No. 8, Spring/Summer 2002
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Reflections on the Arab Satellites, the Palestinian Intifada, and the Israeli War

By Abbas El Tounsy

espite the fact that the media has long been the most important state apparatus in the Middle East, now, in light of the amazing developments in the field of media, it is impossible to find a correlation between the views promoted by a state or party and those promoted by the corresponding media channels, except in very limited cases: for example the Syrian, the Libyan, and the Iraqi satellite channels, or the Manar channel, which is the mouthpiece of Hizballah.

Perhaps this can be attributed to multiple reasons which have to do with professional considerations and competitiveness, the strive to prove credibility and objectivity, democratic pretense on part of the regimes, or with the distribution of roles.

It is remarkable that, after the events in New York and Washington, the Arab official discourse was adopting American language and the concepts reflected by this language; this was apparent in talking about the imperative need to stop violence and repudiate terrorism. And although attempting to back the Palestinians, the official Arab discourse would argue that terrorism is due to the disequilibrium in US policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this respect it is noteworthy that the expression "the Arab-Israeli conflict" was dropped.

Furthermore, at a time when the Arab official discourse was pressing for peace as a strategic option, as manifest in the last two Arab summits, the Arab satellite channels insisted, most of the time, on dubbing the Palestinian suicidal operations "martyr operations." Their programs would pave the way for advocates of Hizballah, Hamas, and Jihad and proponents of the Intifada and resistance who considered that the Oslo agreement was conducive only to the consecration of the Israeli occupation and that the proposed peace is nothing but a capitulation.

On the other hand, though, some satellite programs allowed not only peace activists and defenders of the Arab regimes but also some Arabs who are more Americanized than the Americans themselves to explain their stands or voice the viewpoints of their governments. Al-Jazeera even allowed Israelis to do the same.

Among the Arab satellite stations, Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi channels have stood out with respect to their extensive news coverage and the issues raised in their talk shows on everything related to the Palestinian cause as a whole. Many of the other Arab satellite channels, however, were not lagging far behind in this respect.

What is new about the Arab satellite channel's coverage of Sharon's recent war against the Palestinians? As far as analysis of content is concerned, we can note the following:

Most of the Arab satellite stations, perhaps with the exception of the Egyptian, Jordanian, Kuwaiti and Saudi channels, seemed to voice the stand of their peoples. This was manifest in escalating talk about the inefficacy of the Arab regimes and in the call for boycotting Israeli and American commodities and for using the weapon of oil. It was also manifest in the call for adoption of a strict stand toward the United States, to the extent that one of the guests on Abu Dhabi TV, on April 9, expressly called for severing relations with the US and halting the exportation of oil.

All the Arab satellite channels, although in varying degrees, have opened an unprecedented outlet for scenes of the ferocity of Israeli practices against the Palestinians. Pictures of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock appeared frequently in introductions to several programs.

With the exception of the Saudi satellite channel, songs about the Intifada and Jerusalem have been repeatedly broadcast on all the Arab satellite channels. Even the Lebanese channels like Future, New TV, and MTV, which usually present light variety programs, have broadcast this type of song, with pictures of Mohammed Al-Durra, funerals of the martyrs, and corpses of the victims in the background.

Many Arab satellite channels, moreover, have broadcast nationalist movies reminiscent of the Arabs' dignity, such as "Nasser 56," which was aired by several channels, the most recent of which was Bahrain [as of mid-April]. In addition, feature films and documentaries on the Palestinian cause were also broadcast. It is noteworthy that the Arab News Network (ANN) has focused on songs of the nationalist era, such as the songs of Abdelwahab and Fayrouz about Jerusalem, perhaps hoping that they would bring back to the Arabs some memories they pretend to have forgotten.

With the exception of the Saudi satellite channel, all the Arab satellite stations have designated a so-called "Open Day" to the Intifada; such programs are being run under passionate slogans such as "The Massacre" on MBC, "All of Us are Palestine" on Abu Dhabi, or "For Your Sake" on the Abu Dhabi and Emirates channels.

The usual programming schedule of most of Arab satellite channels has not been altered, although it may be utilized differently: Al-Sharqa channel has dedicated its programs "A Stance" and "An Issue for Discussion," which usually focus on cultural or literary issues, to the Intifada in particular and the Palestinian cause in general. Programs on the Abu Dhabi Channel, including even the economic program "Markets," have focused on the Intifada issues and the reaction of the Arab street. Al-Jazeera has stood out in this respect by presenting a new daily program "Under Siege," which is dedicated to dealing with the events taking place in the occupied territories and the reaction of the Arab peoples. Likewise, Al-Jazeera's second new program "Hot Issues" has dealt with the Intifada and related issues.

Most of the Arab satellite channels, with the exception of Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi, Syria, Libya, and Nile News, have not featured scenes of the reaction of the Arab peoples but instead only mentioned it as a news item. This is despite the fact that they have highlighted the quasi-official demonstrations like the one led by Her Majesty Queen Rania. With the exception of Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi, all of them made no mention of the demonstrations that took place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ironically, they have hailed the organization of the demonstrations that took place outside the Arab world and criticized some demonstrations in the Arab world for having gone beyond the limits. In this respect, the Arab satellite stations have ignored the fact that the well-managed, "civilized" and peaceful demonstrations of the West can be attributed to the fact that the demonstrators are not barred or stopped by the police forces there. It is quite ironic that Nile News rejoiced over the demonstrations in Washington and conducted interviews with some demonstrators, meanwhile presenting semi-official coverage, based on the official data available, of the demonstrations in Egypt.

Despite the statements of the US Secretary of State in acceptance of Israel's practices under the pretext of "self-defense," and despite the US backing away from the necessity of an Israeli commitment to immediate withdrawal, the attacks on the United States have certainly abated on Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi channels, and have almost vanished on the other satellite channels since early April, following attempts at violent acts against US installations in Egypt and Bahrain. This situation may intuitively be attributed to undeclared governmental directives. But except for intercepting the airing of the "Editor in Chief" program on Egyptian TV, no other cases of Arab governments' interferences are apparent.

Inter-Arab hard feelings have not been manifest except in some programs of Al-Jazeera: in the April 13 episode of the program called "More than One Opinion," the Egyptian and the Qatari guests started to exchange insinuations, although both of them are academics. These regional hard feelings, however, were clearly manifest in most of the Arab press after the Arab summit in Beirut.

All the Arab satellite channels adopted fundraising campaigns for the Palestinians—and this was encouraged by the Arab governments, whose support of the Intifada at the last two Arab summits did not reach the level of their previous support. (Ironically, the desire to continue providing financial support to the Intifada was a justification offered by the Gulf countries for rejecting the idea of halting oil exports.) The "Open Day" designated by most of the Arab satellite channels to promote their fundraising campaigns had several digressions from the subject matter. Through the viewers' live calls and the guests' talks, the program shifted to dealing with objections to the official stand and adopted the stand of the Arab peoples. These fundraising campaigns continue to be run on most of the satellite stations.

On some satellite channels viewers said on air what the program presenters and announcers could not say themselves. Even Al-Jazeera announcers have avoided making any provocative comments or judgments on the viewpoints of viewers or guests. But an objective of mobilization was apparent in some programs on Al-Jazeera, or rather in one of its news bulletins, where the announcer appealed to the Arabs and their sympathizers to rally and take to the streets on a particular day in front of the premises of the Human Rights Committee. The program "Under Siege" called upon viewers to send petitions and objections to one of the human rights organizations. The contact numbers and the e-mail address of this organization appeared on screen.

Despite being a channel that is not restricted to news, Abu Dhabi excelled over Al-Jazeera with respect to the depth of discussion among guests on the programs. This applies to programs like "Confrontation," "Markets," or even the reporting programs such as "The Event" or "The News Range." While presenters of Al-Jazeera's programs sometimes do not allow for exploring ideas in-depth and instead shift rapidly from one idea to the other, and while in many cases they interrupt a guest's explanation or elaboration of an important point so as to shift to another guest, Abu Dhabi presenters are more aware of the guest's discussion and allow the viewer to totally grasp the speaker's idea. Their interference with questions serves to deepen the discussion and the real dialogue among the guests. Meanwhile, most of Al-Jazeera's programs, except "First War of the Century," has seemed to be more of a gathering of a number of guests where each delivers his own basic opinion without really engaging in a dialogue with the others.

On the other hand, Al-Jazeera has excelled in highlighting the role of its own correspondents and getting them on screen directly. Abu Dhabi has tended to focus on the events, and often presents reports of correspondents with a still picture on the side of the screen and the name of the correspondent written below.

Media coverage of these events has been relatively free of any "scoops" like the major scoops Al-Jazeera had of the "war against terrorism" during the strike against Afghanistan. However, the long interview with Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, which was aired on Egypt's Dream channel, can be considered a hit, as he had the chance to elaborate on his analysis of the Arab situation, particularly since the events of September 11. This dialogue raised a host of comments and discussions in the press and among well-educated viewers.

The credit goes only to ANN for rapid news coverage of the detention of Marwan El Bargouthy, secretary general of the Fatah movement and a prominent Intifada activist. The channel had live phone calls with his wife and lawyer. Most of the Arab satellite channels screened the dreadful scenes of events in Jenin, although Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi, and ANN stood out in this respect by the airing of more details and events.

The aforementioned notes are just scattered reflections, the tenor of which is as follows: The Arab satellite channels, although having been originally established by the Arab regimes to act in their interest, have now become one of the most dangerous challenges faced by the Arab regimes themselves. It is the same as when the game of nominal democracy concocted by the Arab regimes to enhance their image before the west turns out to be a tool in the hand of the people to pressure their regimes to apply a real democracy.

In this regard, I call upon Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi channels in particular to provide an English translation of some of their news programs on screen—especially when such programs are re-broadcast, and to announce this service so that western viewers who seek the truth can understand the Arab stand and watch the scenes and pictures that are never displayed by the US media. TBS


Abbas El Tounsy is a researcher and writer who has published many political and literary articles, and has authored Arabic language books designed for teaching foreigners. He was a student union activist in Egypt in the 1970s and chairman of the National Temporary Committee of Students that organized the sit-in in Tahrir province in 1972.
Copyright 2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu