Although CNN blazed the path, Arab satellite channels emulated it with pioneering Desert Storm Gulf war coverage and many viewers in Egypt say they are now tuning in to Qatar-based Al Jazeera and tuning out CNN for Iraq war telecasts. Al Jazeera seems to be winning TV credibility and ratings war with the Arab public.
While CNN and BBC are getting plaudits for excellent reportage in the region, Arabic-language satellite Al Jazeera is facilitated by an encompassing Baghdad base and maverick reputation, earning the enmity of both US and Middle Eastern governments. When CNN was forced to vacate Baghdad, under its agreement with Al Jazeera, it is able to continue to show the latter's footage. Some Arab viewers deem CNN embedded reporters "in bed" with military.
"We all channel surf and while appreciating CNN's technical excellence, it hasn't seemed to change format since the first Gulf War," said Egyptian film director Mona Assisi. "Naturally Al Jazeera has easier accessibility for us due to the Arabic language and its special interviews that are not shown on western channels."
Al Jazeera Cairo Bureau Chief Hussain Abdul Ghani said objectivity and neutrality is the guiding factor in war coverage.
"CNN dominated the first Gulf War, but Al Jazeera surged forward, working in Bosnia and Afghanistan with the same international standards by presenting conflicting views. The Iraq war has a different significance for us as we are an Arab satellite channel with a country in our region that has been attacked. Also we have a technological advantage with 12 correspondents spread across Iraq including two Iraqi permanent reporters in Baghdad, and we also have an anchor who can speak to four places at the same time with a split scene," said Abdul Ghani. "This time we are watching fierce professional competition in the field with all the European networks and Arab satellite TV like Abu Dhabi, LBC, Dubai-based Al Arabiya (whose 3 correspondents were captured and briefly held), London-based Arab News Network (ANN), Al Alem, and Al Manar."
Al Jazeera still keeps making its own news and when it telecast graphic American POW footage on March 22, US Lt Gen. John Abizaid publicly targeted the channel's footage, which also triggered a controversial expulsion at the New York Stock Exchange. After airing the Osama Bin Laden tapes, secretary of state Colin Powell tried to curb the channel by complaining to the Emir of Qatar. Maybe it is this irrepressible news sense that has given Al Jazeera a claimed Arab World 70% viewership edge, according to Al Jazeera Cairo producer Mohammed Habashi, who said Lebanon's Islamist channel Al Manar is second with an estimated 20% of the Arab audience. There is no accredited Arab TV viewership rating system.
Al Jazeera will be the subject of a documentary by Jehane Noujaim, director of the critically acclaimed "Start Up.com," in collaboration with Chris Hegedus (Academy Award nominee for the documentary "The War Room"). Noujaim spoke to TBS from Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha.
"I always questioned media coverage of the Arab world as an Egyptian-American born in Washington DC growing up in Kuwait and Cairo, educated at Harvard, and living between New York and Cairo," said Noujaim, whose indie "Start Up.com" was distributed by Artisan in 2001 and released in Europe 3 months ago. "The working title of Al Jazeera's 90-minute film is 'Coverage' and is not yet bought by anyone. Like my other film, it will be told through personal characters. We found our main Arab character in Al Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim, who is like an 'Arab Michael Moore' who knows the Arab world so well in addition to the USA."
The BBC is also currently shooting Al Jazeera for a "Correspondent" segment telecast. More than 30 requests by others to shoot a piece on Al Jazeera apparently were turned down by the channel. "Al Jazeera understands we are coming from a good place since we are an indie production with a personal story. It is an important time and we will show Hassan and also footage of the war, like Iraqi TV crumbling," said Noujaim, who anticipates a four-month shoot. "As an Arab American, I am proud that
Al Jazeera will have an English language station and an English website, though hackers forced the website to move to a server in France, maybe due to the POW pictures. I admire the channel's ability to air different viewpoints."