No. 10, Spring/Summer 2003
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Impressions Of An Arab Viewer On The Satellite Coverage Of The So-Called "War On Iraq"

By Abbas Al-Tonsi

To the soul of Tarek Ayoub, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Baghdad, killed when the channel's Baghdad office was bombed, apparently by Coalition forces.

The author notes that the following observations hold good only for the period to April 7, when this article was written, and that Arab media positions may continue to evolve.

In the exciting article entitled "Welcome to the Third World Forum," published in Al-Ahram on 27 November 2001, Fahmy Howeidy noted that the advanced countries of the West, that have long preached democracy and human rights, have tended to become assimilated to Third World countries as regards the fettering of freedom and the granting of boundless exceptional competencies to security bodies. Now we may add Western media to the list: CNN and, though to a lesser degree, the BBC have shown themselves to be models for government media in the Third World, whereas FOX news was almost closer to the level of pre-war Iraq TV.

In contrast, the Arab satellites-Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Al Hayat/LBC, and Abu Dhabi-presented balanced, professional reporting, adopting the impartial, Western designations of this war, namely, War on Iraq, War in Iraq, or Third Gulf War and avoiding the use of words that might be considered more accurate and appropriate from the perspective of international law, such as "aggression against Iraq" or "invasion of Iraq."

Similarly, announcers and anchors repeatedly talked in neutral terms about "Iraqi troops" and "allied troops" and instead of references to the "occupation" of a city or port we heard that such places had "fallen under the control of" or "fallen into the hands of" the allies. All Arab non-governmental satellites followed the same path save a new small channel, Al-Alam (The World). This reported under the title of "War of Domination."

The media coverage manifested the nature of this war. On the one hand, it is truly the first Middle East war that is not seen from the CNN perspective. On the other, it revealed the chaotic position of leading Arab satellites Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Al Hayat/LBC. These private satellites enjoy invisible linkages to the ruling regimes and the financial circles that embrace and foster these regimes. Seemingly, they endeavor, as much as possible, not to outrage those regimes, though they are sometimes subject to waspish criticism.

Al Arabiya, originally founded to challenge Al Jazeera and defend the Saudi and Kuwaiti regimes-as became clear during the first two weeks of transmission-was exposed to the fury of the Kuwait government's General Investment Authority, which decided to cease its contribution to its capital. It made no difference that before the war Al Arabiya's screens had hosted Kuwaiti officials or those who propagated verbatim the views of the Kuwaiti and US media. Journalists and writers of the Saudi and Kuwaiti regimes fiercely competed to attack the other Arab satellites, which they charged with lack of objectivity and with being prejudiced in favor of Iraq.

According to Anas Al Zahid, who wrote a series of articles in Asharq Al-Awsat, the Arab satellites discarded a substantial truth: that toppling Saddam's regime would overall constitute a significant gain to the Iraqi people and the region's peoples. Thus, according to this view, Saddam was the sole culprit for this war!

Al Jazeera was also subject to the fury of the US Administration, which believes that the US, as President Bush reiterated, is God's blessing and gift to the whole world. As long as this is the case, and as long as Bush, as voiced in his meeting with the Veteran Warriors, is God's gift to US, no one is entitled to oppose this divine will, not even Al Jazeera, which spared no effort to entertain us with interviews and meetings with US officials.

Ironically, the pre-war attitude of the four channels, under scrutiny, was support of the Arab regimes that expressed, explicitly or implicitly, that the only means to avoid the scourge of war was that Saddam Hussein should retire. These channels refrained from playing this tune when President Bush unexpectedly declared that the allies would enter Iraq, whether Saddam retired or not.

As war was waged, these channels had to reconcile professional considerations and the need to attract viewers under these conditions of fierce competition on one hand and Arab and international "red lines" on the other.

Confidence in Al Jazeera was shaken when it decided, while the whole world was preoccupied with Israeli atrocities in the so-called Defensive Shield operation and Jenin massacre, to transmit a tape of Bin Ladin and his aides calling for the murder of Christians and Jews as, by so doing, it was justifying what Israel was doing with those Palestinian murderers! It also broadcast Bin Ladin's last tape that Colin Powell referred to in his address before the Security Council, trying to make a link between Al Qa'ida and the Iraqi regime.

Al Jazeera sought to attract the Arab viewer though the channel transmits from Qatar, the largest US base and headquarters of Central Command. Thus it repeatedly interviewed the semi-resident Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, published in London. Atwan is one of the loudest voices opposing the Arab regimes, especially the Saudi and the Egyptian. He sometimes even criticizes Qatar in passing!

Al Jazeera tried to serve the same purpose through incessant telephone interviews with Field Marshal Saad Al Shazli, former Egyptian chief of general staff, an anti-Sadat voice, to comment on the course of events. However, Al Shazli's observations provided the most sound military analyses.

On the other hand, it gave more room for Iraqi opponents or commentators and analysts who called upon the Iraqi people to surrender. A blatant example was what happened on 26 March. A viewer was held on the line for quite a long time. Al Jazeera excused itself due to limited time frame. Nevertheless, it granted more time to the Imam of the Islamic Cultural Centre, California, to call for collaboration with allied troops to oust Saddam Hussein, the cause of the ordeal.

Al Jazeera attempted through Hafez Al Merazzi's program transmitted from Washington to express its stance: "We are not with or against war. We are neutral." In general, the announcers avoided use of the word invasion or its derivatives, before the sixth day of war, thereafter, through a slip of the tongue, they sometimes used the phrase "invading troops."

Al Arabiya endeavored to reconcile the different players-Arab ruling regimes and White House masters. For example, it interviewed the Iraqi permanent delegate to the UN. He talked about the illegitimacy of the aggression and UN reluctance to condemn this aggression. On the other hand, it promptly presented a discordant note in the form of Dr. Waheed Abdul Meguid, known among Egyptian intellectuals for his nearly unique efforts in defense of the Arab regimes. He started a show of insult and offence, seeking to manipulate the na´ve feelings of Egyptian patriotism. He went on defending the Egyptian and Kuwaiti governments! Al Arabiya tried, while reporting the reaction of the masses, to ward off any suspicion, making play with the phrase "the so-called US aggression on Iraq."

LBC desired to avert any suspicion of courting the Iraqi regime at the expense of the Kuwaiti. It presented, for a few minutes, the original event - the press conference in the Operations Room in Doha- on a small screen. The remaining part of the screen was dedicated to preparation and transfer of Kuwaiti aid to Iraqi people!

Abu Dhabi followed the same footsteps. It kept pace with US propaganda in the early days of the invasion. It interviewed the supposedly fleeing soldiers as if they had chosen the right path!

The four channels shared the following points content-wise:

First: Limited coverage of popular reactions to the aggression, particularly in the first week of the war. At that point, reporting was confined to silent snapshots or a news item on the news bar.

Second: Focus on a military analysis of the war, avoiding, as much as possible, an objective in-depth political analysis of the war and the Arab status quo.

Third: Quick news coverage of the situation in the Palestinian territories and its relation to Iraq. Al Hayat/LBC was relatively better at making the link.

Fourth: Excessive repetition of transmitted material. Repetition was not only restricted to the news bulletin or news in brief. The so-called coverage was a repetition of pictures, interviews, conferences, dialogues, etc. Al Hayat/LBC and Abu Dhabi, however, due to their different nature, were less repetitive.

Fifth: Though war was definite or at least known to numerous informed circles in the Gulf and Egypt, these channels did not present any analytical or documentary material to help the Arab viewer understand the background of this "war film." No documentaries were shown on Iraqi cities, Saddam Hussein's life, or the Gulf wars. There were no profound seminars, or interviews about the UN system and role, the Geneva Convention, Resolution 1441, the US strategy in the region, the US Administration, etc. Even the programs presented by Al Arabiya that tackled some of these issues were translated from English originals.

Strangely enough, a small channel NBN outstripped the others in this regard regardless of the essence of the material presented. It broadcast a documentary on Saddam Hussein on 30 March. This kind of material could have spared us the full monotonous repetition of what had already been transmitted.

It is worth mentioning here that Nile News and ESC1 (Egyptian Satellite Channels 1) were far behind these four channels in news coverage, but were better in terms of analytic programs such as Da'irat Al Hiwar (Dialogue Circle) and Al Siniryu Al Qadim (The Coming Scenario), and in documentaries.

There are some observations on the technical and professional levels, as follows:

1- Al Jazeera pursued its focus on the correspondents. Sometimes, it seemed that the correspondents and announcers were more important than the actual event. On March 26, the channel delayed direct transmission of the press conference in Doha and the news statements. Al Arabiya, on the contrary, was more prompt in transmission.

2- Due to its better financial position, Al Jazeera was more dynamic, moving among Iraq, Washington, London, etc. This enabled the viewer to follow the different scenes.

3- Some outstanding accomplishments as LBC- Alhayat was the first to transmit the civil districts bombarded by the allied troops. Ali Montazeri, the Al Hayat/LBC correspondent, proved the absence of any military sites in these areas. Abu Dhabi was the first channel to present scenes from Umm Al-Qasr port.

4- Abu Dhabi was relatively distinguished for its news team which comprised prominent analysts. However, the channel relied on them to such an extent that fewer specialists were interviewed.

5- Al Jazeera was distinguished for promos expressive of the war. ANN, though unable to keep abreast with the four channels as regards the events, still had the best promos.

6- The worst thing Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya transmitted via the international channels was the news bar. This bar had a visual deficiency. It moved from left to right, in the opposite direction to the Arabic. Furthermore, the screen was crammed with many items - urgent news items, information about the speaker, the location.

7- The quick war tempo and difficulty of prior preparation revealed incredible weakness in Arabic language mastery on the part of correspondents, some TV announcers and presenters. The best was Al Jazeera, followed by Abu Dhabi, in terms of verbal and structural mastery of language. This served also to reveal the poor language of Gulf officials, who made basic mistakes in grammar (the Saudi foreign minister persisted on screen in making the word harb ("war") masculine rather than feminine).

Regardless of all criticism, the Arab satellites proved professional competence though with the exception of Al Jazeera, they are still relative newcomers. The latter channel, however, took a more impartial stance and one rather closer to that of the Arab viewer after 27 March, far exceeding in this regard the regimes that sponsor or fund it directly or indirectly. This capacity for responsiveness on the part of non-governmental Arab media is the closest thing we have to democracy in our Arab world.

A question still persists, namely, the impact of these channels, particularly Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, on international public opinion should they resort to a translation bar or voice translation of the repeated transmission!

Until democracy in our Arab World goes beyond the satellites to the Arab streets, and until the Arab World escapes the influence of the Neo-Conservatives in the US, let us hail this media victory! TBS


Abbas El Tonsi is a scholar of Arabic language and literature and teaches at the American University in Cairo.
Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu