Foreign-based bureaus give Al-Jazeera a run for the money

With the Middle East rarely out of news headlines, the battle for the hearts and minds of Arab auds has taken on ever more importance.

The two top-rated pan-Arab newscasters, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, have long dominated news coverage in the region, but a clutch of Western news orgs are trying to change the equation by entering the potentially lucrative Arab news market.

France 24, the country’s first international newscaster, launched its first Arabic-language service April 2. The new channel will initially offer four hours of broadcasting a day before ramping up to 24 hours a day by the end of the year.

“Al-Jazeera has done a great job, but essentially it’s offering the Arabic perspective. We need something more,” says France 24 CEO Alain De Pouzilhac. “The role of France could be a special one thanks to its strong relationship with the Arab world in the last few decades, and because we weren’t involved in the Iraq war.”

Also joining the increasingly crowded marketplace is German pubcaster Deutsche Welle, which already offers Arabic TV programming for a few hours a day. Russia Today is launching its own Arabic-language channel later this year, to be dubbed Rusiya Al-Yaum. The Russian net will be headed by Akram Khuzam, formerly Al-Jazeera’s Moscow bureau chief.

Beeb’s bid

The most anticipated of all the new offerings, however, is likely to be the BBC’s Arabic TV, set for launch in the autumn.

The Beeb’s Arabic-language satcaster is being funded to the tune of £19 million ($35 million) by the Foreign Office.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge or the competition in a crowded media marketplace, but BBC Arabic will be the only major international news provider in the Middle East offering a service in Arabic across TV, radio and online,” says Salah Negm, who left his position as head of newsgathering at Al-Arabiya to head the BBC’s new channel.

For all the desire by these Western news orgs to stake a voice in the debate, the less-than-stellar performance of Al-Hurra, the U.S. government-funded Arab-language newscaster set up in 2004 to address viewers in the region, has fueled skeptics.

“If Al-Hurra is anything to go by, then there’s no chance for these new channels to steal audiences from the existing ones,” says Jihad Ballout, who has served as spokesperson for both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. “The BBC is different. It has a name and a culture, which is an asset. If anyone has a chance, it’s them.”

While execs at both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are keen to stress they’re not afraid of the extra competition, it is reputed that Al-Jazeera has been offering its staff better pay packages and extra benefits to fight off potential defections.

Not that the flow of information is all West-to-East. Al-Jazeera finally launched its English-language operation in November, and rumors persist of MBC launching an English-language sister channel to Al-Arabiya.

“An English-language news channel is an idea on the table, but the business plan has to make sense. We’re not going to issue a blank check just to be in the global news arena,” says Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s director of marketing and PR.

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