ABU DHABI (Jan. 23, 2009) – Surf the blogs in the Arab world and you find a common theme: the Bush administration has blindly supported Israel’s Gaza war and the U.S. media has been shilling for “the aggressors.” Ask the average American and it’s a good bet that you will hear the opposite view: Arab governments all support Hamas and the Arab media is militant group’s mouthpiece.
The truth is somewhat more complex. Neither the Arab world, nor the Arab media, is a monolith. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have sought to prevent Hamas from scoring political gains at the expense of the more secular Palestinian authority led by Fatah, while Qatar is leading a Gulf bloc that equates support for Hamas with support for the Palestinian people. The fault lines have produced a media war in the Arab world. “What journalism we have today!” a leading Saudi columnist declared in print, charging his colleagues with “marketing the idea that any anger at the Israeli bombardment is unjustified and that any support for resistance is incitement for terrorism.”
The rift is most evident on the broadcasts of the region’s bitter television rivals. During the three week conflict, Al Jazeera, owned by the government of Qatar, focused on vivid images of bloodshed accompanied by commentary thick with moral outrage. Rival Al Arabiya, owned by Saudi interests close to the royal family, chose to avoid the most graphic footage and take a more measured tone. The contrasting approaches reflect both the very different perceptions of the role of Arab journalism in the two newsrooms and the political rift between their respective patrons.
“Our coverage was closer to the people,” Al Jazeera’s news chief Ahmed Sheikh told me. While he said the channel was “impartial” in that it gave airtime to Israeli officials, “we are not neutral when it comes to innocent people being killed like this. The camera picks up what happens in reality and reality cannot be neutral,” he said, adding that, as with U.S. network coverage of Vietnam, Al Jazeera showed graphic images in order to turn public opinion against the war. “The goal of covering any war is to reveal the atrocities that are carried out.”
“We belong to two different schools of news television in the Arab world,” countered Al Arabiya news chief Nabil Khatib, the target of death threats on Islamist websites for banning on-air reporters from using the word shaheen (martyr) to describe Palestinian dead. “There is the school that believes that news media should have an agenda and should work on that agenda for ideological and political reasons, which is Al Jazeera’s. We are in the school that believes you need to guarantee knowledge with the flow of news without being biased and by being, as much as possible, balanced.”
Just days into the conflict, in a linguistic play on the name of Al Arabiya, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the channel “Al Ibryia,” which roughly means The Hebrew One. The resulting campaign against Al Arabiya—fed, Khatib believes, by Al Jazeera—has brought into the open long-simmering resentments between the two networks.
Al Jazeera was “satisfying the mob” and “led a campaign for Hamas,” Khatib told me. “They chose to highlight the dead bodies and bloody scenes in close-up, thinking this will create shock. We were cautious with this out of respecting our viewers and our code of ethics.”
Sitting in the newsroom of Abu Dhabi TV, Director of News Abdulraheem Al-Bateeh says that’s all nonsense. “Come on, it’s obvious. Al Jazeera is showing that it is pro-Hamas and Al Arabiya shows that it is pro-Fatah.” His channel, he insists, sits in the middle, in keeping with Emirati government policy. “We are with Hamas on the humanitarian side, but politically we are with Fatah.”
Those same political prisms are reflected across the region’s media. The fears of the anti-Hamas bloc were summed up by Dr. Ali Al-Tarrah, a regular columnist for the UAE newspaper Al-Ittihad. “We believe that the biggest winner in this war is the radical religious movements, which will find itself inundated by large groups of young Arab volunteers who can no longer stand what is happening,” he wrote this week.
The rift between the two regional political camps was highlighted by the convening of a series of rival summits as the conflict ended. Both sides met this week at yet another summit held in Kuwait, where Saudi Arabia flexed its political and economic muscle to impose a temporary inter-Arab truce. Newspapers aligned with Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been busy downplaying the divisions.
“It is indeed heartening to see the Arab leaders finally close their ranks at the Kuwait summit,” said Abu Dhabi’s Khaleej Times in an editorial.
“Thus a new Arab era dawned on us all. What joke is this?” countered a columnist in Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar, which supports the so-called “rejectionist” front. “The blood of one Palestinian child, killed by the attacks of the occupation to which some of you gave cover, is purer and more noble than you and all your thrones.” The reality is that Arab leaders remain so divided they couldn’t even agree on to whom the more than $1 billion for Gaza reconstruction should be given, Hamas or the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.
“Gaza’s curse will haunt many, especially the eminences, the highnesses and the excellencies” who gathered in Kuwait, predicted Adel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi. But one Gulf paper expressed a sentiment that most journalists in the region can agree on: “The Arabs can never prevent another Gaza if they do not speak in one voice and act as one bloc, if not as one nation.” Judging from the region’s media, that is not likely to happen soon.