Media wars

ARAB STATES have reacted to Israel’s plan to launch a new Arabic-language TV channel with the announcement of their own proposal for a satellite channel to promote the Arab point of view in English and other languages.

Israel’s minister without portfolio, Ra’anan Cohen, announced in June that the new satellite station, to be established under the auspices of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), will broadcast news and current affairs programmes in English and Arabic, targeting viewers in the Middle East and Europe.

“I want to form an English and Arabic channel immediately to create a forum for the Israeli viewpoint and public discourse in the Middle East and beyond,” Cohen told the Jerusalem Post.

“The goal is to reach many more people in their native language with a serious amount of time, and not just 15 minutes a day.”

The IBA’s existing Channel 1 will continue to carry Hebrew-language programming, while Channel 3 will become a “multicultural” station, programming in Russian and Amharic, as well as some English. Israel’s new channel is expected to be on the air by the end of 2001 and fully operational by 2002, eventually broadcasting around the clock. The Arabic-language programming is intended to compete with the enormously popular Qatar-based station Al Jazeera.

“We have abandoned the Arab street to unrestrained propaganda and incitement,” Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin told Reuters, while the Jerusalem Post noted that Prime Minister Sharon also supports the creation of an Israeli satellite channel for propaganda purposes.

Not to be outdone by Israel’s strategy, Arab information ministers meeting in Lebanon decided to set up an Arab satellite station to broadcast in English and other languages.

“The channel will present Arab issues and stances within the context of modern media rhetoric”, Beirut’s al-Safir newspaper reported.

In an editorial that reflected the widely held perception among Arabs that the Western media is predominantly pro-Israel, Egypt’s al-Ahram newspaper accused Western media of bias for remaining “silent about Palestinian victims” of the intifada but prominently reporting “the losses of the Zionists”.

It also expressed suspicion regarding the motives behind Israel’s new channel, asking: “Does Israel want to use this new satellite channel to sell the Arab public its policies and defend its positions? Or does it want to launch media campaigns against Arab regimes, drive wedges between Arab states, monitoring mistakes and vulnerabilities to incite Arab people against their rulers?”

But the Arab media is itself far from united and Al-Jazeera is frequently criticized for broadcasting interviews with Israeli officials. In June, in remarks cited by the Syrian news agency SANA, Syrian Information Minister Adnan Umran accused “some of our Arab media” of “helping the Zionist viewpoint in methods of disinformation under the slogan of presenting different views”, while “Israeli media are closed to the Arab viewpoint”.

In recent months, Hizbullah’s al-Manar station has stepped up its anti-Israeli propaganda with regular broadcasts in English, Hebrew, Russian and Arabic with explicit footage demonstrating that Israel is not safe for tourists or settlers. The station claims with some authority to be “the first Arab establishment to stage effective psychological warfare against the Zionist enemy”.

Now al-Manar plans to start a satellite channel broadcasting in Hebrew. Its director-general, Naif Kurayyim, claims that “the aim of our message is to encourage the Jews’ reverse immigration and expose Zionist deceit and lies. Just like those Jews came to Palestine in response to huge Zionist propaganda, they can be sent back to other areas of the world with counter-propaganda,” Kurayyim believes.

But he admits that al-Manar currently lacks the funding to turn his plans into reality.

In Israel itself, some critics have warned that the new channel threatens to draw the Jewish state closer to the culture of state domination over the media that prevails in much of the Arab world.

A commentary in Ha’aretz argued that “certainly nothing useful will come of it… If Israel wants to go on being a role model, especially in the Middle East, it cannot adopt patterns of information guidance of the sort the public in the Arab states wants to rid itself of.”

But the media remains a crucial force in shaping the Palestinian uprising and both Israel and the Arab countries appear determined to mobilize it in their favour.