DUBAI — If you thought the competition between CNN and Fox was fierce, the rivalry between newsies in the Arab emirates is getting similarly heated.
Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, launched in Feb. 2003, is holding its own against controversial incumbent, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. The tyro web’s moderate stance and modern style has already won it 10 million viewers.
Newsie was set up by Saudi, Lebanese and Gulf businessmen and is part of the London-based satcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center.
It’s new head Abdul Rahman Rashid, former editor-in-chief of London-based and Saudi-backed Arabic daily Al Sharq Al Awsat, wants to introduce “a more professional style, more accuracy and a popular but not demagogic approach” to the news.
“TV stations are very popular when there is a war. It’s easy and cheap to have a single camera and somebody shouting,” he says.
“We must go after politics in the region, and even in Iraq we must show the truth; for example, not all Iraqis are anti-American like all TV stations, including Al-Arabiya, say.”
Rashid is concerned about the power of TV.
“In the West, TV stations can contribute to the victory or the defeat of a politician; here they can spark fighting, killing or encourage viewers to join Al Qaeda,” he says, admitting that terror leader Osama bin Laden went “from zero to hero” because of Arab TV stations.
Asked if this new approach would lead to accusations of being too pro-Western and pro-U.S. by Arab audiences, he says: “No, this is not being pro the West, this is being accurate.
“If I know that Americans massacred a village I will say it, but not if it’s just a rumor. We want to reach high ratings and become No. 1 when there is no war.”
Unsurprisingly, President Bush chose the net, and the new U.S.-backed Al-Hurra (the Free One), on May 5 to apologize to the Arab people for the torture of Iraqi prisoners.
It was a snub not lost on Al-Jazeera, which has as estimated 35 million viewers.
U.S. officials have already condemned Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the violence in Iraq and Palestine, and U.S. secretary of State Colin Powell has officially complained to the Qatar government about the channel.
“We are not biased and we do not make up anything,” says Al-Jazeera’s new editor-in-chief Ahmed Sheikh, sitting in the small newsroom in Doha where the network is located.
“We air only facts and report different opinions. We have been attacked not only by the Americans but by many Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority because our approach is disturbing to many.”
Al-Jazeera opened up in 1996 as the first all-news channel in Arabic and the first indie station in the region, created by journalists from the BBC’s Arab-lingo TV service, which had just closed down, and backed by the emir of Qatar.
Sheikh, a former BBC journalist who was born in Palestine, says that in 2005 the network, which just launched a sports channel, will start a service in English as well as kids and doc channels. It has also just opened a Tokyo bureau.
“As Al-Jazeera becomes a global medium, I want to make it even more professional and clearly against violence and abuses in the world, without giving up our right to inform,” he says.
He and all the network journalists, including presenter Jamal Azar who joined in 1996 after 31 years with the BBC, and anchor Maher Abdullah, defend their professional standards.
“The West is just not used to seeing an Arab channel that speaks freely and does a good or even better job than the BBC or CNN,” Azar says.
“The war in Iraq and the occupation of Palestine are not our invention nor fault. And talking about the media’s fairness, what should we say of Fox TV?” Adbullah asks.