Since it came into existence in 1996, Al Jazeera Arabic Satellite Channel has played a critical role in shaping public opinion in the Middle East. Not only educating and informing but also provoking controversy and opening up debate on issues considered taboo prior to the era of Al Jazeera. It had successfully rumbled the dictators and shaken the regimes. Most Arab dictators have singled out Al Jazeera as the most dangerous enemy. The dominance of al Jazeera lasted some seven years until a new media beast appeared on the scene in March 2003. Al Arabiya posed a serious challenge to Al Jazeera and broke Al Jazeera’s monopoly on the news and political debate.
The latest Channel to hit the airwaves was the Iranian and Syrian backed Al-Mayadeen, a new pan-Arab satellite TV station which launched broadcasts from Beirut, Lebanon, in June 2013.
The Beirut-based station Al-Mayadeen, hoped to rival Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. There is no evidence to suggest that it has succeeded in denting the dominance of the two media giants. Like many other Satellite TV stations it remains a minor player.
However the newest kid on the block will be Al Arab news channel which will launch during the first half of 2014. Al Arab News Channel, is headquartered in Manama the capital city of Bahrain. Jamal Khashoggi the US-educated Saudi journalist, columnist and author is the general manager and editor-in-chief of Al Arab News Channel. According to sources close to the channel; Al Arab soon “will be main news source of choice for Arabs seeking credible news and information about the Middle East and the world beyond. Al Arab News Channel will have an extensive global network of correspondents and reporters to provide its audiences with the latest updates, scoops, interviews, and exclusives.” It remains to be seen whether Al Arab News Channel will change the face of news within the Middle East and the Arab world.
The new station will also be competing with scores of other all-news Arab TV news channels, including BBC News Arabic and Sky News Arabia.
Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the two most viewed news stations in the Arab world, are funded respectively by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Al Jazeera, by far the most famous Satellite TV Network, boasts 60 to 70 million regular viewers worldwide. There is no reliable data to verify such statistics, but during times of crisis and upheaval, most people watch Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
It is a known fact that most of the news channels are financed by governments or special interests. Even the BBC Arabic is funded by the UK Foreign Office.
There are dozens of channels operating across the Arab World mainly in Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. Several channels are Iranian funded and aimed at the Arabic street such as al-Alam. A few are operating from London like ANB, Alghad and Al-Hewar.
The rivalry between Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera the two giant Arabic satellite channels precedes the onset of the Arab Spring by several years. In April 2007 the London FT reported on the frictions between the Saudi backed Al Arabiya and the Qatari backed al Jazeera satellite TV during the coverage of an Arab Summit conference in Cairo. “On the Arab media front there was a glaring absence: Al-Jazeera, the popular pan-Arab news channel backed by Qatar, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, it was the Saudi-backed al-Arabiya, its main competitor, which dominated the scene, deploying a massive team and winning extraordinary access to the highest level delegates.”
The media war reflects the uneasy relationship between Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Qatar. As the traditional heavyweights in the Gulf region, the Saudis often see the smaller, maverick Qatar as working against the kingdom’s interests.
When the Arab spring uprisings erupted in 2011 the two channels reflected the Saudi and Qatari perspectives in their media coverage of the unfolding momentous developments. The ousting of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s on 30th June 2013 has sparked a media war between the Arab world’s biggest news rivals Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera over the political stance of their backers in Riyadh and Doha. The media coverage of events in Egypt following the coup that ended President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s short rule of Egypt and the subsequent turmoil underlined the political differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Al Arabiya supported the coup and reported extensively favourable news of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square against Morsi, and Al-Jazeera did the same by relaying images of a pro-Morsi demonstration at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square which had become a protest camp for supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
What Al-Jazeera branded as a “coup against legitimacy,” Al-Arabiya hailed as a “second revolution.”
However, interestingly both channels took anti-Assad positions and both sympathized with the rebels. The Syrian regime often refers to the two stations as the “incitement” channels or “death” channels.
Mistakes, exaggerations have been noted and criticized in these networks’ coverage, but that is the nature of war zone reporting, from Vietnam to Bosnia to Afghanistan.
Another issue critics like to mention is the reliance of the two networks on the New Media in some of their coverage of Syria. The Internet, Facebook, YouTube, mobile phones, and using local citizen-reporters are the new media tools. Al Jazeera with some help from NATO had succeeded in bringing down the Gaddafi clan that ruled Libya for 42 years with an amalgamation of fear, death squads, unexplained murders and disappearances of opponents.
Al Jazeera has been criticised for many reasons. One of which is lack of impartiality and objectivity in covering the unfolding events in Egypt.
Al Arabiya’s coverage of the uprisings has been of the highest professional standards, but less strident and more restrained than Al Jazeera Arabic. Both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have played a pivotal role in the popular Arab uprisings. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were described as contemptible dogs by Gaddafi and Bashar al Assad.
There were accusations that Al Jazeera was not following events but its coverage was “cheerleading” events, instigating and mobilising public opinion against the Syrian and Libyan tyrants. Al Jazeera has pushed the Arab youth into the Street to demonstrate and demand the fall of the absolute tyrants. But its coverage of the recent developments in Egypt has done a lot of damage to its credibility and by contrast has enhanced al Arabiya’s reputation and expanded its influence. Al Jazeera needs to clean up its act and take a leaf out of Al Arabiya’s book. If that is too much for its pride, why not emulate Al Jazeera English?
(This story was originally published in the Middle East Magazine and reproduced with permission)