Chess Moves

05.06.15 11:30 PM ET

Al Jazeera CEO Is Demoted, Not Fired, In Day of Intrigue

When the rumor went round that Al Jazeera CEO Ehab Al Shihabi had been fired, one staffer said it was like “The Witch is Dead.” But it was just a demotion.

A mere 48 hours after trying to defend the troubled news channel Al Jazeera America from allegations of sexism and anti-Semitism in an ill-conceived conference call with media reporters, interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi was demoted on Wednesday afternoon.

The 45-year-old Jordanian-born executive, who presided over the launch of the Qatari-owned AJAM in August 2013, was apparently taken by surprise shortly after his regular Wednesday senior leadership meeting at the channel’s Manhattan headquarters at the Hotel New Yorker.

But in an email to the staff late Wednesday, Al Shihabi said he will continue as the channel’s chief operating officer.

Initial reports suggested Al Shihabi had been fired, and an official Al Jazeera America press release announcing the “immediate” appointment of the new CEO, veteran television journalist Al Anstey, the former managing director of Al Jazeera English, made no mention of a role for Al Shihabi, saying only that “Anstey replaces interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi who was responsible for launching Al Jazeera America in 2013.” (Nor did the release mention AJAM’s nominal president, Kate O’Brian, and how her role will be affected by Anstey’s arrival from Doha.)

An hour or so after the press statement was released, however, Al Shihabi sent his email, claiming to be “delighted” and “excited” about his demotion.

“Dear All,” Al Shihabi wrote. “I am delighted to be able to welcome Al Anstey to AJAM who, as you know, will be joining us as CEO. I am excited to work with Al in my ongoing capacity of Chief Operating Officer for AJAM, and I am confident that the entire team will show Al the support necessary to continue AJAM’s success.”

It was unclear who ordered the executive shakeup amid a flurry of negative publicity concerning a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed against AJAM last week by a fired video archivist, but insiders speculated that it went as high as the Emir of Qatar.

The Emir’s Al Thani family has invested billions of dollars in the Al Jazeera Media Network—which includes the Al Jazeera Arabic and English channels—since its founding in 1996.

“There’s so little transparency about who’s making the decisions,” an AJAM insider told The Daily Beast. “It could go up to the Emir. It’s like Wolf Hall. There’s a bunch of courtiers here and it’s hard to know who’s whispering in whose ear.”

This insider, who asked not to be identified out of concern for possible retaliation, said initial reaction inside the company was jubilant, when it was widely believed that Al Shihabi was out.

“It’s ‘the wicked witch is dead!’” the AJAM insider said.

That cry was premature, however, and an AJAM spokesperson confirmed Wednesday evening that Al Shihabi is staying on.

According to witnesses at Wednesday’s meeting, Al Shihabi—whose leadership style featured shouting at and berating underlings in front of others, and whom detractors blamed for a corporate culture of suspicion and vindictiveness—seemed unaware of his demotion during the two-hour session. At least he failed to mention it.

At the end of the meeting, when Al Shihabi habitually asks his executives to discuss dilemmas they’re grappling with (which few ever do, according to a frequent attendee, for fear of being attacked by Al Shihabi), he was heard to ask sarcastically, “Anyone have an issue? Except for Ehab being a problem?”

“He thought he was fine,” this insider told The Daily Beast.

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AJAM journalists greeted Anstey’s arrival with a sense of hope. Unlike Al Shihabi, Anstey’s resume includes multiple journalism jobs in the United States, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, notably as a producer for CBS News, at Associated Press Television News, and as the head of foreign news for Britain’s ITN.

Al Shihabi, by contrast, is a former management consultant who focused on media mergers, but lacked journalism experience when he assumed leadership of the Al Jazeera’s American channel.

Here is the press release announcing the shakeup.

“Al Jazeera Media Network has appointed Al Anstey as CEO of Al Jazeera America with immediate effect. Anstey replaces interim CEO Ehab Alshihabi who was responsible for launching Al Jazeera America in 2013.

“Anstey joined Al Jazeera in 2005 and has held a range of leadership positions with the organization, most recently serving as Managing Director of Al Jazeera English since 2010.

“Previously Al was Director of News for AJE, in charge of the news division and the editorial content. Al was a key member of the start-up team of AJE that designed the editorial vision, recruited AJE’s editorial staff, and set up AJE’s worldwide bureau network.

“During his tenure as Managing Director of Al Jazeera English, the channel became a leader in international news winning a range of awards for its journalism including an International Emmy, the Royal Television Society News Channel of the Year award, and other international awards.

“Under Anstey’s leadership the channel is now accessible to over 250 million households across the globe in over 130 countries.

“Anstey stated, ‘I’m delighted to be leading Al Jazeera America into the next stage of its development. The United States is a remarkable country, with amazing people across the nation who are looking for in-depth, trusted, and inspiring stories.

‘I’m also very proud to be able to lead a fantastic team at Al Jazeera America who are dedicated to the highest quality storytelling. I am committed to engaging the team and uplifting our collective ambitions, as a much needed channel for American audiences.

‘There are human stories across the United States that need to be told. Stories that inspire, enlighten, and inform. We are committed to hearing the voices from all parts of the country, and elsewhere in the world, and covering untold stories with integrity and responsibility.

‘The future of Al Jazeera America is to build on a foundation of providing information that is trusted, respected, and valued by those that want to know what is really going on in across America and the world.

‘Having started my career with CBS News, and lived in the US later in my career, I’m very pleased to be returning to the US to continue to uphold the highest standards of organizational excellence at the channel, with an absolute commitment to the very best in journalism and storytelling.’

“The Chairman of Al Jazeera America’s Board of Directors, Mostefa Souag, stated, ‘As Al Jazeera America moves forward into this new stage of its development, I am confident Al’s leadership will transform the channel’s ability to lead in the US marketplace.

‘His demonstrated success leading Al Jazeera English and his passion for the Al Jazeera brand positions him with the unique ability to undertake the strategic changes needed for the success of the channel. I am extremely pleased at Al’s appointment.’

“Anstey has lived and worked in Asia, America, Europe and the Middle East. He started his career as a producer at CBS News, later joining the start-up of Reuters GMTV in the UK, before moving to the start-up of Associated Press Television News, based in New Delhi and Sydney, later taking on the position of Asia Editor for APTN with responsibility for bureaus and coverage across Asia.

“Prior to joining Al Jazeera in 2005 Al was the Head of Foreign News at ITN in the UK after many years as their Senior Foreign Editor and two years based in Washington DC as Bureau Chief of ITN’s operations in the US.”