But Iran is betting that these differences can be overlooked by appealing to the uniting effect of anti-Americanism, fueled by the US’s own policies in the region. And so far, it seems they’ve gambled well.
“America no longer represents its ideas anymore. You tell U.S. about democracy human rights, where are they in Guantanamo, Abu Ghreib,” explains AUB professor Nabil Dajani. “It opens the doors for Iranians to easily get in. So the success of Al-Alam is not because they are smart, but because they have such stupid enemies. The Americans,” says Dajani dejectedly, “are giving them this opportunity on a golden platter.”
Though the competition for Arabic speaking audience’s hearts and minds has meant viewers have increasing choices, which across the board by those interviewed is seen as a good thing, Al-Alam (or Al-Hurra for that matter) has not proven to be a ratings giant. In a poll done by the Arab Advisors Group in 2006 in Morocco, only two out of 700 respondents said they watched Al-Alam. 131 said they had never heard of it. Out of the 198 who had an opinion on the channel, 49 percent said it was “somewhat trustworthy” while 31.8 percent said it was not. Anecdotally, those interviewed said the channel is not capturing a large market share, and is regarded with the same suspicion as other state-run channels in the region.
Once satellites were allowed into Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya quickly dominated the ratings, as they do in other Arab countries, say their executives. Neither of the Arabic mega-channels seems threatened by Iran’s foray into the Arabic news business.
The number two at Al-Jazeera, deputy chief editor Ayman Gaballah shrugs it off. “It’s normal, everyone now is launching an Arabic news channel.” While he didn’t want to comment specifically on Al-Alam, Gaballah stressed in general that with Arab audiences, the “prescription” is credibility. “Whatever you do or whatever you try to convince them of, or manipulate them, they will discover later on and they will judge you and know and decide which category to put you. Don’t be a mouthpiece of any government, trend, political party, commercial group. With time they will know if you are credible or not, and according to this, the effectiveness of channel will be categorized.” Executive Editor of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel boldly asserts, “We don’t consider Al-Alam competition,” and when asked if the Arab world needed a state-run Iranian channel, he responds, “I doubt anyone needs it.” Khatib says the quality of journalism on Al-Alam is poor. “They can’t compete with someone who gives an editor a free hand. Whenever a channel needs to go to hierarchy of bureaucrats and censors to get any piece of news, it can’t do good journalism.”
Despite Bush administration plans for launching a Farsi-language TV channel, neither Arabic network is thinking of starting its own Farsi-language channel to broadcast into Iran. Gaballah of Al-Jazeera laughs at the proposition “at least not for now.” Khatib of Al-Arabiya says his parent company, the Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC), wouldn’t do it unless it were proven profitable. For now, MBC has two channels available to Iranians that have done well, but neither are news based; the first features Western movies and the second targets female audiences, including rebroadcasts of American network programming and shows like Dr. Phil and Oprah.
IRIB UN Chief Morteza laughs at the idea of an Arab-run Farsi language news channel. When asked if maybe some Iranians would watch it, he responds, “No, absolutely not. They don’t believe propaganda.”