Al Arabiya's Lebanon coverage unrivaled: study

Says Hezbollah has lost the battle in the media


The military takeover of Hezbollah is still making headlines in the Arab world as competition grows fiercer between Arab channels.

The major channels competing in the region are the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, Qatar-based Al Jazeera, U.S.-backed Al Hurra, and British broadcaster BBC Arabic. Added to those is Lebanon's Future Television which was out of contention until today after Hezbollah militias set the building on fire and closed the station by force.

Hezbollah—which usually commands the respect of Arab media—has won the military battle on the ground, but lost the battle in the satellite world. Popular broadcaster Al Arabiya reported events in Lebanon under the title "The Hezbollah coup."

Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya's arch rival, started slow and unsure and only broadcast for a couple of hours a day, unlike Al Arabiya which was virtually the only channel to broadcast breaking news and special interviews around the clock. The BBC has not managed since its inception to attract any sizable audience and has had no real impact in the current crisis.

The real surprise was Al Hurra, which despite changing its Hezbollah-biased administration last year, did not cover the situation in Beirut. Its editorial staff attributed the problem to the fact that the current news director, Daniel Naasif, is biased towards the Free Patriotic Movement, an opposition Christian party allied to Hezbollah.

This could have played a major role in giving scant coverage to the latest events and demonstrates a major drawback in the channel. While most news channels offered coverage of the Lebanese crisis from morning to night, Al Hurra maintained its daily schedule and only mentioned Lebanon in the regular newscasts and news headlines.

The 200 million Arabs glued to the screen waiting for news from Lebanon were divided into two camps—those who watched Al Arabiya and those who watched Al Jazeera. The rest of the channels had very little audience.

Prompt reporting and fearless broadcasting of the actions of Hezbollah militias made Al Arabiya the most exciting and the unrivalled. There is no doubt that Al Arabiya presented a different image of Hezbollah to Arab viewers -- headlines in Egyptian papers read, "The ugly face of Hezbollah is revealed."

Al Arabiya's coverage was the most comprehensive as far as hours and news are concerned. Hezbollah objected to labeling its actions a "coup," but the channel's staff confirmed that this is only calling a spade a spade. Footage of the coup showed Hezbollah militias carrying out vandalism and spreading terror. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, avoided mentioning the Shiite party by name and opted for "opposition" in order not to aggravate the ally of the Qatari government.

Al Arabiya correspondents received threats and phone calls from Shiite parties in Lebanon. The Shiite Amal movement wanted Al Arabiya to remove a story about the massacre its militia men committed against six mourners in a funeral procession.

When Al Arabiya rejected this request, the movement's channel, National Broadcasting Network (NBN), started broadcasting a negative promo. In fact, Al Arabiya offered to host an Amal official and give him the opportunity to respond personally, but the movement insisted the story should be removed from air. Al Arabiya said it would not be blackmailed.

An Al Arabiya representative denied allegations that the channel is biased: "We aired all the conferences held by both the opposition and the loyalists. We offered a chance for everyone to come on screen and speak for themselves. The militias rejected our offer because they thought they could intimidate us to stop us from reporting the facts."

"They think that because they set fire to the headquarters of Future Television, they would frighten us, but we told them bluntly that we do not give in to blackmail as some other channels do. Not only did Hezbollah try to silence our correspondents, but they started bullying cable companies so that Al Arabiya would not reach its subscribers," the Al Arabiya official added.

After airing all the speeches by Syrian- and Iranian-allied Shiite parties, Al Jazeera is now facing an unprecedented ordeal. Most of its viewers are Sunnis, and backing Shiite parties made the channel fall out of favor among the majority of Arabs, especially after it ignored the one speech given by Lebanon's Grand Mufti Muhammad Qabani.

The bias of Al Jazeera towards Hezbollah will take a toll on its popularity. This bias is what led field correspondent Bassam al-Qadri to resign in protest at the channel's lack of objectivity.

The lack of objectivity was not confined to Arab channels. Reuters used biased statements that underestimated the gravity of the situation. An introduction to a report by Reuters' correspondent Khaled Eweis is a case in point: "Hezbollah tightened its control of the Lebanese capital, ignoring American calls to penalize the group that defeated the pro-Western government."

Many attribute this bias to fear of the threats directed at the agency's correspondents by the Shiite militia.