Al Jazeera America has just received some bad news.
The network has been hit with a discrimination lawsuit by a former executive who makes a number of explosive claims, including that the network abandoned objectivity in light of flagging ratings and gave systematic favorable treatment to Arabic and male employees.
In the lawsuit, Shannon High-Bassalik, who says that she was a former Senior Vice President of Programming and Documentaries at Al Jazeera, says she was unjustly fired and deprived of nearly one and a half years of pay.
“Al Jazeera was founded in America on the principles of offering ‘unbiased, fact-based, in-depth stories of U.S. and international news,’ while at the same time being guided by a self-designed ‘mission’ to have ‘integrity’ and respect guide our conduct internally and externally,'” the lawsuit begins.
However, the complaint says that the reality was radically different.
“As ratings failed to live up to the expectations of management, Al Jazeera openly decided to abandon all pretense of neutrality in favor of putting the Arabic viewpoint front and center, openly demanding that programs be aired that criticized countries such as America, Israel and Egypt,” the suit, filed in federal court in California, reads. “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.”
In one example cited in the lawsuit, Al Jazeera’s corporate management in Qatar allegedly stated that many in the Arab world believed that the 9/11 attacks were staged by the CIA to allow America to “wage an unjust war on the Arabic world.”
“Incredibly, this was held out as the type of editorial viewpoint the Company should take guidance from,” the lawsuit reads.
Other inflammatory comments made by employees included “Israelis are like Hitler” and “Anyone who supports Israel should die a fiery death,” the lawsuit claims.
According to the lawsuit, the discrimination extended to employee relations. High-Bassalik’s complaint says that the company has “systematically favored its Arabic ad male employees, treating its non-Arabic and female employees as second class citizens who are the constant targets of abuse and degradation …. Individuals who had no more experience than managing a local Sunglass Hut were promoted to key leadership positions, while more qualified non-Arabic, American and female employees consistently saw their performance undermined and their professional responsibilities taken away from them.”
The lawsuit claims that High-Bassalik “repeatedly objected” to the conditions, until the company “ultimately decided to terminate her employment in response.” According to the complaint, she was suspended and investigated after having a “routine conversation” with a coworker, but was not told why she was being suspended, and was fired about a month later. High-Bassalik claims that she initially wasn’t told that she was terminated, but was eventually informed that she defaulted on her contract, “despite the fact that the term required Ms. High-Bassalik to have committed a crime or other such grossly inappropriate conduct” to be considered in default.
“Incredibly,” the lawsuit says, she was told that she was let go “ostensibly was an ineffective leader and didn’t get along with other employees.”
High-Bassalik alleges that the company refused to pay her the remainder of her term of employment, “amounting to nearly 1.5 years,” in violation of her contract.
In a statement provided to TheWrap, an Al Jazeera America spokesperson called High-Bassalik’s allegations “unfounded,” adding, “Al Jazeera values and respects all of its employees, and has zero tolerance of any kind of discrimination.”
Read the full statement below:
“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. 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.”
“Al Jazeera America’s new CEO Al Anstey stressed the importance of respect, transparency, and integrity in his first message to staff last month in which he said, ‘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.'”
“In the same message Anstey said of Al Jazeera America’s content: ‘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.'”
The lawsuit alleges discrimination, retaliation, aiding and abetting and other counts.
Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.