Depending on their politics, Arabs tend to line up behind Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya just as Americans follow Fox News or msnbc, though the complexities of the Arab world—Hamas/Palestinian Authority, Saudi/Qatar, fundamentalist/reformist Muslim, Sunni/Shia, republican/royalist, etc.—means defining their respective audiences is not as simple as the conservative/liberal dichotomy of Fox/MSNBC. Critics say the rivalry for influence between the patrons of the two Arabic channels plays out in news decisions. On topics such as Palestine, for example, Al Jazeera is said to favor Hamas over the Palestinian Authority, while Al Arabiya takes the opposite tack. In Egypt, pro-Mubarak forces claimed Al Jazeera was overtly fostering revolution, while anti-Mubarak demonstrators accused Al Arabiya of going soft on the regime.
Political influence can also be seen in stories on which the two networks adopt a similar approach. For example, critics claim both channels have played down the violent suppression of anti-government demonstrations on the tiny island emirate of Bahrain.
A possible explanation: in both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslims are the majority. In Bahrain, the uprising is led by the majority Shiites against the Sunni royal family—which immediately raised the specter of Iranian subterfuge. “They gave lip-service to representing the Shiites in Bahrain, but they really downplayed the whole issue of the protests,” says Daoud Kuttab. “On Bahrain we saw that they weren’t independent.”
But that begs a big question in Arab journalism: Is anyone truly independent? The short answer: every Arab news organization operates within “red lines,” boundaries of coverage they dare not cross. But lately, those lines have been moving.
On day two of the Egyptian uprising, the staff of Cairo’s privately owned satellite channel ON-TV gathered to discuss strategy. ON-TV was founded in 2008 by Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian telecommunication mogul, as a current-affairs spin-off of his successful entertainment channel. Yosri Fouda, host of the nightly talk show, Akhir Kalam (The Last Word), had just met with the station’s program chief. Fouda was one of the Arab world’s most respected television journalists. He had made his name as Al Jazeera’s chief investigative correspondent and was best known in the West as the reporter who interviewed the masterminds of 9/11. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to destroy everything I did in my career by appearing on TV and be a parrot. At the same time, I won’t be upset if you want me to take a break.’ ”
But his boss told Fouda he did not intend to self-censor. The team developed an aggressive strategy for coverage of the uprising and brought it to Sawiris, warning him that if they took this approach, ON-TV could be shut down. “To his credit, Naguib said, ‘Guys, if you think we can do this professionally, then I don’t care if we get shut down,’” Fouda recalls.
While Al Jazeera and other regional satellite channels received most of the attention in the West, ON-TV and Dream-TV, another Egypt-based private satellite channel, played a major role in bringing the voices of the revolution to the Egyptian audience. Like other Egypt-based channels, ON-TV and Dream were prohibited from running news programs by the Mubarak regime. Instead, they focused on current-affairs discussion programs. So while the regional channels concentrated on live coverage from the street, these channels were bringing into the studio all of the key figures involved in the revolution, giving context and depth to the unfolding events. This was a level of analysis that might have been lost on viewers in other parts of the region, but was critical for Egyptians trying to understand the subtleties of their unfolding future.