Saturday, February 19, 2005

Angry Arab Guide to Middle East Media (Part I, TV) (too displeased with the stupid New York Times’ one prepared by Hassan Fattah 10 days ago):
Al-Jazeera: the most important symbol of Arab media now. Owned by members of the royal family in Qatar, especially the Foreign Minister. But he allows a degree of independence. Many of the people who work in the station (from my own experience) do not like the views of the Foreign Minister. But after American pressures, especially after the Iraq war and occupation, he has replaced the director-general and the board of directors. Al-Jazeera’s orientations are largely vague Arab nationalist, although people in the West would be surprised to learn that people in the Middle East are convinced that Al-Jazeera is run by the Mossad. People in the Middle East do not find Al-Jazeera to be "nationalist" enough. Furthermore, they do not like how Al-Jazeera features Israeli guests/propagandists. The news broadcasts are largely straightforward; the shouting and the anti-American sentiments are expressed on, or confined to, AlJazeera’s talk shows that are widely watched. But they always match the anti-American guest with a pro-American guest. One Al-Jazeera correspondent is now serving time in jail awaiting trial in Spain for alleged ties to Al-Qa`idah. He was the only one that I suspected of harboring some sympathies for Bin Laden, and he lied on the air about his meeting with Bin Laden. I did not like how AlJazeera handled the matter. They should have conducted an internal investigation, which they have not. Most of the anchorpeople are graduates of the short-lived BBC TV (and BBC Radio service). They have excellent command of the Arabic language and very good interviews skills. Some come from Jordan TV. Al-Jazeera covers Bush and his administration very extensively, too extensively if you ask me. For the 11 hours of Bin Laden tapes that AlJazeera has aired since Sep. 11, it has aired more than 500 hours of Bush (or Bin Bush) tapes. They cover all his speeches live, and I have mocked Al-Jazeera (on AlJazeera) by saying that they cover the sneezes of US officials now. It still has the largest audience. It has its biases; when the father of the current Amir came back from exile (the son deposed the father), the station would not have anything to say. No 90 minutes shows would be devoted to the matter, the way they would do to other matters. Furthermore, the Saudi-Qatari feud is reflected in the station especially with the extensive coverage given to Saudi matters, and the platform regularly given to Saudi dissidents. But Al-Jazeera has the best news operation, and refreshingly (unlike CNN which is covering Prince Chargles’ engagement as we speak) stays away from fluff news. You also feel that Al-Jazeera correspondents are increasingly taking seriously the profession that they are in. The staff and anchorpeople come from different Arab countries, and only one anchorwoman wears the hijab (and she did so after working for years without it)--not that this matters but I know how obsessed Westerners are with the "veil". The influence of Islamic fundamentalist demagogue Yusuf Al-Qardawi is highly exaggerated in the station. He has his weekly program and that is where he confines his fulminations and pontifications.
Al-Arabiyya: This is the Saudi royal family’s answer to Al-Jazeera. Pure and simple. It started with vague financial information about its backers, but it was later revealed that it was part of the empire of King Fahd’s brother-in-law. The staff has a disproportionate number of Lebanese, and many Lebanese right-wing Christians. This is not accidental. Saudi and other Gulf countries often prefer Lebanese right-wing Christians because they feel that they are not susceptible to Arab nationalist or Islamic fundamentalist agitations. Also, Lebanse are very skilled in the art of submission to wealthy oil princes, and are willing to sell themselves for oil money. In fact, a Lebanese who worked for Al-Walid Bin Talal wrote an underground damning book about that prince, and how he got in trouble when the prince’s associates discovered that he was a Muslim (he came from the `Awn family, which is most likely a Christian family name in Lebanon). The station came to serve two purposes: 1) to counter Al-Jazeera’s powerful hold over Arab news digestion; 2) to please US. The station recruited anchors by offering fat salaries. The right-wing, and highly annoying Lebanese (lousy) interviewer, Jizel Khuri, was recruited from LBC, while the right-wing Elie Naquzi was recruited from NBN, Najwa Qasim from Future TV, and many were recruited from Al-Jazeera, but none of Al-Jazeera’s big names, except perhaps anchorwoman Muntaha Ar-Ramahi and Gaza correspondent Sayf Ad-Din Shahin. The Arabic of the Lebanese anchors are almost always inferior to Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Gulf Arabs. The director of Syrian TV told me how they recruited their star, Zeina Al-Yaziji (fluent in French, Arabic, and English). She was paid $400 per month at Syrian TV. Al-Arabiyya came and offered $7000. She promptly left. They are still mourning her at Syrian TV. Yet, none of their anchorpeople have the presence or “star” power of those at Al-Jazeera. The interviewing skills of Khadijah Bin Qanna (on Al-Jazeera) or of Iman Bannurah or of Jumanah Nammur or Jamil `Azar. `Abdul-Rahman Ar-Rashid who ran Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat now runs the station. His imprint is strongly felt. He represents that annoying Arab “liberalism” which is not to be confused with “liberalism” in Europe or even in the US. Arab “liberalism” is really conservativism disguised as support for liberal values. Arab liberals, to a man and woman, are also champions of Saudi Arabia while they preach human rights and democracy especially in countries that are enemies of Saudi Arabia. They also are fans of George W. Bush, and his campaigns for “Freedoms.” They ostensibly support “women’s rights” but not in the most misogynist countries in the world. They of course admire Allawi and Abu Mazin, and they claim to oppose Islamic fundamentalism, but not inside the government of Saudi Arabia. Al-Arabiyya has more recycled news reports than Al-Jazeera but it is getting better. It really discredited itself almost completely with its coverage of Allawi and the unending airing of Allawi commercials and non-commercials. It has charted a path for itself among Arab audiences, but people often sneer at its obvious rivalry with Al-Jazeera. Like Al-Jazeera it also interviews Israeli propagandists. They get very nervous if any guests offer strong criticisms of the US, and they cut them off. But most voices that are critical of Saudi Arabia or of US are not allowed on the station. Their best interviewer is Hasan Mu`awwad (a Palestinian formerly at the BBC), who has a very concise 30 minutes weekly program. Turki Ad-Dukhayl has an excellent one-hour program devoted to Gulf affairs. Jizel Khuri brings to the station that silly and shallow “techniques” of American fluff “news” shows. But I read that her program is popular. Unlike Al-Jazeera, they run fluff pieces. They ran a report two weeks ago from Jordan about how people in Jordan feel about the birth of a new child for the Saudi King of Jordan. People were quoted saying how happy they were for their king. Last week, they ran a report about the Saudi non-election election in which the reporter was fully speaking for the government, and saying how nice it is for the people to shoulder some responsibilities with their leaders. The New York Times Magazine laudatory article about Al-Arabiyya indirectly revealed that some workers and journalists at the station are not happy with the pressures from above. I should also indicate that the US has been extremely pleased with Al-Arabiyya as of late after ignorantly equating AlJazeera and AlArabiyya perhaps because they sound the same to an American ear. American officials now—I think—treat AlArabiyya as their official mouthpiece especially after the failure of the official propaganda TV, known as Hurra TV. Many correspondents of Al-Arabiyyah are good professional journalists.
LBC-TV: this started as a militia TV station, and the founder (Pierre Ad-Dahir) remains at the helm. The non-satellite version of the station is still owned by the right-wing founder, while the satellite version is now owned mostly by Saudi investors (Al-Walid bin Talal has the largest share). The station is mostly entertainment with a widely watched Lebanese-centered news segments that are blatantly and unabashedly right-wing and sectarian Christian in Lebanese political terms. The station succeeds because it is so sleazy and appeals to the worst male sexist and sleazy standards. They have a workout program in the morning that is avidly watched around the region; it is almost pornographic as the sleazy camera has no interest in athletics and all the interest in the details of the woman’s body parts. The entire station is based on sexual exploitation and objectification of women. Their entertainment programs are also popular because they include long and extensive interviews with “stars.” (They pay them well). Their broadcasters do not necessarily have a good command of Arabic (because the Lebanese bourgeoisie like to brag about their foreign language skills and Arabic is for the “masses,” you know) but some do (Walid Abbud and May Shidqaq). They have a weekly news program by the very able Shadha Amr, but it is consistently slanted toward…Saudi Arabia and the interests of the royal family.
Future TV: This one is owned by Lebanese-Saudi former prime minister/billionaire Rafiq Hariri. It followed the recipe of LBC-TV but is more serious, and less sleazy. A mix of news and entertainment, and unlike LBC-TV which seems to only hire Christians, has a very mixed staff of Christians and Muslims. Like the newspaper with that same name (as this corrupt tool of the Saudi royal family is supposed to represent the “Future”), the TV followed the whims and inclinations of Rafiq Hariri. It has talks shows that are rather mild and not sensational, and a weekly Oprah-like and widely watched program moderated by a gifted Lebanese Armenian. I am told that his program (known as Sirah wa infatahat by Zaven) is one of the most widely watched program in the Middle East. Recently, the able journalist `Ali Hamadah of AnNahar started a weekly news show. He brings more diverse guests unlike on LBC-TV.
New TV: owned by Tahsin Khayyat: a Sidon-based businessman with very close ties to the Qatari government. They have mix like Future and LBC. Entertainment and news, and also features sexist standards of presentation. I know from an inside source that a woman was recently hired but was told get a nose job. They also feature the most annoying woman in the world (Maryam Nur) who offers a non-stop monologue that is very new agey. She got that from living in New Mexico for a while. She goes on and one and on. They also have a strident and sensational weekly news program called Bila Raqib (Without Censor). The presenter (Maria Ma`luf) is getting better, and her Arabic is getting much better, but she interviews the guests separately. I had told her that this very boring for the audience, but she has her ideas. George Saliba hosts a very good weekly Lebanese-centered news show, and he is very good at what he does. They also feature American shows, and reviews of American movies. But they seem to think that Mariah Carrey is a big star in the US.
Al-Manar TV: the Hizbullah TV station in Lebanon. Was recently banned in USA and France. If hate is a reason to ban stations, should Fox News not be banned? They spew hate on a daily basis, but I guess American style hate is more “sophisticated” and nice. Al-Manar started as a lousy dogmatic station, with heavy religious programming. But like Hizbullah, Al-Manar soon discovered that that Lebanon is the “sin” capital of the world, and the Lebanese would switch in a heart beat if they continue their dogmatic approach. So they loosened up, and hired not only non-Shi`ites, but also non-religious people, I know. They are too serious, but their news broadcasts are comprehensive and detailed, and non-Lebanese centered. They leave Lebanon news to the end. I am told that it is the number one station in Palestine and some places in North Africa. They have some really good professional correspondents (one whose name escapes me does live broadcasts from main events). They no more insist that women have to appear with their hairs covered. But an American friend of mine in Lebanon (who is active on behalf of Palestinians) appeared once on a program, but during the break they told her to cover her neck with some item of clothing. I told her that she should have refused. They have an excellent weekly news program hosted by an excellent reporter from As-Safir, Imad Marmal, and is devoted to Lebanese affairs. A Lebanese member of parliament (Pierre Hilu) died live on the air in one program. A very able anchorwoman (Batul) does (or used to as I have no access to AlManar anymore) a weekly news program but the guests are always in agreement, which is not interesting to watch. Even when leftists and fundamentalists are invited together, they are not asked to speak on areas of their disagreement but on something about Israel, which they agree on. They also have tons of Shi`ite religious programming. They also air serials, but usually with political message. They aired a stupid and very boring Egyptian serial which had anti-Jewish characters and dialogue. And they seem to favor sensational guests, from the Islamic fundamentalist or the vulgar Arab nationalist currents.
NBN: used to be run by the now director of the official US propaganda channel Al-Hurra, Muwaffaq Harb. It is owned and run by the Shi`ite militia Amal, headed by the now speaker of the Lebanese parliament. It is not widely watched: very non-distinctive. Their talents are not well utilized. But one of their stars told me that they have a huge deficit regularly, and cannot invest in improvement. Very limited appeal and audience.
Saudi TV: if you want to know whether a green toothbrush is preferable to a blue toothbrush from the Islamic point of view, and if you are dying to know whether it is permissible from the Islamic point of view to listen to female voices on the radio, this TV is for you. And if you really are eager to know the name of every person who met Crown Prince Abdullah when he arrived to Riyadh airport from Jiddah, this is your TV. Enjoy.
Abu Dhabi TV: has a good and professional news operations, but is mostly entertainment. Have suffered from continuing budget cuts.
Al-Hurra: I really believe that the US government and Congress were conned by those who started this station. They first had to falsely convince them that Radio Sawa (the US propaganda radio) has been successful, and that Arabs now watch TV and there is a need for a TV station. Radio Sawa plays pop Arabic and American music and is listened to in some places like Kuwait and Jordan, but is far from being the number one station, except probably in Kuwait from what I hear. But this is different from saying that it shapes minds, or changes views. Kuwait students have told me that they listen to their music, and mock their news broadcasts. The TV station, by contrast, is a failure, an abysmal failure when you think of the amount of money that we taxpayers are pumping into its coffers. When I was in Lebanon, I would watch it whenever I visited my mother. Nobody watches it. It has an overwhelming preponderance of right-wing Lebanese journalists, and some from LBC and the defunct MTV (a Beirut-based right-wing station closed by the Lebanese government). There was at one point a live coverage from Iraq on AlJazeera and AlArabiyya, while Al-Hurra was playing a recorded documentary on the sizes of potatoes in Idaho, or some thrilling topic like that. There is not a single star anchor, and they are notorious for lousy command of Arabic. They brought in one star right-wing Lebanese talk show host (Ziyad Nujaym) but he is even hated by more than half of Lebanon, and does not talk in classical Arabic as he is a silly ultra-Lebanese nationalist. The founders did not know that the Arab stations are far more sophisticated and advanced (even technologically) than this American station. Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists celebrated the failure of Al-Hurra. I do not expect it to be around in a year or two. An insider in Washington, DC tells me that people in Congress are concerned over stories of alleged mismanagement and even corruption at the station, and that Sen. Lugar is not happy with Al-Hurra. But the Bush administration will not give up. Now they are planning a propaganda channel to transmit through Muslim i-pods, to be called i-gods.
OK: I have other things to do now. I should write later a guide for print media.