Satellite wars

Illustration: Sarah John

My father couldn’t wait to return from his travels in the United States.

‘Finally,’ he declared as he switched on the television, ‘I’ll know what is really happening.’

For several days, he stayed glued to the television, only interrupting himself every so often to seek my mother and vent his frustrations.

‘You see, you see,’ he would say to her fuming, ‘CNN and others (Western broadcasters) don’t tell us what’s going on. We don’t know what is really happening to the Palestinians. We don’t know what is really going on in Iraq. And they call themselves journalists!’

‘Thank God,’ he would add emphatically, ‘there’s al Jazeera.’

Many sighs of relief were sighed seven years ago when the Arab satellite channel was established. For the first time, Arabs didn’t have to rely on the Western media to get the news and spend hours afterwards grumbling about it. Western media has always been seen as biased, anti-Arab and pro-Israel. But now, for the first time, details of Palestinians’ lives under occupation were portrayed, Arab analysts and activists could speak out and Arab regimes themselves could be criticised (although this did not go down too well with the regimes in question). It was, to say the least, refreshing.

The al Jazeera network quickly spread to over 45 million homes, its news and programmes becoming the talk of the Arab world.

While al Jazeera and its audience sees the network as fair – even giving air time to Israeli speakers (an unheard of concept in the Arab world) – it has come under harsh criticism, most notably by the US administration. Its footage of dead US soldiers and captured soldiers during the Iraq war, and its airing of tapes of Osama Bin Laden angered US officials.

For Arabs the US anger revealed a certain bias.

‘Why is it OK for CNN to give Ariel Sharon air time yet Jazeera can’t broadcast Bin Laden tapes?’ says Wael, an avid Jazeera fan. ‘Bin Laden is a terrorist and Sharon is a terrorist. It’s the same double standard all over again. America can do what it wants and we can’t.’

To the relief of many Arabs, satellite channels continued to air news as they saw fit.

‘This is one place where the US cannot force us to do what it wants,’ says Wael.

During the Iraq war, US forces struck the Jazeera headquarters in Baghdad, killing a journalist, Tariq Ayoub. The air strike enraged the Arab world who accused Washington of deliberately attempting to silence the network. Jazeera offices were also hit by US forces in Kabul in November 2001.

Al Jazeera’s success prompted others to follow suit. Three years ago, al Manar began satellite broadcasts after almost a decade of transmitting solely to Lebanese viewers. The broadcasts were created for one reason: to support the Palestinians in their Intifada. The major part of news bulletins is dedicated to giving details of the uprising as reported by local journalists.

The network, based in Beirut, is run by the Lebanese Shi’a resistance party, Hizbullah – staunch supporters of the Palestinians. Their broadcast came as no surprise to anyone and became an instant success throughout the Arab world, especially in the Palestinian occupied territories. Unlike al Jazeera, however, al Manar provides news with an all too obvious slant.

Suicide attacks on Israelis are fully reported through live feeds and are termed as ‘ martyr operations’. Israelis are referred to as ‘aggressors’ or the ‘Zionist enemy’. Iraqi military operations against coalition forces, suicide or otherwise, on the other hand, are referred to as ‘attacks’ – a clear indication that Hizbullah’s main enemy is Israel.

Not to be outdone, many other Arab networks began satellite broadcasts, mainly from Lebanon and the Gulf.

Analysts believe that the pan-Arab satellite networks have increased Arab cross-border interaction as they became forums for public, political and social debates.

‘The only difference between us and CNN is that we give air time to Arabs to speak out,’ said a friend of mine who works at al Jazeera. ‘We have the same news. We cover everything just like they do. Our journalists are on the spot like they are.’

Since its inception, several of my friends have joined the network in Qatar or other Arab channels. They want to contribute to fighting what they see as a pro-Israeli Western media. ‘We may not be able to fight and win a war with the West,’ said Jad, a teacher at a local school. ‘But we can and will fight a media war.’

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

New Internationalist issue 364 magazine cover This article is from the February 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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