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“Watching the War” in the Arab World

If we asked Arab audiences a question about watching TV during the war on Iraq and where they got their war news and how much of their news came from the national terrestrial channels, the answer would most probably be "satellite television" for the first question and "some" for the second. The truth is that very few Arabs watched their national TV channels for war news and most tuned to Al Jazeera coming out of Qatar, Al Arabiya coming out of Dubai, Nile News coming out of Cairo, and Abu Dhabi coming out of the United Arab Emirates. Although many Arab national channels are broadcast on Arab satellites, these channels were not popular during the war as news media, as they lacked credibility in reporting both national and international news. Many will say that the all-news satellite channels broadcast in Arabic attracted only elite Arab viewers. In fact, that was not the case; Arab satellite news channels are now watched by Arabs from all levels of society - the elite in their homes and the lower classes at the neighborhood "ahwa," or coffeeshop.

Arab information media have always been closely tied to politics. Television in most Arab countries is typically a monopoly under direct government supervision, operation and ownership. The main reason for this authoritarian approach is that these media reach beyond borders and literacy barriers and that the government therefore has a much greater interest in controlling them or at least keeping them out of hostile hands. News media, therefore, in this context, serves only the government, and the news in this broadcasting system is usually defined as "protocol news," looking at war from the political agenda of the leadership of the Arab country.

War news-the buildup to the war, the actual fighting, the tearing down of Saddam's statues and pictures, talk shows and debates, news analysis, images of demonstrations from around the world-took over television households in the Middle East. Transnational television succeeded in the very first moment of war on Iraq in creating an overall feeling of fear and worry. Arab transnational television coverage of the war has already been playing an important role in the conflict, increasing public anger towards America and Britain.

War became an obtrusive part of the daily agenda of people. Watching television was no longer a luxury, a way to pass time and be entertained. Under the onslaught of events, Arab families were in an undeclared state of emergency. In the countryside, the living room, where the television was located, became the focal point of the home, where food was prepared, clothes washed, and children bathed, in addition to receiving guests. Coffee shops offering access to transnational stations were turned into news cafes, with even employees taking extended breaks to watch the news. Iraqi events clouded the mood of many Egyptian families. Egyptian families would sit in front of their television for hours after they came home in the evening, following news of the war, minute by minute, often changing channels from Al Jazeera to Al Arabiya to Nile News channel and back again. They would then compare and contrast the information they had with friends to check on what they had missed. Much of the footage and visuals were horrifying to watch as networks focused on the killed and the wounded. Many Egyptians felt almost compelled to watch, however, or risk being accused of indifference and passiveness toward fellow Arabs.

The public was in a state of high alert. Schools closed of fear on uncontrolled demonstrations, activities and public events were cancelled either in sympathy or fear, the public stockpiled supplies, and talk of war dominated both public and private discussion. The daily routine of the Egyptian public changed. Egyptian viewers started to gain interest in watching news, current events, and political programs flickering through the different satellite news channels available for the first time during a time of war.

From the beginning, all Arab transnational television looked at the American troops and coalition as invaders and not as liberators. Arab satellite news channels used nearly the same perspective and approach in describing the American military. TV war coverage and expressions filled Arab households, factories, business, coffee shops, and schools. The war on Iraq became the theme of many cultural products that were produced throughout the country.

Arab television has a strong tie with Arab culture. Arab literature-poetry, tales and stories-predated mass media by more than a millennium and had developed a very rich tradition by the time the first television program broadcast on the air. Historical, religious, geographical, political and linguistic bonds tied Arab countries through cultural products. This tradition continued during the war, with hit songs by popular singers like Shaaban Abdel Reheem, who produced an album titled Al Harb ala l Iraq or the "War on Iraq"-a song that, though massively popular on tape, it did not make it to either satellite or terrestrial television! Talk shows have also become very popular since of the introduction of television to the Arab region in the sixties and the seventies. At that time, most of the Arab regimes used television as a propaganda tool to promote the ideology and national image. The talk shows that were presented to Arab viewers at the time were derived from popular radio programs. Recently, the trend has been to include more controversial opinions, to compete with popular talk shows, and have gained in popularity. During the Iraq war, talk shows on both terrestrial and satellite television dealt almost exclusively with criticism of the American administration, the "clash of civilizations," various conspiracy theories, and other issues related to the invasion.

Broadcast news is important in Egypt because of its regional position and the fluctuating nature of political alignments in the Arabic-speaking area. It was important for the government to maintain a strong news front to present its particular point of view. This was particularly reflected in Egypt's Nile News network, a network that was popular in producing soft news and documentaries in the region but competed fiercely during the war on Iraq to have a hold over Egyptian audiences. News broadcasts included a segment of "commentary," when there was some special concern to be articulated. From these news broadcasts, as well as other programs, it was clear to the viewer that the political line of the Egyptian president opposing the war was frequently visited.

Although many Arab kings, presidents, and emirs had indicated at the beginning of the war that they are with the Iraqi people and called for stopping the war, their political messages were confounded by Saddam Hussein who called for an "Islamic Jihad" against the American and the British aggression. This message was frequently repeated in promos and/or combined in certain cases with readings from the Koran and religious commentaries or advice on proper moral and ethical behavior which made it extremely appealing to the Arab Muslim mind and heart, winning the propaganda war against the coalition. Many of the Arab viewers were affected by this message and were delighted to watch the American and British war plans damaged or their soldiers killed. Audiences shared many of the same feelings since news networks broadcast the war from the same Arab perspective.

The Iraqi information minister, Mohamed Saeed Al Sahhaf, was a popular charismatic personality who fed Arab transnational television with misinformation about Iraqi military power. Arab audiences tended to believe him at first since the Iraqi resistance proved stronger than expected and the US administration's prediction that the war would be won over a long weekend proved incorrect. Al Sahhaf was one of the most powerful and influential personalities to appear on Arab transnational broadcast media during the war.

The reports that came out of the transnational Arabic broadcasting media platform gave viewers a feeling of immediacy with the people of Umm Al Qasr, Basra, and Baghdad and contributed to building a sense of solidarity and unity with the Iraqi people and sentiment against the Americans and the British. The emotionally gripping pictures of the war had a huge impact on Egyptian viewers. Egyptian families became emotionally involved, expressing waves of rage, disgust, and anger at seeing pictures of Iraqi bodies torn to pieces littered everywhere, bloodshed, and the destruction of Arab cities and population centers. The image of an American flag draped over Saddam Hussein's statue was transmitted to tens of millions of Arab viewers and contributed to a sense of the humiliation of their Arab brothers and their fears of American imperialism. This is an excellent example of the power of transnational satellite broadcasts-one soldier makes an individual gesture and an entire region watches in astonishment.

Arab national/ terrestrial television broadcasting over all performance was better that it was in covering wars or conflicts before, the quality of the news and news programs were more suitable and the usual protocol news was kept at minimum since the competition with transnational broadcasting channel was very fierce and officials were afraid to lose their entire audiences to this platform. In Saudi Arabia, as in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates the percentage of satellite households is larger than in Egypt. Every day, audiences in these countries seek a wrap-up of events from transnational broadcasting media. The Saudis tuned to their new, 24-hour news network. Al Arabiya, which comes out of the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) has quickly established a reputation for relatively unbiased reporting and accuracy. The Saudi news network reported the news from an Arab perspective.

In many of the Arab states, the news coverage of 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel used the radio as the means to communicate war news and events. In the first Gulf War, radio also was the main player, though television gained a foothold over audiences as the government allowed free access to CNN for the first time. During the second Gulf War, CNN played a significant role in informing the world audience in general but only a secondary role with Arab audiences as they looked to the new Arab transnational broadcast for what they perceived as less biased coverage as well as coverage in Arabic. Some experts say that Arab audiences started to watch real war coverage during the Afghan war, and they had become accustomed to watching pictures of the dead and wounded through coverage of the Palestinian Intifada. The contrast between CNN and the Arab media was highlighted by their approach to photos of war casualties. CNN rarely showed photos of the dead and wounded, focusing instead on military movements and strategies. The Arab transnational media were running a grueling competition to choose the most spine-chilling pictures of torn faces and chests. US governments condemned the Arab media for using these images, and the Arab media condemned the US for refusing to broadcast the images, saying that the Americans looked at war as a video game and needed to see the result of their choice to invade.

In Syria, as in Jordan and Lebanon, coffeehouses, restaurants and nightclubs of all kinds provided a special place for TV to give clients the opportunity to watch the satellite channels' live transmissions from Baghdad, which included footage of the Allied bombardment as well as news updates. The outrage generated by the war coverage prompted the first significant anti-war demonstrations in Arab capitals in general and in Damascus in particular. The words and vocabulary of war and its machines-"shock and awe," "WMD," "Mother of All Bombs," "Operation Iraqi Freedom," "'uluj" (running animals), the last a favorite of Mohamed Saeed Al Sahhaf-created a new language, as well as a number of jokes, over the Internet, in homes and in streets and parks.

Arab audiences-as opposed to Western audiences-had the benefit of being able to hear both the Arab side and the American side, given the ease of access to American satellite channels in the Middle East; most Americans do not have ease of access and delivery to Arab transnational television coverage. As the popularity of CNN faded and that of the Arab networks rose, the BBC gained English-speaking Arab viewers as a relatively impartial alternative.

The broadcasting media scene in the Arab world has been particularly encouraging during the crisis-and in this respect Arab broadcast media organizations have performed in a much better way than expected and in comparison to many Western media organizations. It was obvious that the government media is not performing as well as the transnational broadcast media, and there was a significant gap between the coverage of any Arab government media outlet that and the Al Jazeera network, Al Arabiya, Nile News channel and Abu Dhabi television. It was a surprise not only to the Arab media scholars but also to the world to see these new Arabic transnational television channels providing good coverage of the war and playing a pivotal role in shaping the public perceptions of the US-led campaign in Iraq. It was particularly gratifying to the public to see images from Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi used by Western media outlets.

The overall performance of the transnational broadcasting media in this war is better by far than their coverage of previous conflicts. They have made a new mark in providing viewers across the Arab World with information during the war. Yes, there maybe were mistakes with approaches and message, yet they succeeded in building television viewership throughout the region, creating new demand for news analysis and discussion, and establishing a reputation for credibility never before experienced in the history of broadcasting in the Middle East. 

About Hussein Amin

Hussein Amin is the director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism and Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

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