Abu Dhabi Television consists of three channels: the Emirates Channel, which focuses mainly on the Gulf region; the Abu Dhabi Sports Channel, a pay channel carried in the Middle East on the Showtime platform; and the Abu Dhabi Channel, which includes an extensive news operation that has gained a great deal of attention from Arab viewers, in particular for its comprehensive coverage of the current escalation of violence in the Middle East.
Mohamed Dourrachad, deputy director of Abu Dhabi Television and acting news director for the Abu Dhabi Channel, spoke to TBS Managing Editor Sarah Sullivan about the channel's news operation, their coverage of the Palestinian/Israeli crisis, and what they see as the next challenge in regional news.
Sarah Sullivan: Commentators have been saying that the Abu Dhabi Channel's coverage of the current Israeli/Palestinian crisis is some of the best in the region. Could you describe for us the news operation you have on the ground there, and how you maintain a high level of coverage in a time of crisis?
Mohamed Dourrachad: As you know covering the events in Palestine and in the territories now that have been invaded is extremely hard. Our operation there consisted before the current crisis of three locations, we were covering Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza. Now after the outbreak of violence recently we've increased our presence, and we have capped the operation in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza and we have dedicated correspondents there, and we've increased the number of correspondents, either by sending them from here or by hiring stringers in different locations in Israel and the occupied territories.
Sullivan: TBS talked the other day to your anchorman and executive producer Jasim Al-Azzawi, who was kicked out by the Israeli authorities. Other news organizations have also complained about the treatment journalists are receiving and that they aren't being let in to cover the news. Are your correspondents there having problems?
Dourrachad: On a daily basis we've seen footage and news about the harassment that goes on by the Israeli authorities and especially the Israeli army against journalists and reporters from various countries, not only Abu Dhabi Television—it just so happened that it was Jasim Al-Azzawi that they expelled, who we'd sent to conduct an interview with Yasser Arafat before he was besieged. He stayed there for the duration that we needed to strengthen our coverage operation there, and he ran into that kind of problem with the Israeli authorities. The reasons are obviously not only the coverage of the news by Abu Dhabi TV, but also I'm sure the comic series we had in Ramadan, "Irhabiyat"—I'm sure that had something to do with it. [Editor's note: "Irbahiyat" or "Terrorisms" was a satire of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Abu Dhabi TV, whose programming is a mix of news and entertainment, aired last November.]
Sullivan: But even the BBC and others are also complaining of being harassed, shot at, or not being let in. Do you think there's also an element that Israel doesn't want the media to be able to cover these events?
Dourrachad: Absolutely. But in spite of this decision to expel Jasim Al-Azzawi and to withhold our correspondent Leila Odeh's press card, we are still determined to do our job the way we know how. Israel, having done what it has in terms of a total news blackout imposed on the media and the continuous harassment, and sometimes shooting and threats against journalists, I think they're in no position to tell us or anybody else how to cover the events taking place there. We're sure this is not just about Abu Dhabi TV, it's about the entire media, which are only allowed to see events through the eyes of the Israeli army. Some of the atrocities committed by the Israeli army are just coming out, and we believe that what we have reported on is really only a small fraction of what we should have covered of the horrible acts and atrocities committed by the Israeli army against Palestinian civilians, especially in Jenin and Nablus.
Sullivan: So people are afraid right now not just of what we're actually seeing, but of what we're not seeing—of the news that hasn't come out yet.
Dourrachad: Exactly, and I think no matter how thorough we are or any organization is, we haven't really done our job the way we should have done it. There will come a time when we'll look back and say, in hindsight, we should have done more. Not just Abu Dhabi TV, but Al-Jazeera, Nile News, the BBC, and CNN, we'll all look back and say that. It's not that we didn't want to, but we should have been more aggressive in getting to the truth and in trying to get footage out of those areas under siege and see what's really happeneing. Now we see pictures of the Israeli army holding photographs of their own, that they've taken, to make fun of the media and tell us, look, we have our own photo ops on the killings we've been doing, but you don't have access. It's sickening. There are still tons of stories that have to be told. But these stories will come out, the light will be shed on them. When, I don't know. But it's like what Milosevic was doing in Bosnia or the Nazis were doing in Germany, and nobody at that time was even able to question what was happening. It's only after they were defeated that the truth started slowly trickling out, and people were horrified. I think the situation in the Palestinian camps and cities, as the truth emerges, will definitely make a lot of media organizations feel guilty.
In the middle of all this craziness, it's not easy for any news operation or any channel to keep up with what's happening and reflect the reality of things. Heavy coverage has it's negative side; in the middle of the amount of reporting, commentating, statements that go on air, sometimes people may lose sight of the real stories. There are some real stories we'd like to get at—the plight of the Palestinian housewife who has seven kids to feed and can't leave her house. People don't have the things we always take for granted, like getting water. They have to be creative to keep life going, and they're resorting to old traditions, like grinding wheat to make flour at home because they can't go out. The doula tradition is coming back because pregnant women can't go to hospitals to deliver. These are phenomenon we would love to cover, to pay attention to how these people go about life under siege. Unfortunately this is something we can't do. If our reporters go out to these homes they could be killed.
Sullivan: Everyone is there right now—BBC, CNN, AP, Reuters, Abu Dhabi, Al-Jazeera, Nile News. Do you think that the Arab media in general, and in particular the satellite stations because you can instantly reach an audience around the region and around the world, have a particular responsibility in trying to get the news out and trying to get the crisis into public view, given that this issue and this crisis is of such tremendous importance in the region and to your viewers?
Dourrachad: As much as we can. I think Abu Dhabi TV has done its share of bringing out exclusive footage of civilians being killed, civilians being treated like animals. This is one of the things that has angered the Israeli authorities. Our pictures have been carried by other media in the West as well, which has to do with the courage of the reporters and the cameraman who work for us, risking themselves to get at least to part of the story.
I know from listening to the viewers that there's a constant call by the Arab viewers that we need to have a channel in English or other languages to carry our viewpoint or our side of the story to the West, and especially to the United States. Various attempts have been made, here and there, and it's not easy to have access in the crowded media landscape in America. Countries such as France, Germany, Japan, China all want access to tell their sides of the story to the American people too. Even CNN has done various international editions, which tell a specific story that isn't told in the American edition. It's not easy to have access, or to build credibility, to be watched in America.
Sullivan: Has Abu Dhabi discussed undertaking an English channel, an English-language website or other projects?
Dourrachad: We've talked about it, we've discussed ideas and ways to help bring the real stories to the West. We do have one or two news shows carried by Abu Dhabi Television that are in English and directed at Americans, and are also carried by cable networks in various places in the United States. But that's not enough, that's a drop in an ocean. The Internet is one of the tools that can be used as a substitute for a TV channel, it's extremely effective, but that also has to be coupled with a media campaign in different places so people use it, and to build credibility so that people see it as a credible source of news.
Sullivan: Through the past six or seven years of the development of satellite TV news in the Arab world there's been an ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians which has been of great regional importance, but now that's reached a crisis point, a dramatic escalation. Do you think the people in the region, the "Arab street" so to speak, are reacting differently now than they would have during, for example, the first intifada because of the wider access to television news? They see not only live reports but also see reaction from other viewers in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia.
Dourrachad: Definitely. I think the Arab peoples are definitely responding differently, given the fact that at least now they have access to news from various sources, not just Arab stations but also international broadcasters, newspapers, etc., and I think, for example, the outpouring of support you've seen in our telethon yesterday [April 12, to raise money for aid to the Palestinians] was overwhelming.
We've conducted a survey along with Zogby International polling which was just released last Thursday [April 11, 2002] talking about the image of the United States in the Arab world and comparing it with other countries like France, Venezuela, and Muslim countries like Iran. It turned out that overwhelmingly the Arab people like America, like the American people, like the American product, but they don't like American foreign policy, especially regarding the Middle East. There's a feeling that the Arab masses don't like anything American because they associate it with the foreign policies of the government, so it was surprising to us to see the figures.
Sullivan: What was the total amount of money raised in the telethon?
Dourrachad: It was around 210 million dirhams. Inside the UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi TV combined, we've raised something like 350 million dirhams, which is about $100 million dollars. People are reacting. They have at least the freedom to say whatever they want to say, to express their opinions and their views on TV without being censored. It's amazing when you let people express themselves and you see people not only criticizing American policy but also criticizing Arab leaders, criticizing the media. This is our job, to expose these views. It doesn't only have an impact on the people, it also has an impact on the leaders.
Sullivan: I'm sure they're paying a lot of attention to what people are saying on the satellite stations.
Dourrachad: And I'm sure it's narrowed the gap between the leaders and their people—this is a big role the satellite stations are playing currently.
Sullivan: We've discussed the problems you've had with the Israeli authorities in covering the news—have you had problems with Arab governments when you try to cover a particular story?
Dourrachad: Absolutely. We've had a few problems. Without citing any specific examples, I can say that we've had a number of problems with Arab governments. But we were steadfast always and kept doing our job professionally, trying to carry the stories the way we think they should be carried. I think, also, there's a huge shift in the media mentality in the Arab world. Before, the television stations were reporting to the people what the leaders or the authorities were doing. Now, the TV stations are reporting to the leaders, to the governments, what their people think. It's a huge shift.
Sullivan: One of the criticisms that has been directed not necessarily at Abu Dhabi TV but at other media in the Arab region has to do with balanced coverage, especially of an issue that's as emotional and as sensitive as Palestine. How do you make sure you're getting more than one perspective in such a situation? This could mean interviewing Israelis or it could mean, for example, presenting the perspectives of Arab and Palestinian leaders who have spoken out against suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians. Do you cover these points of view?
Dourrachad: Of course. As far as saying that suicide bombers killing civilians is not conducive to peace and is not acceptable, that's something we have almost on a daily basis on our newscasts. We also have Israelis that appear and say things like that. We've interviewed journalists who've worked with the Israeli government, they speak either in Arabic or English to us and give us their side of the story. We interviewed Shimon Peres two or three months ago, an exclusive interview for Abu Dhabi; he went on air and expressed his views on things that were happening at that time. We carry live, uncensored, speeches made by Sharon, with simultaneous interpretation. We've carried Sharon's press conferences. But if we're talking about equating suicide bombings [against Israeli armed forces] with terrorism the way America is doing, we won't find anyone here who will support this.
So when it comes to balancing the views, we leave it up to the viewers to make up their minds. We aren't editorializing in any way on what's happening. It's true that access to the Palestinians in these hard times is much easier, and therefore we do have much more of the Palestinian side of the story that that of the Israelis, because, first, they're hard to get. We resort to talking to Israeli media people, for example, or the government spokesmen or members of the Knesset, on a regular basis. Let's not forget that we're reporting on an extremely sensitive issue, and in spite of all the criticism that we get from viewers who vehemently oppose us featuring any Israeli spokesman or official or even journalist, we do feature these people, we interview them and talk to them. I think we're doing our job.
Sullivan: How have your viewers been responding when they watch this? What have they been saying when they criticize you for these interviews?
Dourrachad: Some people just watch and get that side of the story and deal with it themselves, and some people pick up the phone and call us, and say, why are you talking to the Israelis, you shouldn't talk to the Israelis. We've had guests on our talk shows who raise the issue with us, and say we shouldn't talk to these people, they're killers. In spite of that we've been steadfast, because we believe in carrying the other side of the story, and carrying the statements made by the Israeli government, either live or on tape. This is important for our credibility. People need to know what the Israelis think, what the Americans think, in order to make up their minds.
Having said that, there's one thing I'll be critical of the pan-Arab satellite channels' coverage on. I think in the rush to get the news first, sometimes we fall into reporting either propaganda or false information. This is something that happens in all stations. It's a very difficult balancing act, to report accurate news, objective news, and at the same time be first to report it. I think Al-Jazeera has made mistakes, and undeniably we can't avoid falling into a mistake or two from time to time. This is the business. Even the BBC and CNN make mistakes like these. Overall, I think if we steer away—and it's a very hard thing to do given the circumstances—from editorializing or going tabloid regarding events taking place now in the Middle East, if we can keep an eye on trying to avoid these things we'll be fine. But it's a very tough balancing act, really tough.
Sullivan: That's the price that comes with opening up the media and developing competition—it's the nature of satellite television news, especially with a big breaking story, to try to be first. But don't you think it's more important to have the competition? In a situation where there's competition, even with these drawbacks, the viewers are getting a much better service.
Dourrachad: Sure. And there have been many independent surveys in this region regarding the media and how viewers rate the media. Many have shown that Abu Dhabi TV is number one in news credibility in the Arab world. We've conducted a few surveys ourselves, one of which was done before Ramadan with Zogby International. Several other surveys have been done by Birzeit University and by media groups here in the Middle East. In the Birzeit University survey for example we were number one in news credibility. In others we're either number two after Al-Jazeera or sometimes number one, depending on the countries. This was before Sept. 11; after Sept. 11 I'm sure things have shifted a little bit. Al-Jazeera got a lot of publicity because of their access to Osama bin Laden. That access was denied to us and to all other media organizations in the world. We've been able to catch up, and we had a very solid operation covering the news in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and neighboring countries.
We're one of the few media organizations here in the Middle East that has a two-source rule in general, unless the news comes directly from our correspondent in the field. The BBC applies that rule, and that's why it has high credibility in the news operation. We try to apply this as much as we can. But sometimes there's a breaking story and we go live, and have someone commenting on it—usually a correspondent in the field, but a lot of times it's people who may be biased. We can't avoid it. These are people who are expressing their opinions, and we just report it as is, without censoring. Most of our news is reported live from the scene.
Sullivan: Most of your news is live as a general policy, or in response to the current crisis?
Dourrachad: In response to the crisis. To be honest, we're stretched, just like everybody else, trying to cope with two major issues happening at the same time, Afghanistan and the Middle East. It's not easy. And now another front in Lebanon.
Sullivan: Other than correspondents in the places you just mentioned, where else do you have people on the ground? Where are your major bureaus?
Dourrachad: We have five correspondents in the US, in New York and Washington. We have people in Paris and in London, where we also produce a weekly show dealing with the media. We have of course Afghanistan, both Kabul and Kandahar. Of course, we have people in Jerusalem, Gaza, and Ramallah, and stringers in four other cities. We cover the entire Middle East, basically, with correspondents and bureaus in Cairo, Beirut, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, the Gulf states, Syria, Turkey. We have correspondents in Indonesia, Rome, Moscow, Brussels, Somalia, and elsewhere. Whenever there's a hot spot, we also send in a crew.
Sullivan: You're obviously covering all over the world, but how would you describe the general philosophy of the channel's news coverage? Given that your viewers are Arabic speaking, probably mainly in this region but also Arabic-speaking communities all over the world, do you place primary importance on regional issues as being perhaps the most important issues for your viewers? And how did your news philosophy develop?
Dourrachad: When I came to this channel three and a half years ago I was in charge of the news operation at first. At that time Abu Dhabi TV was heavily, in fact almost exclusively, relying on news agencies such as APTN or WTN, Reuters, AFP, etc. Our correspondents were working for these organizations and sending us reports. What we were putting on air you could see on any other channel; it was a bulk job done for Middle East broadcasters. We decided that wasn't the best way to cover news, that we had to have our own correspondents and bureaus in those places. We started a project which came to fruition, and I listed for you all the places that we're covering—these are exclusive, dedicated reporters and journalists working for Abu Dhabi TV.
I think that seeing the story through their eyes, for Arab viewers, is much more credible and important that what we get through the agencies. The agencies tend to give us stories with a western, either Anglo-centric or American slant. That's something we see on a daily basis, even on the news wires. For example, after the story that happened recently with Jasim Al-Azzawi, we sent out press releases to all the news agencies giving our side of the story. AP chose to say that they were unable to get comments from Abu Dhabi TV. Even when they spoke to us, they interviewed me and interviewed Jasim, they still kept giving the Israeli side of the story more space. There's no doubt that there's always a slant to any story talking about the Middle East. Nobody bothers to work harder, to do their homework, and to carry the Arab views.
Sullivan: If you started working on expanding the news operation three and a half years ago, then you got things off the ground quite quickly. How did you accomplish this?
Dourrachad: There's a great vision from high up. Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed, the chairman of the board of Emirates Media Incorporated, the parent company of Abu Dhabi Television, had a vision a long time ago when he took over the media operation in the UAE. It's basically implementing his directives and his vision about how the channel should operate, with special attention to the news operation. I think it comes down to that kind of guidance and the freedom given to the professionals to do their work. Also the political will at the level of the Emirates—they're very well known for their neutrality. The UAE is one of the few Arab countries with no quarrel with other Arab countries. The UAE is well positioned to be a leader in projecting this type of news operation. And it's teamwork. We've been able to hire quite a large number of professionals in the field, from big broadcasters like the BBC, people with years and years of experience at other renowned networks in the Arab world and around the world. We've been able to gather all these people in the newsroom, and you see the result. Abu Dhabi TV has one of the most professional groups of journalists in the Arab world, at the same level as Al-Jazeera if not more.
Sullivan: How did you recruit people?
Dourrachad: Our job was difficult; we had to rebuild an existing operation and then reevaluate the previous operation. We had to then define a project and the need to have a sound news operation; based on that we went out and started looking for people. In the span of six months we hired around 220 people, including journalists, directors, editors, and technical staff for the news operation and also for Abu Dhabi Television as a whole.
Sullivan: How many hours of news programming do you have a day as compared to other types of programming?
Dourrachad: News and news shows, talk shows that deal with news, are 65 percent of our programming. Right now, with the crisis in Palestine, it's probably around 80 percent. A lot of our entertainment programs haven't been aired since the outbreak of violence. We did the same for Afghanistan—we keep our hand on the pulse of the viewers, and we have a flexibility which is given to us by the chairman of the board, so whenever we think it's warranted that we increase the news side of our operation, we do. That flexibility is one of our trademarks.
Sullivan: That would indicate that the channel as a whole is dedicating quite a bit of resources and attention toward the news operation. Do you envision an all-news channel at some point?
Dourrachad: I think currently we're happy with this formula. We can compete with news channels like Al-Jazeera, and we can compete with general programming channels like MBC and Future and LBC. Even with our entertainment shows, we don't want to just go out and buy ready-made licenses from another broadcaster or from a production house. We create our own productions; the ideas start here and are developed by our own people. We've found ourselves a niche, and we want to stay with that.