Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Another Arabic TV Channel - Al Ahram Weekly

As Israel was dealing Egypt, Syria and Jordan a drastic military defeat in June 1967 Egypt's state-run media was telling a completely different story. Egypt's forces were actually "victorious" according to Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) radio presenter Ahmed Said. It wasn't until millions of Egyptians and Arabs tuned into the Arabic service of the British Broadcasting Cooperation that they heard news of the humiliating defeat that would re-shape the Middle East.

Forty-one years later the BBC has launched an Arabic TV channel. It began broadcasting on 11 March at 10:00 GMT and will initially air for 12 hours a day on three satellites. The media environment, though, could not be more different to that of 1967 when the BBC's Arabic service offered one of only a handful of alternatives to the total control of information exercised by Arab governments and while the BBC's Arabic radio service has remained a respected and trusted source of news the 300 million strong Arab audience has enjoyed a relatively free and professional flow of news and information for a decade now thanks to the advent of Arab satellite channels.

BBC Arabic TV will be competing with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network, listed by Time magazine three years ago as one of the 100 most influential organisations in the world. Other competitors include Saudi Arabia's Al-Arabiya, Hizbullah's Al-Manar and Lebanon's LBC. Yet news of the BBC's Arabic TV launch has generated excitement and anticipation in media circles.
"It's something to look forward to. The profession only flourishes when there is competition," Al-Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief Hussein Abdel-Ghani told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It adds to the camp of independent and free-media advocates."

Abdel-Ghani, like hundreds of other journalists who work for Arab satellite channels, is worried that the relative freedom they've enjoyed so far could be threatened by last month's endorsement by 20 Arab governments of a charter that allows for punitive action against satellite channels that offend Arab leaders. The "Principles for Organising Satellite TV in the Arab World" permits broadcasting authorities to withdraw permits from Arab channels. The charter, which caused an uproar amongst satellite channels, will not apply to the BBC, a British-owned cooperation.

BBC Arabic TV -- the first satellite channel to launch after the charter's endorsement -- will also be "the first to benefit from it", says media expert and editor of the Weghat Nazar cultural monthly Ayman El-Sayyad.

"If Arab governments do impose restrictions on Arab satellite channels the result will be to control the transfer of news and not its reception. The skies are full of non-Arab satellites and viewers will still have free access to them." Yet the "mentality" that still governs decision-makers in the Arab world, says El-Sayyad, remains decades out of date, stuck in the period between the 1950s and 1990s when the authorities could control their local media.

"In the Arab consciousness the BBC is associated with news in the absence of news," he said, "and history seems to be repeating itself as the BBC establishes a TV presence."

That the Egyptian authorities are ready and willing to interfere in the running of TV stations was made clear when, recently, the Egyptian Al-Hayat (life) TV station was granted a licence only after it agreed to a list of conditions including a ban on talk shows. "The BBC will operate outside the conditions imposed by the Arab authorities," notes Al-Sayyad.

BBC Arabic's top man Hossam El-Sokkari disagrees. "The charter has been overrated," he told the Weekly. "If unhappy with a particular broadcaster, governments either restrict the reporter's movement or close the office down. This would still be a risk and the charter does not make it any worse. I am not sure there is much change there."

The BBC's Arabic TV station "will not change its professional editorial policy as a result of [the charter]. Our brand and the quality of our journalism has been appreciated for more than 70 years."

The charter, El-Sokkari argues, is a sign of the frustration of Arab governments with the media which has repeatedly crossed what used to be considered red lines. But it is not anything that concerns the BBC, says El-Sokkari. "We do not allow our editorial integrity to be affected by government policies."

"We are independent and funded by British tax payers. We don't want to push a political message to Arab viewers nor do we want to dictate or promote any values."
Since BBC Arabic TV went on air, media pundits have been keen to compare it with Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, two stations with very different editorial policies. On Tuesday Egypt's Dream TV devoted its "10 o'clock" show to the topic.

While Al-Jazeera is generally viewed as pan-Arab and sympathetic to Arab causes, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya -- generally viewed as US-leaning -- seeks to project an image of non-biased, objective news coverage. The differences are most noticeable in the terminology used by the channels: Al-Arabiya will speak of "terrorism" and "suicide operations" while Al-Jazeera refers to "resistance" and "martyrdom". Al-Jazeera speaks of the "US occupation of Iraq" while Al-Arabiya prefers the neutral "US forces in Iraq". BBC Arabic TV seems to have settled for the "US campaign in Iraq".

Opinion polls show that Al-Jazeera -- which broadcasts on 26 satellites -- is the most viewed Arab satellite news channel. Its early history, ironically perhaps, was closely linked to the BBC, which in 1994 launched a TV channel with Saudi Orbit as a partner. After two years of broadcasting, the project stalled, was taken over by the Qataris practically lock, stock and barrel, and the now influential Al-Jazeera was born.

It will take time for the BBC's Arabic TV station to carve out a niche in the crowded satellite market. What the initial broadcasts reveal, though, are impressive editing, relaxed but lively presenters and hosts and an ultra sleek look unmatched by its competitors. But despite its long history in the region, BBC’s Arabic TV will still have to offer more than state of the art British broadcasting techniques to impress viewers in this part of the world.

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