Even as the USA now has its own radio station and upcoming TV network to propagandize the Arab and Muslim worlds; the Arab establishment is about to proliferate its control of newspapers and magazines and internet sites, with a new hodgepodge of TV satellite broadcasting. This report from The Washington Post:
Rivalry for Eyes of Arab World
New TV Stations Take On Al-Jazeera
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 11, 2003; Page A12
DOHA, Qatar -- From London to the Persian Gulf, Arab journalists and investors are gearing up to challenge the primacy of al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite TV channel whose professional if sometimes sensational 24-hour broadcasts have shattered taboos and created an appetite for unfettered news across the Arab world.
The onset of competition in unbridled reporting marks one of the most far-reaching changes in the Arab world over the past decade, transforming news media that, in spirit if not letter, were shadowed by an 1865 Ottoman Empire law that required journalists to "report on the precious health of the sultan." It provides a striking window, too, on fear in Arab capitals over the impact on public opinion of a war against Iraq, and a sense that the conflict may be waged as much on the airwaves as on the battlefield.
A Saudi-owned company plans to launch an around-the-clock satellite news channel to compete directly with al-Jazeera, in time, it hopes, for war in Iraq. One of the Arab world's leading newspapers and an influential Lebanese entertainment channel have begun merging their news departments, with talk of another all-news station. Other entrants, from Algeria, Britain and Abu Dhabi, could be joined in the months ahead by a 24-hour Arabic-language news channel from Iran and a second station in Dubai.
Al-Jazeera, which gained fame after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by airing taped messages from Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, has planned its answer to the competition: After managing to irritate virtually every country in the region in Arabic, it now plans to expand into English, providing an alternative to what its journalists view as biased Western coverage. It will unveil an English-language counterpart to its Arabic Web site next month and, by early next year, it plans English-language broadcasts designed to compete with CNN and BBC.
"Everybody's trying to open a TV station now," said Nart Bouran, the news center director at Abu Dhabi TV, which has tried to challenge al-Jazeera's commanding popularity. "All of a sudden, a lot of people have realized that media [are] so important and a degree of freedom is the only way to attract an audience. If you don't open up, nobody's going to watch."
But to succeed, journalists said, the new entrants will have to escape the inevitable tag that their funding will bring. All have ties to governments, through investment, advertising or facilities, including al-Jazeera. Whether those governments give the stations as long a leash as Qatar has granted al-Jazeera since its inception in 1996 remains a question.
"Once they start the channel, you will discover who's controlling them immediately," predicted Ibrahim Hilal, 32, an Egyptian journalist who took over as chief editor of al-Jazeera two months before Sept. 11.
The most ambitious endeavor to date is al-Arabiya, which plans to begin broadcasting Feb. 20. Based in a sleek, new headquarters in Dubai, an Oz-like city quickly becoming the unofficial capital of the Persian Gulf, it has spent heavily to hire the top talent from a pool that editors say is frustratingly small. Salah Nigm, a BBC veteran and chief editor of al-Jazeera until 2001, was hired to direct the news operation. Fifteen offers were made to al-Jazeera journalists, some at two or three times their current salaries, Hilal said. Five accepted.
The Middle East Broadcasting Center, owned by the brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, will run the channel. Along with other Saudi, Kuwaiti and Lebanese investors, it will funnel $300 million into a news operation with a staff of 500 that will provide programming to al-Arabiya and two existing MBC channels, said Ibrahim Hedeithy, MBC's director general.
"Al-Jazeera has dominated the scene for the last six or seven years," Hedeithy said in an interview. "We're trying to provide an alternative. There is only al-Jazeera, and we're trying to give them another choice."
The choices are multiplying. Abu Dhabi TV already broadcasts eight hours of news and, until now, posed the strongest competition to al-Jazeera, with 25 correspondents. Other stations are beginning in Algeria and Britain. Al-Jazeera managers said they also expect competition from the Iranian channel and a rumored project in Dubai.
In an unusual experiment, the Lebanese channel LBC and London-based newspaper Al Hayat, which is owned by Prince Khalid bin Sultan, Fahd's nephew, have invested $12 million a year in a joint venture called Newsroom Ink. Run by Jihad Khazen, a former Al Hayat editor and columnist, the venture has tapped the newspaper's 69 correspondents to supply news for LBC's three half-hour daily bulletins. Once a studio is finished being built, one of the bulletins will move from Beirut to London.
Khazen said that if the venture succeeds, there are plans for yet another 24-hour news channel. But he called the project "uncharted territory" and acknowledged problems in merging television and newspaper cultures. One of his print reporters in the Persian Gulf refuses to appear on television for religious reasons. Then there are consultants, he said, who "are driving me mad with talk of synergy."
And after decades editing four newspapers, the technology of television has proved intimidating. "They tell me things I've never heard in my life. I keep quiet and they think I'm wise," he said from London.
Without exception, all the stations are seeking to achieve with a war in Iraq what World War II did for Time magazine, the 1991 Persian Gulf War did for CNN and the war in Afghanistan did for al-Jazeera. Abu Dhabi TV plans to begin around-the-clock news if U.S. forces invade. Al-Arabiya is racing to place 12 journalists and technicians in Baghdad for war coverage. Unlike al-Jazeera, which is barred from all Iraq's Arab neighbors, it also expects to send staff to Jordan and Kuwait.
Al-Jazeera, which opened an office in Baghdad in 1997, has spent months laying the groundwork for war. Its managing director, Mohamed Jassem Ali, has traveled repeatedly to the Iraqi capital, winning a meeting with President Saddam Hussein. It plans to send 10 reporters to join four already there, said Omar Bec, the station's director of newsgathering and operations. "Iraq will be the real competition," Hilal said.
Because of al-Jazeera's willingness to push the envelope, it has been expelled from Kuwait, Jordan and Algeria. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the State Department called its coverage "inflammatory" and complained to Qatar about repeated airing of a 1998 interview with bin Laden. In November 2001, U.S. forces bombed its Kabul office. The Pentagon called it an accident; al-Jazeera officials said otherwise.
Its coverage, particularly on talk shows that give wide license to Arab nationalist and Islamic opposition figures and no-holds-barred call-in programs, has caused diplomatic problems between Qatar and virtually every Arab country. In December, Saudi Arabia boycotted a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha because of al-Jazeera's coverage. A month earlier, Bahrain's information minister accused the network of being "in the pay of Zionism." On a tour of the network's modest, one-story studio, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt once famously shouted: "This matchbox! All this noise is coming out of this matchbox!"
Hedeithy insisted al-Arabiya would not be a watered-down al-Jazeera. With the changes al-Jazeera has brought, he said, no one can afford the secrecy of the past, such as when Saudi media delayed for two days news of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
"In this day and age, if you don't cover the news, if you try to hide things, you shoot yourself in the foot," he said.
But Salah Kallab, a former Jordanian information minister who will serve as al-Arabiya's director general, made clear al-Arabiya did not envy al-Jazeera's role as a provocateur. His vision, he said, was far more sober. "We are not going to make problems for Arab countries," Kallab said. "We'll stick with the truth, but there's no sensationalism."
To al-Jazeera's journalists, 55 correspondents in 35 bureaus, one person's sensationalism is another person's freedom. So far, that freedom has been guaranteed under Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Thani, the Qatari leader. Since taking power in the most undemocratic of ways -- he overthrew his vacationing father in 1995 -- he has allowed an Israeli trade office to remain open, fostered ties with Iraq, invited U.S. forces into a sprawling base at Al Udeid and subsidized al-Jazeera at $150 million over five years.
Al-Jazeera's maverick quality has limited its commercial success. In 2001, the station received an estimated $53 million in advertising, out of a total of $714 million for all satellite stations broadcasting to the region. Of the total, three-fourths went to the Middle East Broadcasting Center, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation and Future, all well connected politically, according to Naomi Sakr, author of "Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East."
But Hamad plans to spend at least an additional $20 million a year on the English-language broadcasts, which the station wants to begin by February 2004 after hiring a new staff of 300, said Jassem, the station's managing director. Within two years, the goal is to go to a 24-hour service, targeting not only North America and Europe but also English-speaking residents of South Asia.
"I take my hat off to Qatar," said Jian Yacoubi, an Iraqi Kurd who works as senior program producer at al-Jazeera. "No one can compete with us. Ask me why. Not because we are geniuses. We have only one secret weapon they don't have -- freedom."
Correspondent Peter Baker in Kuwait City contributed to this report.