2:41pm PT by Austin Siegemund-Broka
Al Jazeera Hit With Lawsuit Alleging Anti-Semitism, Sexism, Journalistic Bias
A former Al Jazeera America executive has filed suit against the fraught network with claims of "abandonment of journalistic integrity" in addition to anti-Semitic and sexist corporate behavior.
Shannon High-Bassalik was the senior vp documentaries and programs for the American version of the Arabic network until the network fired her without proper cause in early 2015, she claims in the complaint filed Thursday in California federal court.
High-Bassalik claims she was fired from her three-year contract because she "repeatedly objected to the Company's misogynistic and racist treatment of its employees" and to coverage she says was meant to "discriminate on the basis of race/ethnicity and to advance a pro-Arabic/Middle Eastern agenda, often at the expense of Jewish people."
The suit also names as a defendant Ehab Al Shihabi, the CEO of the network until his exit in May, who she claims persecuted the network's female employees, oversaw discriminatory personnel practices and admitted to presenting biased coverage in order to please the network’s ownership in Qatar.
"The allegations made against Al Jazeera America are by a former employee whose conduct and performance went through a full process of investigation led by an external law firm before her employment ended, during which Ms. High-Bassalik made none of the allegations she makes in her complaint," said an Al Jazeera America spokesperson in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.
"We regret that Ms. High-Bassalik has now decided to make unfounded allegations against Al Jazeera and its employees. Al Jazeera values and respects all of its employees, and has zero tolerance of any form of discrimination," continued the statement.
High-Bassalik's claims follow closely on the lawsuit filed in April in which fired Al Jazeera employee Matthew Luke similarly claims the network tolerated "overt misogynistic behavior" and "discriminatory, anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks" from executives and fired him when he complained to human resources.
Shortly following his filing of the the $15-million lawsuit, the network's executive vp human resources Diana Lee, executive vp communications Dawn Bridges and senior vp outreach Marcy McGinnis resigned from their positions. McGinnis wrote in a memo to the staff she "could not support the decisions or direction" of the network.
In High-Bassalik's complaint, she claims the network’s programming department was instructed by the corporate side to report with an Arabic viewpoint and, in particular, to discriminate against Israel in its coverage.
She alleges the department was told to air taglines including "Gaza under Fire" and films such as "The Day Israel Attacked America" during the Israel/Gaza conflict in 2014. She claims in one staff meeting the producers were told the Arabic world believes the CIA staged the September 11 attacks to prompt American warfare in the Middle East. "This outrageous and patently offensive statement was held out as an example of the kind of viewpoint that Al Jazeera should keep in mind," she says.
"Dedicated journalists such as Ms. High-Bassalik were told that if this abandonment of journalistic integrity led people to deem them 'terrorists,' that was an acceptable risk for the Company to take," states the complaint.
She claims the network's discriminatory policies include routinely upgrading the performance reviews of Arabic employees and downgrading the reviews of non-Arabic ones, while hiring unqualified Arabic employees (one was hired to the marketing department "despite the fact that the sum total of his previous work experience was working as a retail manager at a Sunglass Hut," states the complaint) and passing over non-Arabic employees for promotions.
The network's practices similarly include diminishing the responsibilities of female employees while promoting less-qualified men to fill the same positions, claims the plaintiff, and requiring women to receive approvals not required of men to get their work done. She alleges Al Shihabi's conduct toward female employees was particularly egregious.
"Defendant Al Shihabi would undermine the performance of female employees by giving them inconsistent instructions, as well as unreasonably short deadlines, and then publicly yell at them when they were not able to comply," states the complaint, which continues to state he would respond to female employees’ complaints over their treatment by “asking them why they 'didn't love me anymore.' "
High-Bassalik has sued for discrimination and retaliation under federal and New York state and city human rights laws, breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. She additionally claims aiding and abetting illegal discrimination and retaliation against Al Shihabi.
She seeks unspecified damages.
"Ms. High-Bassalik should be commended for coming forward and bringing to light yet again the extremist attitudes that permeate a news organization that attempts to take itself seriously,” said her attorney Douglas Wigdor in a statement to THR. High-Bassalik is also represented by Colin and Eric Yuhl in California.
According to Al Jazeera America's spokesperson, the network's new CEO Al Antsey said in his first message to the staff last month, "You'll hear me use the word integrity a lot internally and externally. It 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."
The spokesperson says Antsey continued, "We will, and must, stand up to scrutiny. We must be confident, and have courage in our journalism. And we must always be correct with our facts, and honest with our viewers."