The Arab nations of the Middle East – despite their intense interest in the Persian Gulf war’s outcome – have not sent one news team to cover the conflict.
Most Arabs, like Americans and Europeans, rely largely on the images and words sent by Western newsgatherers such as CNN and Eurovision.
Only Algeria’s public broadcaster RTA had a crew in Baghdad when war broke out Jan. 16 – and they were sent home that day.
The main reason is not cost, but state control. Virtually every Arab state is undemocratic and news directors fear the consequences of reporting the sometimes unpalatable truth.
As Abdel Azah, the news director of Saudi tv, put it, “We take news from the official point of view.” This means working closely with the Saudi Press Agency, not sending journalists out in the field.
It’s not that Arab states are not reporting the conflict. Unlike America, tv stations operate for only part of the day. But the gulf war is forcing them to in crease their transmissions. Both Algeria and Saudi Arabia are providing 24-hour coverage, mostly from CNN.
Arabsat, the satellite that has been broadcasting since 1987, has played a miserly role in the exchange of war information. The 22 member countries of the Arab State Broadcasting Union have little original footage to feed it – mostly spokespeople for various governments and causes making statements.
Iraq cut off
But the one Arab broadcaster that could have made ASBU’s ratings jump into the stratosphere – Iraq – has been “cut off’ from Arabsat since the beginning of the conflict.
Whether Iraqi tv is even visible in Baghdad, a city said to be without electricity, is hard to determine. It probably is broadcasting to other parts of the country, however, where Jordan picks it up. The Guardian newspaper in London reported there was an attack on the tv center in Baghdad on Jan. 18 by seven Iraqi rebels who tried to occupy the building and launch an appeal for a revolt against Saddam Hussein. They were captured and killed.
“Iraqi television is on the air in Iraq, but it isn’t sending us any footage,” noted Raouf Basti, ASBU director general, in Algiers. The ASBU news package, which is put together from stories sent by members and beamed back up to anyone who wants them, gets its Iraqi footage from Amman.
The news desk at Jordan Television has another explanation as to why they have no reporters in the field. “Too dangerous,” explained a news editor. He shows war action, bombardments, falling missiles and battlefields from the safety of Eurovision and CNN news services. For routine comment and political powwows, he turns to Arabsat. Jordan, like Iran, monitors Iraqi tv broadcasts.
And where is Kuwait television in all this? The state-owned network is in exile, broadcasting for one or two hours a day on Saudi tv.
A Kuwait News Agency reporter underlined the difficulty most journalists have in moving around the Mideast at this moment, and the fact that many have left Kuwait.
But are Arab viewers really watching the same images U.S. and European audiences are? Not always. The taped footage of the captured American, British and Italian pilots that made headlines in the West never aired on Saudi tv, according to the news chief, because the governmental Saudi Press Agency “didn’t announce it.”
The variety of channels and foreign-language broadcasts in Egypt and Jordan is no indicator of eclectic news services. Egypt’s two national nets and three local stations are all state-owned and have the same point of view – unlike some of the highly politicized newspapers. Egyptian foreign correspondents are disembodied voices that accompany still pictures of the war.
Jordan’s second channel broadcasts news in four languages: Arabic, French, English and Hebrew. The content, however, is identical. The only private Arab tv network is 2M, a new Moroccan web, but its ties to the government suggest it has little independence.
“Television is playing a very new role in this war,” said one Kuwaiti commentator who had tuned in to many pubcasters in the region. He gave Algerian tv highest marks for offering complete news about missile attacks, followed by comment from both Allied and Iraqi sources and interviews with Arab spokespeople. He found Tunisian tv a little more controlled, a little less professional; Morocco and Libya more government-oriented. “All the rest take the official position and stop there.”
Iranian tv, he believed, offers “a better panorama than others.” Israeli tv, which has an Arabic-language station, is “very much watched” and “usually has good news stories.” But the main source for almost all Mideast broadcasters remains CNN.
“Why aren’t there Arab journalists reporting from Cairo, or Damascus?” he asked.