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."
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
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
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
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
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.