Al Jazeera Winning
TV Credibility War
By TBS Contributing Editor Janet
Although CNN blazed the
path, Arab satellite channels emulated it with pioneering Desert Storm Gulf war
coverage and many viewers in Egypt say they are now tuning in to Qatar-based Al
Jazeera and tuning out CNN for Iraq war telecasts. Al Jazeera seems to be winning
TV credibility and ratings war with the Arab public.
While CNN and BBC are
getting plaudits for excellent reportage in the region, Arabic-language satellite
Al Jazeera is facilitated by an encompassing Baghdad base and maverick reputation,
earning the enmity of both US and Middle Eastern governments. When CNN was forced
to vacate Baghdad, under its agreement with Al Jazeera, it is able to continue
to show the latter's footage. Some Arab viewers deem CNN embedded reporters "in
bed" with military.
"We all channel surf and
while appreciating CNN's technical excellence, it hasn't seemed to change format
since the first Gulf War," said Egyptian film director Mona Assisi. "Naturally
Al Jazeera has easier accessibility for us due to the Arabic language and its
special interviews that are not shown on western channels."
Al Jazeera Cairo Bureau
Chief Hussain Abdul Ghani said objectivity and neutrality is the guiding factor
in war coverage.
"CNN dominated the first
Gulf War, but Al Jazeera surged forward, working in Bosnia and Afghanistan with
the same international standards by presenting conflicting views. The Iraq war
has a different significance for us as we are an Arab satellite channel with a
country in our region that has been attacked. Also we have a technological advantage
with 12 correspondents spread across Iraq including two Iraqi permanent reporters
in Baghdad, and we also have an anchor who can speak to four places at the same
time with a split scene," said Abdul Ghani. "This time we are watching fierce
professional competition in the field with all the European networks and Arab
satellite TV like Abu Dhabi, LBC, Dubai-based Al Arabiya (whose 3 correspondents
were captured and briefly held), London-based Arab News Network (ANN), Al Alem,
and Al Manar."
Al Jazeera still keeps
making its own news and when it telecast graphic American POW footage on March
22, US Lt Gen. John Abizaid publicly targeted the channel's footage, which also
triggered a controversial expulsion at the New York Stock Exchange. After airing
the Osama Bin Laden tapes, secretary of state Colin Powell tried to curb the channel
by complaining to the Emir of Qatar. Maybe it is this irrepressible news sense
that has given Al Jazeera a claimed Arab World 70% viewership edge, according
to Al Jazeera Cairo producer Mohammed Habashi, who said Lebanon's Islamist channel
Al Manar is second with an estimated 20% of the Arab audience. There is no accredited
Arab TV viewership rating system.
Al Jazeera will be the
subject of a documentary by Jehane Noujaim, director of the critically acclaimed
"Start Up.com," in collaboration with Chris Hegedus (Academy Award nominee for
the documentary "The War Room"). Noujaim spoke to TBS from Al Jazeera's headquarters
"I always questioned media
coverage of the Arab world as an Egyptian-American born in Washington DC growing
up in Kuwait and Cairo, educated at Harvard, and living between New York and Cairo,"
said Noujaim, whose indie "Start Up.com" was distributed by Artisan in 2001 and
released in Europe 3 months ago. "The working title of Al Jazeera's 90-minute
film is 'Coverage' and is not yet bought by anyone. Like my other film, it will
be told through personal characters. We found our main Arab character in Al Jazeera
reporter Hassan Ibrahim, who is like an 'Arab Michael Moore' who knows the Arab
world so well in addition to the USA."
The BBC is also currently
shooting Al Jazeera for a "Correspondent" segment telecast. More than 30 requests
by others to shoot a piece on Al Jazeera apparently were turned down by the channel.
"Al Jazeera understands we are coming from a good place since we are an indie
production with a personal story. It is an important time and we will show Hassan
and also footage of the war, like Iraqi TV crumbling," said Noujaim, who anticipates
a four-month shoot. "As an Arab American, I am proud that
Al Jazeera will have an
English language station and an English website, though hackers forced the website
to move to a server in France, maybe due to the POW pictures. I admire the channel's
ability to air different viewpoints." TBS