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Jewish World Review
Sept. 3, 2004
/ 17 Elul, 5764
Fair and balanced Muslim-style
TV war for Arab viewers
MONTE CARLO This jewel of the Cote D'Azur oozes glamour, money and relaxation, not exactly the place to become immersed in the controversy about alleged jaundiced reporting by Arab satellite news channels.
But it was here on the Riviera, as a panelist at the annual television festival sponsored by Monaco's royal family, that I promptly was engaged in spirited debate with representatives of al Jazeera, the Qatar-based network launched in 1996, often accused of being anti-American and anti-Israel; and al Hurra, a U.S. government-financed Arabic language TV operation that began broadcasting to the Middle East on Valentine's Day.
Headquartered in Springfield, Va., al Hurra mission is to counter perceived slanted, prejudiced news by Arab competitors.
''We're neutral and simply report the facts,'' al Jazeera's London bureau chief Mostefa Souga told me. ``Al Hurra is the Bush administration's mouthpiece.''
''Al Jazeera fans the flames,'' contends Farrell Meisel, an al Hurra founding father, formerly program director at Miami's WCIX-TV (now WFOR). ``We're legally shielded from White House interference and have balanced reporting by experienced Arab journalists. We avoid propaganda.''
CBS' 60 Minutes analyzed some of their Iraq coverage. In Fallujah, al Jazeera showed horrific images, branding U.S. soldiers ''occupiers'' who target ''martyrs'' and civilians. Al Hurra aired less graphic video while emphasizing ''American forces'' were fighting ''gunmen,'' restoring order and preventing chaos. Both covered the Abu Gharib prison scandal that dominated al Jazeera's broadcasts, but was infrequently the lead on al Hurra. ''The others incite,'' its Lebanese news director told CBS. ``Our job is to provide accurate information.''
The Control Room, a one-sided, sympathetic documentary released earlier this year about al Jazeera's war coverage is replete with negativity about the United States and Israel expressed by supposedly objective journalists, mostly ex-staffers of the BBC's Arabic Service. None are Iraqi.
Despite crushing social, economic and political problems in Arab countries, al Jazeera devotes an inordinate amount of time to the despised U.S.-Israel relationship, guaranteed to make Arab blood boil. ''It's the Middle East's biggest issue,'' asserts Souga, an Algerian with a doctorate in literature from American University in Washington, D.C. ``Arabs can't understand why the U.S. isn't even-handed. They believe Israel sets the agenda, is anti-peace and hides the truth. But we aren't biased.''
However, its website (http://english.aljazeera.net/) has featured inflammatory articles such as ''Israelization of Washington Policy,'' ''We Advise The U.S.: Get Rid Of The Jew'' and opinion polls concluding that Zionism is worse than Nazism. Al Jazeera's Israel correspondent has been known to sign on from ''occupied Jersualem'' when filing pro-Palestinian stories.
Unlike other Arab news organizations, al Jazeera invites Israeli officials to appear on its programs. Privately, they complain that questions are leading and loaded. ''It sounds like propaganda to someone from the West,'' says Richard Bardenstein, director of Access/Middle East, a Jerusalem news monitoring service. ``Just presenting the Israeli side is a breath of fresh air compared to government-controlled information.''
Al Jazeera is clearly No. 1, but newcomer al Hurra believes that it's closing the gap. ''There are 50-75 million satellite viewers in the Arab world; at least 30 percent are watching us,'' claims Meisel.
Al Jazeera is available only in Arabic via satellite subscription. Next year, however, it expects to broadcast in English to many nations, including the United States, hoping to convince critics that it's fair and balanced. It will be interesting to see how al Hurra meets the challenge.
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JWR contributor Ike Seamans, a columnist for the Mimi Herald, is senior correspondent for NBC 6/WTVJ News in Miami and a a former NBC News Middle East correspondent and bureau chief. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Ike Seamans