NEW YORK, N.Y. - The former head of Al Jazeera America's documentary unit has sued the news network, claiming it is biased against non-Arabs and women in stories that it produces and in how it treats employees.
Shannon High-Bassalik, fired in February after working through half of a three-year contract, said the network's recently ousted chief executive Ehab Al Shihabi left meetings when women were speaking and admitted that he tried to favour an Arab point of view on the air to please AJAM's Qatar-based ownership.
Al Jazeera America called High-Bassalik's accusations unfounded and said she made none of them during an investigation of her employment record conducted by an outside law firm.
The troubled news network, an offshoot of the international Al Jazeera network, has reached few viewers in the United States. Through lawsuits and resignations over the past two months, a picture has emerged of a place that has consistently fallen short in its efforts to give Americans a hard news, unbiased alternative to CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.
"As ratings failed to live up to the expectations of management, Al Jazeera openly decided to abandon all pretense of neutrality in favour of putting the Arabic viewpoint front and centre, openly demanding that programs be aired that criticized countries such as America, Israel and Egypt," High-Bassalik's lawsuit stated.
She said she was told that if abandonment of journalistic integrity led people to regard them as terrorists, "that was an acceptable risk for the company to take."
High-Bassalik said that Al Shihabi told her that the company should be regarded as Al Jazeera in America, rather than Al Jazeera America.
Al-Shihabi was ousted in early May, shortly after another employee sued, alleging he was fired when he complained about a colleague's anti-Semitic and sexist behaviour. The company's senior vice-president of newsgathering, head of human resources and communications chief — all non-Arabic women — each resigned over a two-week period.
The former documentary chief, who has also worked for CNN, NBC and MSNBC, said she was told that many Arabs believe the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were staged by the CIA to wage war on Arabs, and that this was a point of view the company should be guided by.
High-Bassalik said that she was told to hire an Arabic woman as a producer even though the person was unqualified and there were several non-Arabs ready for promotion. She claimed that performance ratings for Arabs were systematically upgraded, while non-Arabs saw their ratings go down.
She accused the head of the company's investigative unit of tweeting that "Israelis are like Hitler." During coverage of the 2014 conflict in Gaza, she said she was told the mission was to cast Israel as the villain and emphasize the Arab and Muslim point of view.
In a statement, Al Jazeera did not address High-Bassalik's specific allegations and did not respond to a question about them.
"We regret that Ms. High-Bassalik has now decided to make unfounded accusations against Al Jazeera and its employees," spokeswoman Jocelyn Austin said. "Al Jazeera values and respects all of its employees, and has zero tolerance of any form of discrimination."
The company's new CEO, Al Anstey, told his staff last month that integrity "is the cornerstone of everything we do internally at Al Jazeera America. Respect, transparency and the best practice of management is the only standard we will adhere to, and we expect nothing less."
In the lawsuit, High-Bassalik said she was told she was fired for being an ineffective leader who had trouble getting along with others. She's suing for back pay and unspecified damages. The Connecticut resident is currently unemployed, said her lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, on Thursday.