The summer of 2006 marked an important milestone for Arab media. Israel and Hezbollah were locked in a bitter conflict that would claim the lives of more than 150 Israelis and an estimated 1,000 Lebanese — a third of them children. Each day brought brutal new images of civilian casualties.
On American television, leading journalists, such as CNN’s star presenters Anderson Cooper and John Roberts, regularly referred to Hezbollah as “terrorists” or a “terrorist militia,” without bothering to attribute the label to Israeli or U.S. sources. But on the news broadcasts of the Arab world’s dominant all-news channels, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, such polarizing language was rarely heard.
The irony, of course, is that Al-Jazeera was condemned by the Bush administration for using terms like “martyr,” “aggression” and “terrorism” in describing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Arab journalists should be “unbiased” like their colleagues in America, was the constant refrain from Washington.
“The words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorist’ are not in our dictionary,” Ahmed Sheikh, Al-Jazeera’s chief editor, told me in late summer, as a shaky cease-fire took hold in southern Lebanon. “We only use them when we are quoting someone.”
Nor were dead civilians or fighters referred to as shaheen, Arabic for “martyr.” Such terms are still bandied about on Al-Jazeera’s talk shows, which tend to resemble the cable shoutfests in the U.S., but they were officially exiled from news reports.
At Al-Arabiya, the story was much the same. “We use Hezbollah ‘fighters’ and sometimes ‘militants,’ but we don’t use ‘fighters for freedom,’” executive editor Nabil Khatib told me. “We agreed we would not take a clear position supporting Hezbollah. We are covering this war as a war.”
Al-Arabiya went a step further, imposing an almost complete ban on showing dead bodies, a radical move in an Arab media culture in which the camera often zooms in on open wounds.
Khatib recalled a report on the aftermath of an Israeli bombing raid on a building in the town of Baalbek in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The hour of raw footage received at the channel’s Dubai headquarters was all “parts of bodies and relatives taking the body parts in their hands and showing them to the camera. It was a crazy situation. Some colleagues were very angry about what happened and felt we should show the pictures.”
In the end, on Khatib’s orders, the channel used just one “three-second-long shot of a body with no details visible.”
Both Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera have been vigorously criticized for this new approach by viewers and colleagues in the Arab media, where sensationalism, distortion and misinformation often are rampant. “We have received hundreds of calls from viewers asking, ‘Why are we not calling the dead civilians in Lebanon ‘martyrs?’” says Sheikh, himself a Palestinian. “It was very difficult for me personally to explain, but that is the policy.”
Of course, Arab politics can’t be discounted in any explanation of this more “responsible” approach. Al-Jazeera is funded by the Emir of Qatar, and Al-Arabiya, which seemed to downplay the conflict in its early stages, is part of a media empire owned by a member of the Saudi royal family. Both countries are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, while Hezbollah is Shiite. Sunni heads of state across the region initially condemned Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, the spark that touched off this war, because it was seen as part of Shiite Iran’s strategy to strengthen its position in the region at the expense of Sunni countries like Egypt, Jordan and the royal families of the Gulf.
Arab public opinion — driven by media coverage of the conflict — eventually forced the Sunni leaders to backtrack, condemn the Israeli invasion and give tacit support to Hezbollah.
But the degree to which the policy changes at Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya also represent a new chapter in the evolution of Arab journalism cannot be dismissed. Until Al-Jazeera was launched ten years ago, the term “television journalism” was an oxymoron in the Arab world. All stations were government-owned. Now there is a new spirit of — or at least aspiration for — independence and professionalism.