Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Arab media war

The Saudi-funded Al-Arab TV broadcast for only a few hours before it was suspended by the Bahraini authorities. The episode says much about the region’s media map after the Arab Spring, writes Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

At the December launch of Saudi billionaire Al-Waleed Ben Talal’s TV news channel, Al-Arab (The Arabs) speakers vowed to break the “mould” of news reporting in the region.

The channel’s director,  the veteran liberal Saudi journalist Jamal Khashogji went further. On 1 February he said that Al-Arab would not ban anyone, be it Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Muslim Brotherhood or Bahrain’s opposition leader, Ali Salman. Citing prevailing biases in the region’s news coverage, Khashogji promised to offer Arab viewers a “neutral” TV station.

So on day one of its launch, Al-Arab interviewed a Bahraini dissident on the government’s decision to revoke the citizenship of 72 nationals the day before. It was followed by an interview with Bahrain’s information minister, who defended the step.

The following morning Al-Arab was taken off air. Its news bar rolled just one item: “Broadcasting has stopped for technical and administrative issues and we will return to air soon.”

According to the pro-regime Akhbar Al-Khaleej newspaper, the channel was suspended because it failed to adhere to “established norms in the Gulf”, including not affecting the spirit of “Gulf unity.” In the same issue, the paper’s editor ran a column that attacked the channel for hosting Bahraini dissident Khalil Al-Marzouqi and accused it of recklessness in trying to "prove" its independence. “This won’t work,” he said.

The Kingdom of Bahrain- an archipelago of 33 islands located off the eastern coastline of Saudi Arabia- is the Gulf state most affected by the Arab uprisings in 2011, with pro-democracy protestors largely from its Shia minority demonstrating against the country’s Sunni leaders.The protests were quashed by authorities with the help of Saudi-led troops amid concerns that the protests were fuelled or supported by Shia Iran. Thousands were arrested and the crackdown on dissidents has continued ever since.

In March 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council pledged $20 billion in financial aid to both Bahrain and Oman.

Six months later business magnate Ben Talal chose the capital, Al-Manama — a city he purportedly “loves” and wanted to prove it was stable — as the headquarters for a news channel: the first in his three-decade-long investment in entertainment media through Rotana, the biggest conglomerate of its kind in the region.

In 2013, the billionaire Ben Talal was listed by Forbes as the 26th richest man in the world with a fortune of $26 billion. He is the direct nephew of the new Saudi monarch, King Salman.

While some observers find it unlikely that Bahraini authorities will jeopardise their business and political interests with Ben Talal over the news channel, expecting it to resume broadcasting soon, others are not so sure. A source close to the affair questioned whether it was just the Bahraini authorities that disapprove of a news channel committed to objective coverage, or if there are official objections from Riyadh as well.

Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Wednesday, the channel's broadcast was still suspended: a sign that the aspirations for neutral news coverage voiced by its manager were too optimistic, or as some are speculating, that Al-Arab might resume without Khashogji.

The channel’s brief brush with objective news coverage captures a significant moment in the state of the region's media four years after the Arab revolutions.

The previous week, the new Al-Araby (The Arabs) channel launched from London. The brainchild of the Qatar-based Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara and funded by a Qatari company, the channel was immediately attacked by Egyptian TV shows who slammed it as a Muslim Brotherhood venture and a disguised Al-Jazeera. 

The channel's CEO is former Brotherhood member turned dissident Islam Lotfy who acquired fame in the first two years following Mubarak’s ouster amongst the vocal revolutionary youth bloc.

Egyptian authorities view Al-Jazeera, especially its Egypt channel, as a pro-Brotherhood channel that seeks to undermine the Cairo regime. Three reporters of its English arm were arrested more than a year ago and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, accused of collaborating with the Brotherhood to destabilize Egypt. One of the three, the Australian Peter Greste, was deported this week. 

“There is very little space for professional media given the prevailing rule of either being ‘with us or against us,’” said Ayman Al-Sayyad, a media expert and editor of the cultural monthly Weghat Nazar (Points of View), which stopped publishing in 2011.

“This week two channels attempted to break free from prejudices and biases in their coverage and were met with overwhelming antagonism because the current Arab milieu has no tolerance for independent views, “ he said.

After the initial euphoria of the early days of the Arab Spring, which was reflected in supportive media coverage, polarisation plagued several countries in the region and led to what many believe to be the defeat of the revolutions. The Arab media map was reshaped to reflect the political, ideological and sectarian classifications that have emerged since.

In the pre-January 2011 world, Qatar’s Al-Jazeera was the foremost news channel of choice for Arabs, with its relatively audacious take on events, especially opposition movements and groups that challenged other Arab states, but not its own. The Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya competed and won its own audience but with far more cautious consideration for official sensitivities.

But as the Islamist-secularist polarisation in Egypt deepened months after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the Syrian uprising devolved into a civil war,  the Shia-led pro-democracy protests in Bahrain and the sectarian-based infighting in Iraq saw the ascendance of Iran as a major regional player, the media map had to be redrawn.

Ironically, much of it emerged out of Al-Jazeera. Its Beirut bureau chief and former Iran correspondent, Lebanese-Tunisian Ghassan Ben Jeddo, had already resigned and launched Al-Mayadeen (The Squares) in June 2012, which was soon viewed as the primary Syrian-Iranian and Hizbullah news source that views the Arab uprisings -except for the shiite-led protests in Bahrain- with some suspicion.

Several Al-Jazeera senior anchors joined the channel, including the Lebanese Sami Kolayeb and Lina Zahr Al-Din. Kolayeb’s then-wife Luna Al-Shebl, another senior anchor in Al-Jazeera, also resigned and became media advisor for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Pan-Arab Saudi-funded newspapers like the London-Based Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat adopted a much more pronounced Saudi-oriented editorial line while Lebanon’s left-leaning Assafir which classically sided with Hizbullah as a resistance movement, eventually veered towards supporting the Syrian regime.

In December, Qatar shut down the Al-Jazeera Egypt channel in response to Saudi-led regional efforts to reconcile Cairo with Doha, but at least four pro-Brotherhood TV channels have emerged in Turkey.

“The Arab media very clearly reflects the raging regional battle on the ground,” said El-Sayyad, “it’s an excellent way of documenting this era.”

In Egypt, realisation of the media’s power acquired more importance in the months leading up to the massive June 30 protests that led to president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. His successor, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the former minister of defense, has regularly acknowledged the media’s importance in his many meetings with TV figures during his seven months in power.

He is not alone. While the Saudi Al-Arab and the Qatari Al-Araby might not be directly funded by their respective governments, their attempts to carve a niche in a crowded field, stirring sensitivities in the process, are not disconnected from raging battles on the ground, where Saudi Arabia plays an unprecedented leading role and Qatar is struggling for a smaller, albeit effective, one.

That two channels similary named as Arab emerge at the same time might also signal a new phase in the post-Arab spring period.

“Between the exclusionary policies of IS (Islamic State) and repressive regimes, and a sense of defeat of the Arab uprisings, there is a need for pluralism and all-encompassing media,” said Lamis Andoni, editor of the English news website Al-Araby, an affiliate of the TV channel.

“A new generation of young Arabs from Tunis to Egypt and other Arab squares still yearn for more just political systems,” she added. “We need to preserve this idea, but its very difficult in our extremely polarised region.”

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