The Non-Jazeeras

Watching the war on the other Arabic channels.

Among Westerners, Al Jazeera is surely the best-known Arabic news channel. Two weeks ago, it incurred the wrath of the Pentagon by airing video of American POWs and dead soldiers. Its reporters are known for badgering coalition commanders at military briefings in Qatar. And it seems to be the network of choice for all the latest Osama Bin Laden video- and audiotape releases.

But Al Jazeera, which was founded in Qatar in 1996 on the ruins of the BBC’s Arabic Service, is not the only Arabic station beaming the Iraq war to the Middle East and beyond. In fact a large number of satellite channels operate throughout the region, making this arguably the first panoptical war—a conflict perpetually visible from countless angles. Whereas the 1991 Gulf War was a CNN affair, Arab stations now have far more substantial market penetration and enjoy more access to the Iraqi side than their Western counterparts. Of course, the growth of such news outlets doesn’t necessarily lead to more objective coverage. But it does mean that Arabs can in fact see a wide variety of viewpoints on the war.

Among the less polemicalis Al-Arabiya, which went on the air in March from its headquarters in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Bankrolled to the tune of some $300 million by a group of Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Lebanese investors, it’s designed to serve as a counterweight to the more uncompromising Al Jazeera. Like Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya offers a mix of news programs, talk shows, and documentaries. Its news division is run by Salah Nigm, a former BBC and Al Jazeera hand; according to the Washington Post, the station attracted five reporters from Al Jazeera by offering, in some cases, to triple their salaries. Where Al Jazeera speaks of a war “on” Iraq, Al-Arabiya uses the more neutral term “The Third Gulf War” (Iran-Iraq and Gulf War I being the first two).Last Sunday Al-Arabiya did something rare for Arab news stations: It interviewed U.S. soldiers at the captured al-Harir airbase in northern Iraq. (Several regional stations have avoided speaking to American soldiers, partly, it seems, because this is seen as implicitly sanctioning the invasion.)

More aggressive is the most popular Lebanese station, LBCI, which was established in 1985 by Lebanon’s anti-Syrian Christian militia (it was the first private venture in the then-unregulated local TV market). In the past few years, Syria and some of its Lebanese allies have sought to get their hands on LBCI, and the station has conceded some control over its political programs, although through Lebanese intermediaries. To enhance its news service, LBCI recently formed Newsroom Ink, a joint venture with the Saudi Al-Hayat daily, a move that has altered the station’s reputation mainly as an entertainment channel.

Sunday night, Lebanese-born American academic Fouad Ajami appeared on the LBCI news-talk show The Event. Ajami—a prominent supporter of the war in Iraq—never appears on Lebanese TV, and one could see why: The interviewer cut him off several times and twice ambushed him with questions about his alleged sympathy for Israel. A viewer was allowed to do the same in a call-in segment. As the program turned into a trial, Ajami fought back. To a skeptical question on where the war was heading, he replied, “To Baghdad, to the bunker.” Ajami’s treatment was symptomatic of a common quid pro quo: LBCI hosts guests considered to be ideological renegades by many of its Arab viewers (and the Syrians). The guests, in exchange, get rough treatment.

When it comes to the war in Iraq, another Lebanese station finds itself in a quandary: Al-Manar, run for more than a decade by the Islamist group Hezbollah out of Beirut’s predominantly Shiite suburbs. The station broadcasts by satellite around the region and to North America. Hezbollah detests the United States, but it also hates Saddam Hussein, who has brutalized Iraqi Shiites. Accordingly, Al-Manar strives to attack the Anglo-American coalition without turning into a Baath Party mouthpiece. It has done so by focusing on the plight of Iraqi civilians. On Saturday evening, the topic of its Made in USA program was the allied bombing of Baghdad’s Amiriya shelter in 1991, which killed more than 400 people. The announcer described the victims’ deaths in gruesome detail, and using a mainstay of Al-Manar coverage first applied to its own reporting on Israeli victims in south Lebanon, it showed extensive (borrowed) footage of their charred corpses.

Saddam Hussein’s voice to the region is Iraq’s government-controlled satellite station, Iraq satellite, which is still beaming to much of the Middle East. Days before he ended Peter Arnett’s career, a uniformed Iraqi TV interviewer spoke to a Frenchwoman and an Englishman both on “solidarity” visits to Baghdad. Propaganda is at its best when not transparently manipulative, and the woman obviously believed what she said: “We are seeing you [Iraqis], how you are patient [after 12 years of sanctions], and when we arrived we did not see people being aggressive. In the streets we saw no military, no tanks, nothing. … Now you’ve been attacked, what do you do? I feel I’m a fairly nice person, but when I’m attacked I will defend myself.” The Englishman agreed, adding that Iraq “is united, like Vietnam [was].”

One of the more bizarre sights on Arabic TV comes courtesy of the Damascus-based Syria satellite, controlled by the Ministry of Information: a daily evening news bulletin broadcast in Hebrew. It’s a hopeful effort from an otherwise sleepy station, since it’s hard to imagine any Israelis watching the show, much less being swayed by a Syrian Baathist interpretation of events. During the Iraq war, which Syrian satellite has labeled “The Aggression War on Iraq,” the station has offered daylong coverage unambiguously tilted in Iraq’s favor, though it largely relies on material taken from other outlets. But it’s not all war, all the time: For viewers who can only take so much activism, the station offers short segments on Syrian tourist attractions.