a triumph against the political commissars of Al Jazeera, the statement that Al Jazeera issued, which contained no apology, falls short of being a triumph for all those who insist on maintaining Al Jazeera’s independence and critical edge from American media restrictions. I am saddened that their principled stance has yet to fully triumph in this important fight.

Political decision made by “higher ups”

Massad rejected Al Jazeera’s claim that the article had been removed due to its similarity to a previous article, and said he had been given the same line by Imad Musa, who telephoned Massad from Doha last night.

“I quickly disabused him of it, explaining that while ‘The Last of the Semites’ was related to the article I published last December,” Massad wrote, “it was a different article altogether and had a different frame and a different set of arguments and facts.”

Massad said the excuse was “a damage control move that refuses to take responsibility for Al Jazeera’s submission to American Zionist dictates.”

Massad recounts his conversation with Musa:

I explained that since he was the new Head of Al Jazeera Online (he told me that he had been appointed in this new position ten days ago), he could restore the article and issue the apology immediately and not have to wait till the next day. He explained that the matter was “more complicated than that.” I retorted: “Are you or are you not the Head of Al Jazeera Online?” He murmured embarrassingly that the matter was not in his hands. I responded by reaffirming to him that indeed it was not and that the matter was not up to him but to the higher ups who made the decision for political reasons.

Musa did not respond to an email from The Electronic Intifada requesting comment.

The debacle unfolds

Speaking with multiple sources over the course of several days, The Electronic Intifada has been able to piece together and corroborate key elements of what happened and these inquiries confirm that politics and commercial interests were indeed at play.

As Massad explained in a statement in Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar, he filed “The Last of the Semites” after a request from his editor to submit a piece for Nakba Day – the annual 15 May commemoration of Israel’s ethnic cleansing and colonization of Palestine.

Massad’s article, based on a lecture he gave in Stuttgart, Germany on 10 May, was published on 14 May. The entire conference, including Massad’s speech, was carried on the network’s live channel Al Jazeera Mubasher. Mhamed Krichen, one of Al Jazeera’s star anchors, participated on two panels at the conference, including one with Massad.

But in the days after Massad’s article appeared, as The Electronic Intifada previously reported, there was a more than usually intense outcry from high-profile Zionist commentators including The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who grossly distorted Massad’s article and escalated their defamation and slurs against him.

Suddenly, on 19 May, the article disappeared from Al Jazeera’s main English website, and hours later from its mobile site. What happened?

Fear that op-ed would hurt Al Jazeera America launch

The person who got spooked by the volume of criticism was Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director for international operations of Al Jazeera America, and the man in charge of launching the network’s high-profile, high-risk US venture.

Al Shihabi, a Palestinian American, demanded that the article be taken down, and, by several accounts, management in Doha acquiesced.

A career management consultant with no journalistic background and no formal editorial role, Al Shihabi’s intervention was unusual to say the least. But Al Shihabi’s power in the company has grown tremendously in recent years, along with criticism that he is accountable to no one.

Massad wrote in Al-Akhbar that when he saw that his article had been removed, he called one of the two editors with whom he normally works.

That editor was also initially unaware that the article had been removed, and when he got back to Massad after looking into it, could only confirm that it had been “pulled by management.”

Al Shihabi did not respond to an email from The Electronic Intifada requesting comment.

Political repurcussions

Al Shihabi’s reason for wanting Massad silenced was fear of the political repurcussions for Al Jazeera America.

He conveyed his concerns that the intensified criticism could jeopardize his efforts to launch the channel including winning cable distribution deals needed to get the channel into American living rooms.

It will be the voice of Main Street,” Al Shihabi recently said of the nascent US-based Al Jazeera offshoot.

Clearly, in Al Shihabi’s eyes, Massad’s searing, well-researched criticism of Zionism was not going to fly in the American mainstream.

Al Shihabi has positioned himself as the face of Al Jazeera America, barnstorming US campuses and other locations, often promoting pictures of himself on the company blog.

Yet, the huge embarrassment Al Shihabi’s intervention to remove Massad’s article has caused the network suggests a serious lack of judgment.

Breaking into American market

Al Shihabi certainly knew that Al Jazeera, which has cleverly used the Internet to reach primary audiences, has had a hard time getting its English-language channels carried by US cable distributors.

It has often faced politically-motivated and racist opposition and accusations that the channel promotes “terrorism” because of its Arab and Qatari background and willingness to air viewpoints routinely suppressed in mainstream American media.

In January, Al Jazeera bought Current TV, a cable network founded by former US Vice President Al Gore, which instantly enabled it to expand its reach to 40 million American homes from just 4.7 million before the deal.

Soon after, the deal was criticized by former long-time Washington Post media commentator and CNN host Howard Kurtz, who also pointed out that the network has been called “anti-American” and a “fount” of “anti-Israel propaganda.”

The vast majority of the criticism of Al Jazeera’s US expansion plans has indeed come from extreme Islamophobic and pro-Israel sources.

Just weeks ago, The New York Post reported that Al Jazeera was in talks to buy more cable networks – a move that is likely only to generate more opposition.

Perhaps hoping to head off such resistance, Ehab Al Shihabi, an intensely political operator, has sought to cozy up to key players in the US establishment, such as his recent, high-profile meeting with influential Democratic Party power-broker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, President Obama’s first White House chief of staff, has been, as the son of a member of the Zionist terrorist gang, the Irgun, a hardline supporter of Israel.

Breakdown of editorial control

Clearly, the normal editorial controls had been circumvented in order for Massad’s article to be removed. The breakdown in accountability demonstrated by this incident has caused soul-searching among Al Jazeera staffers.

Several journalists on several continents spoke of a widespread sense that the blunder damaged the reputation of the whole network, especially in light of persistent criticism that Al Jazeera’s legendary independence, particularly of its Arabic channel, has been sacrificed to the interests of Qatar’s foreign policy.

Al Shihabi, an unaccountable senior manager, ordering the deletion of an article without telling either the author or the editors who commissioned it, seemed to confirm the worst expectations.

“Cowardly” decision

Azmi Bishara, the Palestinian political leader and academic and one of Al Jazeera’s most prominent commentators, forcefully condemned the network’s action as “cowardly and opportunistic.”

In a statement on his Facebook page hours before Massad’s article was restored, Bishara said that the deletion of Massad’s article followed false accusations of anti-Semitism by “Zionist” and “racist” individuals.

Relating the move to the planned launch of Al Jazeera America, Bishara added, “If the price of Al Jazeera’s entry into the United States means its submission to Zionist dictates, then this means that America will be moving into Al Jazeera and not the reverse.”

Given that even Massad’s university, Columbia, had eventually stood up to similar false and disproven accusations and campaigns, Bishara noted that Al Jazeera had been “even less vigilant than Columbia in defending the rights of an Arab professor to express his opinion. Shame on you.”

Massad echoed this theme in his statement, noting that “the attempt to censor my article is the price that Al Jazeera, or at least Ehab Al Shihabi and other upper management executives, are willing to pay in order to enter the US media market.”

Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald added his own searing indictment of the network earlier today:

No media outlet can possibly do something like this without publicly accounting for what happened and expect to retain credibility. How can you demand transparency and accountability from others when you refuse to provide any yourself? Refusing to comment on secret actions of this significance is the province of corrupt politicians, not journalists. It’s behavior that journalists should be condemning, not emulating.

Restoring credibility?

What Bishara has said publicly, many present and former Al Jazeera staffers have been saying privately. Yet many Al Jazeera journalists are determined to retain the respect that the network has enjoyed for being willing to take on stories and offer voices – especially on Palestine – that no other network of its size would touch.

The restoration of Massad’s article, they must hope, will be a first step towards regaining Al Jazeera’s reputation as a place where free discussion of Palestine, Zionism and Israel are still permitted, even if it doesn’t always sell on Main Street. But there’s no doubt the damage has been great.

Joseph Massad’s statement in full

I am heartened to know that there has been a huge and widespread upheaval among Al Jazeera journalists and staffers against this arbitrary decision, which flew in the face of professional journalistic standards and the freedom of expression. Their opposition along with the reaction and outrage expressed by the general public internationally in the last two days clearly tipped the balance against the peremptory power of the profit-seeking executives and has put the latter on notice.

While the restoration of my article is a triumph against the political commissars of Al Jazeera, the statement that Al Jazeera issued, which contained no apology, falls short of being a triumph for all those who insist on maintaining Al Jazeera’s independence and critical edge from American media restrictions. I am saddened that their principled stance has yet to fully triumph in this important fight.

It seems to me that the attempt to censor my article is the price that Al Jazeera, or at least Ehab Al Shihabi and other upper management executives, are willing to pay in order to enter the US media market. This means that Al Shihabi and other executives at Al Jazeera see no problem in sacrificing Al Jazeera’s freedom of expression and subjecting it to the severe restrictions of the American mainstream media on the question of US foreign policy in the Middle East and on the question of Israel, thus eliminating in the process Al Jazeera’s critical coverage of both. Clearly, American Zionist pressure, placed on Al Shihabi and on Al Jazeera, is intended to impart to Al Jazeera the mediocre standards of mainstream American journalism and its commitment to severe censorship of views critical of US policy and of Israeli colonialism. When Oscar Wilde was asked in 1882 upon entering the US if he had anything to declare to the customs authorities of New York, he responded: “I have nothing to declare but my genius;” Not only is Al Jazeera having to declare its journalistic independence as a foreign taxable commodity, but it is also surrendering it at the US border altogether.

As for the line that someone made a mistake and removed my article because it resembled the one I had published last December, this line was tried on me on the phone when the new Head of Al Jazeera online Imad Musa called me yesterday evening to discuss the matter. Mr. Musa used that line as an opening bid but I quickly disabused him of it, explaining that while “The Last of the Semites” was related to the article I published last December titled “Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and Colonialism,” it was a different article altogether and had a different frame and a different set of arguments and facts. I also informed him that I had a very good idea how this decision had been taken and that Al Shihabi was the man behind the ban. He offered to arrange a meeting in New York between Al Shihabi and me, but I quickly told him that we could not ponder any such meetings until after Al Jazeera restored my article and issued a public apology. I also informed him that I do not meet with people who coordinate with the likes of Rahm Emanuel.

After making a few phone calls, Mr. Musa called me back to assure me that I would be pleased with what Al Jazeera would do tomorrow (i.e. today). I explained that since he was the new Head of Al Jazeera Online (he told me that he had been appointed in this new position ten days ago), he could restore the article and issue the apology immediately and not have to wait till the next day. He explained that the matter was “more complicated than that.” I retorted: “Are you or are you not the Head of Al Jazeera Online?” He murmured embarrassingly that the matter was not in his hands. I responded by reaffirming to him that indeed it was not and that the matter was not up to him but to the higher ups who made the decision for political reasons.

At any rate, Mr. Musa never called back today, though he issued a statement on the Al Jazeera website this afternoon which does not contain an apology to the readers or to me. There are no expressions of regret either, or any acknowledgment of the motivations for the censorship. Musa repeats the shameful excuse that the reason why the article was pulled was due to its alleged similarity with the December article. I find this to be a damage control move that refuses to take responsibility for Al Jazeera’s submission to American Zionist dictates.

Comments

What a shame! The same media agency that started as an opposition to the corporate ''lie'' media, is now compromising to become part of the ''Empire''. Lost all my respect (what was left) of Al Foxeera..

Even if they restored it, the damage is done and the veil exposed. End of story.

I don't really see what the problem is. They are expanding into a new market. It's like sprucing up your house before you sell it. Makes practical business sense.
Plus an oped by design is an opinion piece. They didn't omit facts or an actual news article just one mans opinion.

Naive is hardly the word for "I don't really see what the problem is".
It is clear that Al Jazeera is changing and will change more to "fit" into the American market and media standards. That is not "sprucing up", but degrading itself.
All that is admirable about Al Jazeera is the fact that it is not like most American media, although, admittedly their American style of presentation and speech increasingly gets on my nerves - I would prefer a more modest Arab version.
It would be a big mistake to go any further in that direction - Americans need more diverse sources of information and perspective, not clones. Al Shihabi doesn't sound like he understands that. But he can get used to Zionist overwrought reactions, pressure and machinations right now because it is a worldwide problem for truthseekers.

People rely on your house in order to make sense of the world around them?

Must be quite some house.

Practical business sense does not mean breaking all the rules. It is how they did it and who did it, that created the problem. Management does not interfere in editorial policy if they do it violates journalistic standards.

It seems that Massad, being right about the decision taken on behalf of "Al Jazeera, or at least Ehab Al Shihabi and other upper management executive.... in order to enter the US media market", still cannot help using a derogatory term from the Cold war anti-Soviet dictionary.
If one (a leftist, by the way) needs to condemn a censorship in capitalist and imperialist state (or in a puppet-state of the former), why use the Cold war code words? Does it mean that Massad sees censorship or political powers intervention in media as pure "communist" and something foreign for USA or Qatar? No, it seems that Massad is fully aware of sordid state of so-called "free press". The question, then - why use such code words contrary to the core meaning of his arguments?

My opinion is : the dominant culture of dominant class (as Marx put it) makes even leftists succumb to use of imperialist propaganda clichés. While condemning USA torture prison in Guantanomo, even leftists use "GULAG" word, which, by the way, not only was put into international distribution by the arch-reactionary Solzhenizin with CIA help, but also is meaningless. GULAG is the abbreviation of "Headquarters of camps", not the camps themselves.
Imperialist crimes are sordid on its own, and Guantanomo prison has a lot of pure Western imperialism historical analogs.

The same is true about endless comparisons of imperialist propaganda rags to "Pravda" by leftists (most of whom, I am sure, NEVER read a word published in Pravda), as if there is not more suitable comparison much nearer to the imperialist propaganda media.
Ali Abu Nimah used "Stazi" word to condemn pure capitalist crimes, and so on.

In short, it seems to me that Western leftists are or too lazy to look for more correct way to condemn typical imperialist sins, or that they want (consciously or not) to look "mainstream" - see, we say something against USA paper/jail, but we really are good guys, we hate commies just as the other guys.

I'm sure now he's so disgusted by Al Jazeera's editorial failings that Ali Abunimah will cease to take the network's money for his frequent writings. http://www.aljazeera.com/indep...

I am indeed disgusted by what happened and what I reported on. I would write for Al Jazeera on the same basis that I have always written for them: without censorship. Part of the reason I was and am disturbed by what happened to Massad is that in all my years writing for Al Jazeera English I had never experienced any form of undue editorial influence. So I hope that one outcome of this is that the independence that writers have had is preserved and protected.

Have seen a bit of the Nakba series and it does seem very good indeed. The general content is also good and free of a lot of the usual bias and failings in my other news choices so I hope AJ will learn from this, and continue to be the best mainstream source in the UK.

This is good news that the article has been reinstated and bravo to all those who have refused to bow to Zionist intimidation and helped achieve a change of mind by Al Jazeera.

My own perception is that things are gradually changing and public opinion is growing in support of Palestinians so AJ will soon find find itself on main street and taking credit for having helped rather than ridicule for cowardice.

I look forward to the day when Zionism is consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs,

The apple doesn't roll too far from the tree. Rahm has taken the role of his father's role in the Irgun into the current setting, exchanging that terrorist warfare for political warfare. Yet another of the multitude of ways Zionism wages its war.

And how ensnared is America by these operatives.

Thank you Ali Abunimah for being on this like "white on rice." Your advocacy journalism has helped Al Jazeera English retain its journalistic integrity that should not pander to the racism of Zionist dictates that wants to ignore the racist nature of Nazism and paint all Jews with one big white Zionist brush. Joseph Massad in his seminal piece, "The Last of thr Semites" has touched on the very core of the problem of the European occupation of Palestine that must be addressed by supporters of Israell if the crisis of occupied Palestine can be addressed. It is a must read and I believe a necessary step towards a Free Palestine.

"Musa acknowledges that 'We should have handled this better, and we have learned lessons that will enable us to maintain the highest standards of journalistic integrity.'”

This could of course mean that AJ will simply stop offering space to the strongest critics of Zionism. It's easier to confine the conversation before it starts than to resort to clumsy censorship.