A former employee of Al Jazeera America has filed suit against the network for workplace retaliation, leveling a number of allegations that a manager engaged in discriminatory conduct toward women and made offensive remarks about Israel and the United States.
Matthew Luke started at Al Jazeera America in 2013 in New York City, prior to the network’s U.S. launch, and served initially as its supervisor of media and archive management. In his early days on the job, notes the complaint, Luke was a happy employee, working closely with Jeff Polikoff, who now holds the title of acting executive vice president of operations & technology. “Luke worked diligently to assist AJAM to prepare for the launch of its U.S. news network in August of 2013, and, along with the team that he managed, was instrumental in making that launch a logistical suc[c]ess,” notes the lawsuit.
A couple of months after the launch, AJAM hired Osman Mahmud as a news editor, the complaint states. Over time, Mahmud would rise through the ranks, ultimately securing the title of senior vice president of broadcast operations & technology — a position in which he supervised Luke. The complaint levels a whole sheath of claims in the direction of Mahmud:
As an employee at AJAM, Mr. Mahmud’s discriminatory conduct included, but was not limited to, removing female employees from projects to which they had been previously assigned by other management level employees, excluding women from emails and meetings relevant to their assignments, and making discriminatory, anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks such as “whoever supports Israel should die a fiery death in hell.”
Here’s an example of what the lawsuit represents as Mahmud’s discrimination against women. Around November 2014, Mahmud allegedly “took it upon himself” for fire an editor working on the Al Jazeera America program “America Tonight.” The female executive producer of the show cited concerns about the move, about which she hadn’t been consulted, according to the lawsuit. “Mr. Mahmud became combative and then dismissive of the Executive Producer even though she outranked him at the Company,” notes the complaint.
Mahmud then took the issue to the network’s chief executive, Ehab Al Shihabi. After the dust had settled, the executive producer “was directed” to issue an apology to Mahmud. The complaint argues that Mahmud had important contacts in the upper reaches of the company, specifically with Mostefa Souag, acting Director General of the Al Jazeera Media Network. Al Jazeera is owned by the ruling family of Qatar.
In a detailed discussion with the Erik Wemple Blog, Mahmud confirmed that he’s known Souag for decades. “I’ve known the man for 19 years,” says Mahmud.
And that’s the end of the confirmations coming from Mahmud. Of the allegation that he said that terrible quote about supporters of Israel: “I have never mentioned words that you put in your e-mail,” he says. “I have never even thought of that at all.” If he’d really said any such thing, Mahmud argues, others would have complained about his alleged utterance — and they haven’t, he says.
Of the allegation that he mistreated women: “This is a pack of lies, completely.”
Of an allegation that he sought to replace an Israeli cameraman with a less qualified Palestinian cameraman: “Nah, nah, nah nah, never,” he says, affirming that he favors personnel who meet the company’s “criteria.”
The real problem, he suggests, is the plaintiff. Luke is prone to “yelling” at people, says Mahmud. “He’s an aggressive person. He yells at you. He wants to have the plan according to his way of working,” he says.
In any case, Luke’s complaint alleges that in February of this year, Mahmud instructed him to remove two women from an e-mail chain and install a man in the correspondence. After another example of what the complaint cites as discriminatory actions by Mahmud, Luke went to the human resources department. Not long thereafter, Luke saw on Mahmud’s computer screen the letter of acceptance from another employee to replace him. Luke was later suspended and then terminated. “At the termination meeting, the EVP of Human Resources told Mr. Luke that he ‘did not fit into the company culture.'” notes the complaint, which seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages for the company’s alleged retaliation against Luke.
Luke’s lawyer, Jeffrey Kimmel of Meister Seelig & Fein LLP, said in a statement:
When Mr. Luke, an exemplary and loyal employee at Al Jazeera, reported the biased and discriminatory conduct of a high-level newsroom executive, the response was to circle the wagons and fire the messenger. This is a clear violation of the law. One would expect more from an organization whose mission statement is “to be recognized as the world’s leading and most trusted media network.”
The complaint comes at a time of some operational angst at Al Jazeera America, as the New York Post recently reported. “Insiders said AJA, funded by the government of Qatar, is laying off staffers and watering down its US editorial voice while programming from sibling Al Jazeera English occupies more air time,” reports the tabloid.
Update 8:49 p.m.: Al Jazeera America has responded to a request for comment:
Al Jazeera America does not comment on pending litigation. The company takes these matters seriously and will respond in the appropriate forum. Al Jazeera America’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is fundamental to its mission, and is boldly reflected throughout the company: in its staff, its leadership and its programming.