Al Jazeera staff allege harassment and bullying went unchecked
Kamahl Santamaria, a veteran television journalist, was just 32 days into his job at New Zealand’s top broadcaster TVNZ when he resigned.
A BBC investigation – drawing on interviews with several current and former employees at Al Jazeera, and documentary evidence of inappropriate messages and staff complaints – has found several allegations of sexual harassment against Mr Santamaria in the broadcaster’s Doha newsroom. Some say he wasn’t the only one.
They also accuse the company of fostering a toxic work culture where complaints of harassment, sexism, bullying and racism largely go unaddressed. Those who spoke to the BBC wished to remain anonymous because they feared it would affect their careers. Their names have been changed.
Mr Santamaria did not respond directly to the BBC. But he issued a public statement where he acknowledged previously reported allegations, saying some are “true, some missing crucial context, some outright lies and a rewriting of history”.
In response to the allegations made by the BBC, he admitted to and apologised for “behaviour that may have made anyone feel uncomfortable” and what he previously considered to be “flirtatious, over-friendly, ‘just a bit of banter’, or simply within the bounds of acceptable in the prevailing newsroom culture was, in fact, not”.
The BBC sent Al Jazeera a detailed list of the 22 allegations it had uncovered, but the broadcaster did not address them individually, instead saying it “considers its staff across the world the backbone and foundation of the company – their safety and wellbeing are of utmost importance”. It added: “As an international organisation with over 95 nationalities, we continually strive to build a healthy and constructive work environment for all.”
Employees also told the BBC they struggle to raise issues in Qatar, a tiny gas-rich state in the heart of the Gulf which has been criticised for its record on human rights and gender equality.
Many pointed to the contrast between Mr Santamaria’s departure from Al Jazeera – a proud tweet announcing the end of a successful 16-year stint – and his hurried exit from TVNZ, seemingly forced by a flurry of allegations.
‘I had to wipe his saliva from my face’
Mr Santamaria, who started his career as a TV reporter in New Zealand, was hired by Al Jazeera in 2005 as a presenter on the English language channel in Doha.
He quickly rose up the ranks, anchoring major stories from across the world such as the 2020 US presidential election and flagship programmes.
Those who knew him say he was outgoing, chatty and an “exceptional broadcaster”.
Tory was a young producer at Al Jazeera when she says he started paying her unwanted attention. She says he would message her on Twitter saying he was available for a cuddle and ask why she hadn’t invited him on her holiday. The BBC has seen evidence of inappropriate messages Mr Santamaria sent to colleagues on Twitter, Whatsapp and internal Al Jazeera email.
“Then came the touching in the office,” Tory says. “A hand on the shoulder, a weird hug, and the worst: the kiss on the cheek. On more than one occasion I had to go to the bathroom to wipe Kamahl’s saliva from my face.”
Tory says she discussed Mr Santamaria’s behaviour with at least one fellow colleague and a mid-level manager, both of whom have confirmed to the BBC these conversations took place.
“A professional man in a serious newsroom should not have to be told, more than once, not to message his colleague about how hot she looks or reference her ‘tits’ or invite her to cuddle even if he thinks they are ‘friends’,” Tory says. More than one person has told the BBC that Mr Santamaria made comments about his co-host’s breasts.
Several current and former colleagues allege that Mr Santamaria’s behaviour had witnesses on more than one occasion.
A male employee who currently works at Al Jazeera said Mr Santamaria kissed him on the mouth, uninvited, in the newsroom. A news editor, now a senior leader, at the channel allegedly witnessed it.
Another former junior producer said Mr Santamaria kissed her on the neck at work – in front of multiple people. “I felt so embarrassed and mortified and really worried that people would think I was involved with him or trying to be – I was still making friends, didn’t have anyone in management that I could’ve talked to about it,” she said.
Many of them described Mr Santamaria’s behaviour as brazen, but say they never reported it because they saw him as a network star, while they were just starting out in the Middle East.
Fiona, who freelanced with Al Jazeera for four years, said Mr Santamaria tried to hug her in the newsroom, make sexual comments and send inappropriate texts – behaviour she called “textbook grooming”.
She didn’t formally complain, but she says she reported her experience to a mid-level manager who said, “Oh, he’s not still doing that is he?” She says she was asked if she wanted to approach HR but did not want to because she was on a short-term contract. She says she was then advised to ignore Mr Santamaria.
He stopped speaking to her after that, she adds, but she warned new employees about him.
When the allegations became public earlier this year, she says she had a panic attack.
“I had reported him six years ago, and nothing was done,” she says. “How many more people did he do this to since then?”
‘I feared for my career’
Fiona and others are asking why their complaints against Mr Santamaria did not lead to an inquiry – unlike at TVNZ, which independently reviewed his hiring as soon as allegations emerged. TVNZ found that the recruitment process was inadequate for hiring “key” presenters and the head of news who hired Mr Santamaria resigned.
A reckoning now appears to be under way at Al Jazeera, where the BBC has learned that the allegations go beyond Mr Santamaria and the newsroom.
A former producer and correspondent says at least two men other than Mr Santamaria harassed her. She says one was a manager who would ask her over to his house when his wife was not at home, and the other was her line manager.
“I was so scared that if I was too forceful in stopping his advances, he would sink my career,” she said.
Multiple women and men in another department at Al Jazeera have also alleged harassment against a mid-level manager.
“He has said the most inappropriate stuff – he asks male employees when they are getting a second wife or if they’ve lost their virginity yet. He talks about sex during Ramadan and asks hijabis what colour their hair is,” an employee said.
They said at least one of their colleagues has resigned because of this. The BBC spoke to another staffer who confirmed he witnessed harassment by this man.
This man has now left Al Jazeera, according to members of his department – months after allegations against him surfaced.
‘We are all numb’
“People are angry about all sorts of things and they don’t feel they can speak out in Al Jazeera and in Qatar,” said David, a former employee who says he resigned because of bullying and harassment.
He says he and others were publicly humiliated – what he describes as a “hostile dressing down” – multiple times by one colleague. He says the woman also “belittled” him and often “heckled” senior colleagues at meetings.
Everyone in the team, including senior producers, was “terrified” of her, according to David, because of her “domineering” and “rude” manner. But, he adds, few complained about her because she was close to a top manager.
“We’re all numb,” said another current employee. “The words ‘collective trauma’ are being thrown around by former and current staff.”
Several employees have been harassed and bullied for “years and years and years”, according to Liam, who works in the Doha newsroom.
The BBC has also learned of alleged bullying in Al Jazeera’s London newsroom. And at least two people described an incident in another bureau, where a male bureau chief pushed a young female correspondent causing her to fall over.
“Kamahl was the catalyst,” David says.
Current employees say that since the allegations at TVNZ emerged, management has held meetings along with HR – but Liam called them a “farce”, adding that there has been no mention of an investigation yet.
Everyone the BBC spoke to said they fear speaking up because every aspect of their lives is linked to their jobs.
The hiring system in Qatar ties the work visa, children’s school, housing and other benefits to a specific company – so workers struggle to leave abusive jobs, said Marti Flacks, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
They are also reluctant to report abusive and inappropriate behaviour, Ms Flacks added, because they face “challenges accessing effective remedy, such as compensation”.
While Al Jazeera says it is independent, it is funded by the Emir of Qatar and its journalists don’t report on every aspect of the state. Local laws also restrict freedom of speech.
‘Everyone knew about Kamahl’
Employees say they have little confidence that the allegations will lead to change at Al Jazeera, where they accuse managers of looking the other way for years.
“Management and HR certainly knew about Kamahl Santamaria,” said Katie Turner, a former news editor at Al Jazeera in Doha. She was never targeted but has been vocal about what she witnessed at Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera HR had received complaints of harassment in the newsroom, according to her. During her exit interview, when she hesitated before naming Mr Santamaria, she says the HR manager asked if it was another senior leader.
“It was at that moment that I realised there was a wider problem,” she adds.
The BBC has seen an email from 2016 flagging sexual harassment, bullying, nepotism and toxic behaviour – it was sent to a news editor, now a senior manager. He replied saying he would take it higher, adding “I hope it trickles to the Sheikh,” a reference to senior leadership. But at least 10 employees told the BBC the director of news was aware, and continued to give Mr Santamaria on-air opportunities.
Employees the BBC spoke to say that senior managers were ill-equipped to deal with bullying and harassment, and that the HR policy was unclear.
David says that when he complained about bullying and harassment in the newsroom, he was told management examined his complaint, and subsequently moved the accused to a different department, albeit with the same responsibilities.
“It was only when I resigned and had an exit interview that I realised HR had not been involved in the process at all,” David said.
In response to a BBC request for comment, Al Jazeera said: “Our anti-harassment policies are clear, comprehensive, and available to all employees. As is evident in several recent cases, every formal complaint by our staff is taken extremely seriously with the appropriate remedial action taken after thorough investigation of the claims being made.”
Victims say a disregard for policy, a “culture of forgiving behaviour” and the protection of “people considered to be above the law” are particularly frustrating in 2022 – especially in a global newsroom like Al Jazeera’s, and especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which the network reported on extensively.
“In 2022, there is an upper limit of what senior managers can get away with,” a current employee said.
“At Al Jazeera, there is no upper limit.”
All victims’ names have been changed upon request to protect their identity
Suranjana Tewari was a journalist for Al Jazeera in Doha from 2010 to 2014.