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Channels’ crisis coverage varies

Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera accused of bias

BEIRUT- Clearly displaying their editorial differences, the region’s two leading satellite news channels, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, have offered markedly different coverage of Lebanon’s continuing presidential crisis.

Repeated accusations leveled against the two networks of bias and competing political loyalties seemed to reach a crescendo during live coverage of controversial Lebanese president Emile Lahoud’s departure from office.

Many supporters of the Western-backed, ruling coalition celebrated pro-Syrian Lahoud’s departure on Nov. 24, but the move was also met by tense anxiety over the failure of the country’s divided parliament to elect a successor.

Channels across the world carried the event live as a modest honor guard bid the president farewell. But in contrast to much of the Lebanese and global coverage, Al Arabiya simultaneously aired a split screen image of fireworks being set off from a neighborhood loyal to parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, a strong ally of both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Al Arabiya, which is part of the Saudi-owned MBC network, was joined in its fireworks simulcast only by Hariri-owned Future Television as well as LBC, Lebanon’s most prominent channel which is also seen as leaning toward the pro-Western camp.

A regional leader in television production, LBC was recently merged with music network Rotana, whose owner, billionaire Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, holds a 49% stake in LBC’s pan-Arab satellite operation.

However, live coverage on Qatari government backed Al Jazeera largely ignored the fireworks, as did most other Lebanese channels loyal to the pro-Syrian opposition camp.

These include Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV, and two other channels backed by opposition leaders, Nabih Berri (NBN) and former general, Michel Aoun (OTV).

A fourth opposition-leaning channel, New TV, initially considered broadcasting the fireworks display. However, as the anchor began to introduce the footage, and excited crowds chanted anti-Syrian slogans, he fumbled through his scripts and the feed was quickly abandoned.

If anything, the latest coverage will confirm a widely held opinion among regional analysts and politicians that Al Jazeera either sympathizes with or leans toward internationally ostracized groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, while Al Arabiya espouses a more distant tone, in line with regional powers allied to the West.

Since the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, this has often meant a greater likelihood on the part of Al Arabiya to cover speeches and punditry by Hariri and his pro-Western alliance members, while Al Jazeera often featured greater access to the activities of Hezbollah and its allies.

This included an exclusive Al Jazeera interview with the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during last year’s war, as well as an exclusive tour by Al Jazeera’s Beirut bureau chief of Hezbollah’s secretive underground bunkers.

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