Behind the Scenes
The Sky's the Limit

Arab media thriving amid controversy both in the United States and Middle East

by Kristin McHugh

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This story is part of "24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio.

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The information revolution that swept the Western world over the last two decades is now transforming the Arab world. New radio stations, Web sites, and text messaging are just a few of the mediums breaking down cultural barriers and challenging the hardened old order.

But none of these innovations is having more of an impact than hundreds of Arabic language satellite television stations. They come directly into homes, and even the most repressive governments in the region find them almost impossible to block. And because they are easily available at low or sometimes no cost to the viewer, rich and poor alike now have a dizzying array of TV choices.

The living room in the home of Najwa Kharadsheh in Jordan illustrates the scale of this brave new world. No fewer than five remotes are laid out on a table to control the eight separate satellite dishes that bring more than 500 channels into her home. The Kharadsheh family can watch HBO and CNN as well as Nile TV from Egypt, Future TV of Lebanon, and even Hamas TV—a station operated by the radical Palestinian group with a long history of terrorism.

Satellite distribution has given even the tiniest network regional reach—and has brought Arabic language newscasts, talk shows, and no-holds-barred political debates that were unthinkable ten years ago.

"After 9/11," says Najwa, "Al Jazeera was the only station...I don't know how they got those tapes, but everyone was watching."

Most Americans have probably heard of Al Jazeera. Yet most of us know very little about it or the station's many news competitors in the Arab world. Al Jazeera is headquartered in Doha, Qatar—a tiny country on the shores of the strategically vital Persian Gulf. The Gulf is also home to Al Jazeera's main competition, Al Arabiya, a 24-hour news channel broadcasting from the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Beyond the State

May Sharbinee is an anchor with Dubai-based Al Arabiya News. Owned by a wealthy Saudi businessman, Al Arabiya is the second most-watched satellite news channel in the region. Wearing crisp khaki pants, a pink oxford, and a fashionable brown blazer as she drives to the studio, May represents the modern face of Arab media.

"Sometimes I work in the morning," Sharbinee says. "We have a shift that starts at six and finishes at two."

Nabil Khattib, Sharbinee's boss, is the executive editor of Al Arabiya News. He has been in the news business for years and has taken notice of the change the media has undergone.

"Until 1991 all the broadcast media in the Arab world used to be government controlled and government owned and none of the programs used to be live," he says. "All this media used to be away from professional standards."

Khattib is referring to so-called "state-run" radio and television news channels. Many still exist but they are no longer the first and only option. Today viewers across the region have their choice of hundreds of satellite television news, entertainment, and sports networks.

A Shifting Landscape

The roots of the rapidly expanding media landscape in the Arab world can be traced to the end of the Cold War and the start of the first US Gulf war.

In 1991, for the first time, new consumer satellite technology beamed CNN's live coverage of events in Kuwait and Iraq to the Arab region unfiltered. This radical departure gave the Arab region an entirely new perspective.

"Lots of Arabs realized that all the information they were getting from Arab sources—whether government or from Iraqis or from Kuwaitis or from their own media about the war was fake," Khattib says. "I mean, most of the information was not true."

Winding her way through Dubai's seemingly endless road construction, May Sharbinee recalls her own reaction when she discovered CNN.

"I remember when I was studying, when CNN was aired to the Middle East, it was very, very new and you would never think about watching news 24 hours."

CNN's approach to news, and that of other Western outlets such as the BBC, not only influenced May Sharbinee's career path, but they also shaped the look, sound, and image of today's Arab satellite news channels.

Ahmed Sheik, editor in chief of Al Jazeera news, has also reflected on the shifting media environment.

"Now, Arab TV stations and even newspapers and radio stations realize that if they are to survive or retain some of their audience, they will have to become more objective," he says.

"Now they realize that the audience is not really stupid. They understand. There is another example in front of the audience which can tell him: 'Look, why are those people doing the story in a different manner?' So, I think before Al Jazeera, you had a very sort of stagnant Arabic speaking media in the Arab world."

Skeptics and Critics

Sheik's office overlooks the newsroom of Al Jazeera's recently expanded headquarters in Doha. The sleek, colorful, high-tech newsroom is a direct reflection of the network's success. Al Jazeera, which is financed by the royal family of Qatar, is the most watched and best-known pan-Arab satellite news channel. It is so successful that in 2004 advertising executives ranked the network the fifth most powerful brand in the world. But Al Jazeera is also highly controversial—in both the United States and the Middle East.

"Initially a lot of governments in the Arab world did feel very skeptical about Al Jazeera," says Wadah Kanfar, Al Jazeera's managing director. "And then they started criticizing Al Jazeera; their intelligence agents started accusing Al Jazeera of many (things). When we started we were accused initially as a Mosad Israeli conspiracy or a CIA American tool for creating some kind of disturbance in the Arab world. Bureaus were closed down and a lot of correspondents were arrested, and on many occasions we were dealt with in a very bad way."

Countering Arab Media

Al Jazeera—whose motto is "the opinion and the other opinion"—began broadcasting in 1996. In a few short years the network expanded its daily news programming from six hours to around-the-clock coverage. Today, Al Jazeera boasts tens of millions of daily viewers and more than 25 news bureaus worldwide.

The network also operates a number of separate channels. These include Al Jazeera Sports and Al Jazeera Live—similar to the United States' C-SPAN. There is also the Al Jazeera Children's Network. Al Jazeera International, the network's first English language news channel, will be broadcasting live daily from Kuala Lampur, Doha, London, and Washington by the end of this year.

But as Al Jazeera continues to expand, the network faces sharp criticism—especially in the United States—that it gives voice to dangerously inflammatory views.

Army Captain Eric Clark works for the US Central Command's Media Engagement Team in Dubai and is responsible for presenting the American point of view to the Arab media.

"There's no question that we track Al Jazeera coverage," he says. "We do editorial content analysis of Al Jazeera on a daily basis—not only what's being broadcast from their television networks but also their Internet sites. We use that to counter their lies and propaganda or a simple misreport, so we use that as a tool to engage them."

News or Propaganda?

Al Jazeera's critics argue the network is simply anti-American. Others contend the station is pro-Al Qaeda or, at a minimum, is being used by Al Qaeda and other extremist organizations since the network frequently receives and broadcasts taped messages from Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.

"Al Jazeera is the poster child for a form of radical, political media that's emerging in the Arab world," says Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

"Al Jazeera is a propaganda outlet as well as a news agency," he says. "And it's one that promotes ideas that are very inimical to American interests. There are many outlets that operate as honest brokers for the news that's out there. Al Jazeera in many cases is not one of them. And it's not one of them because it's inherently more ideologically proximate to Al Qaida and to other regional radicals."

But Wadah Kanfar, Al Jazeera's managing director, is adamant: "Al Jazeera is not anti-American.

"From all points of view as journalists, an Osama bin Laden tape does carry news and is news worthy," Kanfar says. "And I think for any professional journalist, a tape from Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda leaders is important to news, that he can deal with it. The issue is how do you deal with it?"

In the newsroom, editor Ahmed Sheik says Al Jazeera handles any and all tapes received from Al Qaeda or others in the same manner it treats all news—according to the network's 10-point code of ethics.

"When we receive a tape by bin Laden, we acknowledge that we edit it," Sheik says. "We choose certain quotes that we believe are newsworthy and we put it on air. And we drop out all the other things that we believe are just propaganda. So, we are not a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden. And for God's sake, we did not divide the world into two camps. It is not Al Jazeera who installed Osama bin Laden as the head of the camp of evil."

High Profile, High Price

Al Jazeera is paying a high price for its high profile. The network isn't allowed to officially operate in some Arab countries. Several reporters and cameramen have been killed, detained, or jailed. US missiles destroyed Al Jazeera's Kabul, Afghanistan, bureau in 2001 and the network's Baghdad operation in 2003. And late in 2005, allegations surfaced in the British press that President Bush discussed bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters—allegations the White House vigorously denies. In fact, the US government strongly denies Al Jazeera is or has been specifically targeted.

But even America's point man for Arab media in Dubai, military spokesman Captain Eric Clark, acknowledges Al Jazeera news is changing.

"There are a number of things that Al Jazeera is learning as they're maturing," he says. "They've instilled this code of ethics. They have a new way of approaching Al Qaeda video. They no longer show beheadings and things that would turn the stomachs of a normal person on the street of the Pan-Arab community or America or Europe. So there are a number of things that we're seeing in terms of Al Jazeera reacting to the marketplace and reacting to their viewership."

Welcome to Dubai Media City

The rapid rise of Arab media is front and center in Dubai's Media City. Five years ago there were only three buildings in this industrial complex built to attract media companies. Today this government-sponsored "censor-free" zone houses bureaus for Reuters, CNN, CNBC, and other news operations from around the world.

Media City's former desert landscape is now populated with scores of buildings—even skyscrapers—as far as the eye can see. And demand has outpaced supply. Workers can't construct buildings fast enough. Companies hoping to rent space here must join a waiting list. All current and future planned space in Dubai Media City is already under contract.

"What's amazing is just to watch the media growth—the number of media outlets has grown exponentially," says Eric Clark, who believes this is just another of many changes to have come to the Arab media. "I think one of the interesting things to see is that if you take a look at the demographic breakdown of a Pan-Arab press, they do have a Western influence. They worked for CNN or BBC. They worked for print outlets."

Western influence, it seems, cannot be underestimated.

"They go to journalism schools across America," Clark says. "They emulate Western press. They emulate the journalism programs there. So they bring those skill sets back the Pan-Arab community and put that across their coverage and their approach, their professionalism."

The Same But Different

In Dubai, Al Arabiya anchor May Sharbinee arrives at her network's cutting edge studio located in Dubai Media City for her midday shift. She scrambles for a parking place in the packed lot of Al Arabiya.

Her first stop of the day is Al Arabiya's make-up studio. Stylists work around the clock here applying make-up and setting hair for the network's on-camera personalities. Sharibinee then turns her attention to the newsroom.

Jihad Ballout, Al Arabiya's director of corporate communications, believes that while a certain similarity to the West has extended across Pan-Arab newsrooms, there are also significant differences.

"I think newsrooms have become universal throughout the Arab world and it's very similar with what's been happening in the West,' he says. "I think the difference lies in the audience's preferences. I don't think CNN shies away from the fact that it's culturally American and that it targets American audiences, although it's called international. Our organization is called Al Arabiya, which is Arabic—it means 'the Arabic One.' So you can't get more clear than that."

Rising Professionalism

Rami Khouri is editor at large for the Daily Star of Beirut, one of the largest newspapers in the Middle East. He closely tracks pan-Arab satellite television channels, their coverage, and their perspectives.

"The reality," he says, "is that there are about 250 or so satellite stations now. They keep expanding, literally, every week. A lot of them are very, very narrowly focused. The ones that deal in general public affairs and news, political issues—there's probably about a dozen sort of serious ones. But really you're only talking about four or five that have major regional and international impact, and I would argue they're actually doing very high quality journalism. They're very, very professional in their motivation, and I think increasingly professional in their conduct."

Khouri believes this change in professionalism has been on display during the Iraq War. In fact, he argues channels like Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera are providing the best war coverage anywhere.

"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind it's the only place where you could hear an official American speech by Rumsfeld or Bush or somebody, and then hear the Arab reaction. You would hear the American military people and then see pictures on the ground from Iraq showing the impact of what the Americans were doing. You really saw both sides of the picture live, simultaneous, in color, and in Arabic."

Giving Voice

Increasing professionalism or not, critics of Al Jazeera and its competitors have a serious list of complaints about the channels. Near the top of the list is a sense that specific outlets or individual political programs fuel anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli hatred in the region. Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, is one of those concerned.

"It doesn't matter if it's reflecting the street or not. The norms and standards of responsible journalism, for example, call to have both sides of the story presented. But I went over scripts, and transcripts of AJ coverage, which gave currency to lies and myths. Only the Palestinian sources were quoted; no Israelis were interviewed for those stories whatsoever. And it has been done repeatedly. I think anyone who cares about coexistence between Christians, Muslims, and Jews should denounce Al Jazeera for consistently giving voice to the most radical, most hateful representatives of Jihadi Islam."

But regional observers of Al Jazeera, such as Rami Khouri, argue that the network's editorial tone reflects perceptions that are widely shared in the Middle East.

"There are some shows that certainly can be criticized at some levels for being critical of Israel, of Zionism as such, but I don't think there is a systematic anti-Semitic streak. Absolutely not. You do have shows that play on the Arab broad criticism of Israel, which is natural, because there's a battle in the region between Zionism and Arabism. This is a fact of modern history. It's been going on for more than a century now."

The Pan-Arab media broadly defined, Khouri believes, looks beyond this.

"I think there are some people in the Arab world who do make anti-Semitic statements, as there are in the United States and in Europe. This is a fact of life and unfortunately we have to fight against it. But it is certainly not systematic. I think they're providing a consistent level of news, analysis, and opinion that really gives you both sides of the story. You get Arabic-speaking stations interviewing Israelis. This is unheard of. [Al] Jazeera and [Al] Arabiya have correspondents in Palestine and Israel. They're extremely aware of and sensitive to the dictates of good, professional journalism, and they go out of their way to try and meet those professional standards."

Another major critique of these Arabic news channels is that they misrepresent US policies and American intentions in the Middle East. But Khouri says the problem may be the message, not the messenger.

"There's a huge misanalysis, wrong analysis, in the US government with the idea that, 'Well, the Arabs don't really understand our values. They don't understand our policies.' That's nonsense. I think American policy is explained very well to the Arabs by Arab television stations in Arabic, translating the speeches and statements of Americans in press conferences. So it's not a question of misunderstanding the Americans; it's a question of disagreeing with American policy. And this is not just the Arabs who disagree. It's almost the whole world."

"24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media" is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. The full program includes segments on Arab broadcast media, the regional perspectives on the rise of Arab media, Washington perspectives on the shifting Arab media landscape, and an essay by David Brancaccio on the influence of satellite television on Arab society. Exclusive interviews with Al Jazeera senior anchor Jamil Azar, US Central Command's Media Engagement Team, senior CNN correspondent Jane Arraf, and Professor Ramez Maluf of the Lebanese American University are also available.