BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rarely have Western news organizations wooed Arab hearts and minds so avidly — or with so little certainty of political or commercial reward.
Freed by satellite television and the Internet from the dreary monopoly of state media, Arabs already get news in their own language from a plethora of local and foreign sources.
Western media outfits, most with public funding and partly political motives, are racing to add more Arabic TV channels and Web sites to the mix, undeterred by scant advertising revenue.
Jihad Ballout, spokesman for the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television, said competition was welcome, giving more choice to consumers, but argued that from a business perspective the TV market was saturated. “The pie is quite limited,” he said.
Ballout, whose own channel was set up with Saudi financing, questioned why foreign media groups were planning big investments that were likely to take years to see a return.
“Is it purely to reflect a different perspective, and whose perspective will it be?” he asked.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) plans to launch an Arabic TV channel in the autumn. Germany’s Deutsche Welle has aired three hours daily of Arabic news and features since 2002.
France’s planned CNN-style channel expects to start an Arabic component next year. Even the Danish Broadcasting Corporation says it is contemplating news in Arabic.
Russia Today, a state-run English-language television channel, has announced plans for an Arabic version.
“It will definitely not be political,” asserted Akram Khuzam, the venture’s general producer, before adding: “Television is influence. Why should Russia ignore this instrument, especially in such a restive region?”
A powerful tool it may be, but the challenge for any foreign news organization will be to gain credibility in an area where distrust for Western policies is deep-rooted and flourishing — and where the airwaves are already brimming with alternatives.
“There’s a real cacophony of media in the region. Even poor neighborhoods in Damascus have satellite dishes,” said Ali Abunimah, who runs Electronic Intifada (electronicintifada.net) to promote Palestinian views on the Middle East conflict.
“Even in a country as restricted as Syria, there is enormous access to media from elsewhere,” said the 34-year-old Jordanian based in Chicago. “That challenges the U.S. stereotype of a controlled media where people don’t know any better.”
Polls show the channel of choice in most Arab homes is still the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, which blazed to success after it went on air in 1996 with its combination of hard news, slick format and talk shows that broke taboos in the Arab world.
While its Arab perspective delighted an audience sometimes irritated — or simply not reached — by CNN or BBC World, Al Jazeera offended Arab governments by giving dissidents a platform and hosting often raucous political debates.
Saudi Arabia hit back with Al Arabiya. Now Arab governments from Abu Dhabi to Mauritania have their own satellite stations, as do some Lebanese factions such as Hizbollah.
Al Jazeera, which plans to launch its own English channel this year, also upset Washington by airing statements from al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks.
As Arab anger mounted over the Iraq war and U.S. support for Israel, the Americans launched Al Hurra (the Free One) Arabic TV station in 2004 to cut through what President George W. Bush called “the barriers of hateful propaganda” in the Middle East.
A poll published by the University of Maryland last year showed Al Hurra was the least watched of eight Arabic networks. Hizbollah’s al-Manar channel did little better. Al Jazeera led with 65 percent of viewers, trailed by Al Arabiya on 34 percent.
The survey, conducted in October with pollsters Zogby International, did its research in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Can new Western entrants add value for Arab viewers?
Lawrence Pintak, director of the American University in Cairo’s Adhem Center for Electronic Journalism, said BBC Arabic TV might be best-placed to win over an Arab public skeptical of Western “public diplomacy” and jaded by media overload.
“The BBC brings a lot of credibility,” he said, citing the track record of the BBC’s Arabic radio service, for decades a listening habit for Arabs seeking independent news.
Competitors suggest that the BBC’s Arabic venture, directly funded by the Foreign Office, may be tarnished by the British government’s decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Johannes Hoffmann, spokesman for Deutsche Welle, said Arab viewers perceived the German station, unlike the U.S. or British media, as independent and objective. “After all, we were not one of the warring parties (in Iraq),” he said.
Abunimah said anything that smacked of propaganda would fall flat among Arabs tired of being treated as if they were stupid.
“We don’t need more documentaries about Denmark without addressing the political divides (between Arabs and the West).”
Foreign media eyeing the Arab world should complement their coverage with “an honest acknowledgement of what is at the root of the divisions — anger at the policy choices of Western governments and intolerance in Western societies,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in Berlin, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai and Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow)