In the first U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991, all eyes in the Middle East were turned to CNN for live coverage. But now, in a media revolution, several competing privately owned Arab satellite channels are offering war coverage. And their pro-Arab viewpoint is hardening public opinion against the United States throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
“For the first time in history, we have a good front line of 24-hour news networks operating in the field and they ... have a great impact,” says media analyst Hussein Amin.
And their perspective is definitely not American.
“They are all giving news coverage from an Arabic perspective,” says Amin, “talking about Iraqi casualties, Iraqi resistance, inviting Arab analysts to comment on U.S. press briefings and pick out what is wrong with them, just as the British use English experts. In Arab eyes it is fair; in American eyes, it is biased.”
Arab audiences acknowledge the difference. In a Saudi Arabian editorial, Raid Qusti claimed U.S. network coverage seems fixated exclusively on the advancement of the U.S. and British forces and the success of their mission, while Al Jazeera, the foremost Arab all-news network, focuses on the casualties of war.
REPORTERS IN THE FIELD
Perspective aside, what Arab news networks offer their viewers is widespread access to the Iraqi side of the war. “We have reporters in the field in Baghdad and other places while Americans don’t,” said Salah Nigm, director of Arabiya, a 24-hour news network launched just three weeks ago. ”[The reporters] try to convey all sides and can because they have access to Iraqis.”
Not only do Arab networks have correspondents “embedded” with U.S. troops, they also have roaming correspondents on the ground in Baghdad and other key Iraqi cities. Six-year-old Al Jazeera, the oldest and most popular network, has five correspondents in Iraq and two embedded with U.S. troops. Newcomer Arabiya TV already has 25 correspondents in the region of conflict and two embedded with U.S. and British troops.
Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi and Arabiya TV all have cameras trained on the Baghdad skyline to broadcast live bombing of the city. In a measure of their success, U.S. and other international networks rely upon them for access to exclusive video from Iraq of the bombing and of breaking news.
Because they have reporters on the ground, they are in a position to investigate U.S. and British assertions about the war, or simply outpace information received by Washington. For example, when U.S. officials initially claimed to have gained control of Umm Qasr, an Al Jazeera reporter inside the city denied those reports. On Sunday, Al Jazeera showed a tank near a warehouse, where people were delivering food. Later they reported that a British tank fired on the warehouse and showed exclusive video of the burning building. Then a few hours later, they interviewed a British military spokesman who denied the incident occurred.
And in the most controversial report yet, Al Jazeera aired graphic Iraqi TV pictures of five dead U.S. soldiers and interviews with U.S. prisoners of war before the U.S. military acknowledged the casualties.
While Al Jazeera and its peers air U.S. and U.K. press briefings and speeches, they also broadcast in full all Iraqi briefings. But sometimes the context in which U.S. briefings are broadcast delivers a mixed message to viewers.
On Friday night, for example, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s briefing was broadcast on half the screen, while the other half of the screen showed video of bloodied bodies of civilian victims being evacuated from the latest bombing raid on a market. A few days earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s exclusive interview with Al Jazeera was later dissected by two pro-Iraqi analysts, the editor of an extremist newspaper and an Iraqi analyst from Baghdad.
Mass communications student Lubna Al Elaimy, who watches Al Jazeera, thinks analysts should be more neutral. “I feel Al Jazeera is slightly biased, but subtly,” she said. “They try to show both sides, but most of the time they show you the Arab side or people who are opposed to the war, which illustrates bias.”
EMPHASIZING CIVILIAN DEATHS
The most obvious difference in the way Arab networks cover the war is in the emphasis placed on civilian and military casualties. Rare are the sanitized images of war so common on U.S. networks — the black-and-white cockpit video of successful coalition bombing raids and state-of-the art military machines in action.
Arab networks, concerned less with the weight of bombs than with the damage caused by them, frequently broadcast graphic — critics say lurid — images of the aftermath of war: a wounded man being carried in bloody blankets to a hospital, two toddlers sharing one metal shelf in a morgue, a little boy with a blood-soaked T-shirt swathed in bandages and a charred corpse next to a burned car.
These are images that resonate among the Arab public, strongly opposed to a war they deem unjust and deeply sympathetic to the Iraqi people many consider Arab brothers. “It angers and saddens me,” says student Al Elaimy. “It makes me extremely depressed. That’s the same for a lot of people.”
Demonstrations continue to wrack Arab capitals, where people are enraged over the war itself and the growing civilian death toll. “Of course these pictures escalate the anger,” says media analyst Amin. “Pictures are the most powerful and influential medium that bypass any barrier.”
CLAIMS OF BIAS
Arab networks, notably Al Jazeera, have been accused of sensationalizing the war and showing pro-Iraqi bias. Al Jazeera’s Omar Bec, head of news-gathering, disagrees. “We are just giving the big picture,” he said. “It is up to individuals whether they grasp it. War kills, and that’s a fact. The message is clear. Nothing is sacred.”
After Al Jazeera broadcast pictures of U.S. war dead and POWs, Rumsfeld told CBS News that Al Jazeera is “obviously part of Iraqi propaganda and responding to Iraqi propaganda.” Al Jazeera’s Bec counters that his network is not pro-anybody, noting that Al Jazeera has been accused by the Americans of being pro-Osama bin Laden because it has aired statements by the al-Qaida leader, while some Arab countries have charged it with being pro-Zionist because it has aired interviews with Israelis.
As to Al Jazeera’s decision to immediately air pictures of U.S. war dead and captured, Bec has no apologies: “War kills, and we are covering this. We have also covered detained Iraqis on the ground…. We are covering all sides of it: the good, the bad and the ugly.”
However, such pictures sometimes upset not only Americans but also Arabs. “I was thinking, how would the families feel if they saw their son?” said one young medical student of the pictures of killed and captured U.S. soldiers. A professor called the interviews with U.S. POWs some of the most upsetting war video she has seen.
REFUTING U.S. AS LIBERATOR
Arab networks have also challenged the notion of U.S. troops’ being welcomed as liberators. On Friday, Al Jazeera beamed pictures of men cheering the downing of a U.S. drone plane over Basra. In a far more chilling broadcast last week, the network showed live pictures of hundreds of Iraqis gathered on the banks of a river in Baghdad, setting fire to cane fields and shooting into the river to flush out U.S. pilots who witnesses said had parachuted from the sky.
And the Arab networks have shown a surprisingly defiant and organized Iraqi resistance impeding the progress of U.S. and British troops.
Arab broadcasters insist that their coverage is in fact less biased than American coverage. “There is no Arab point of view. There is one point of view, which is balanced,” contends Arabiya’s Salah Nigm. “American coverage has to be one-sided because they are party to the conflict and don’t have access to the Iraqis.”
Although Western critics dispute the balance of networks such as Al Jazeera, one thing is for certain: Arab networks have a viewership any 24-hour news network would be proud of. In the shops, homes, cafes and offices of Cairo, people are glued to the TV as they watch the war unfold live. “I feel like I am in the war,” says a young architecture student in a Cairo café.
Competition is intense for viewers. Al Jazeera, the hands-down favorite, claims 35 million viewers. Arabiya, less than a month old, is broadcast on Jordan and Saudi state-owned TV and therefore reaches a potential audience of 13 million in addition to its satellite audience. Abu Dhabi TV, already well established, is widely considered second to Al Jazeera in popularity.
Most significant, pioneer Al Jazeera and the other private Arab news networks have broken the monopoly of stodgy, state-controlled Arab TV stations. Arab state-run TV stations used to, and in many cases still do, broadcast only what Arab governments wanted their citizens to see. Now, viewers can switch channels and get the real story, in Arabic.
“Gone are the days when the state-run media or press will run what they want and not go live with what people want. Numbers speak for themselves,” said Al Jazeera’s Bec. “People want to watch hard news, what is happening on the ground.”
Some of Al Jazeera’s heaviest criticism has come from Britain and the United States, where its reporters were banned from the New York Stock Exchange. That censorship in a country known for free speech is ironic, Bec said, noting that Al Jazeera also recently won an award from a British magazine for freedom of expression.
(Charlene Gubash reports for NBC News from Cairo, Egypt.)