Intifada Live: Arab Satellite TV Coverage of the Al-Aqsa Intifada
The footage of a Palestinian boy, Mohammad al-Durrah, shot dead in his father's lap, broadcast by all Arab satellite TV stations several times a day during the first month of the Intifada, attracted viewers' attention and inflamed anti-Israeli sentiments. Then, on April 6, 2002, Israel expelled the Abu Dhabi anchor and executive producer Jassem al-Azzawi, claiming biased coverage (TBS 2002). These are just two examples of the impact of Arab satellite TV coverage of the al-Aqsa Intifada.
While the1991 Gulf War was the first real-time televised conflict, brought to audiences by CNN, the second Palestinian Intifada can also claim a "first": The first televised conflict where Arab transnational TV sets the agenda for Arab (and often Israeli) audiences - the first comprehensive indigenous coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
This can be compared to the 1987 Palestinian Intifada, when all international and regional events were reported by Arab government-controlled services on a limited basis (Ayish 2001). Television broadcasters during the current Intifada appear convinced that, to attract viewer loyalty, they should be in line with their political expectations about national and regional issues, particularly concerning Palestine.
This paper focuses on Arab satellite TV coverage of the second Intifada, based on a newscast content analysis, and the author's own observations of coverage during different periods of the Intifada, especially during peaks of the confrontation, with an emphasis on al-Jazeera.
I suggest that, despite the new professionalism and sleek visuals of Arab satellite TV, the handling of perceived pan-Arab concerns, such as the Palestinian Intifada, indicates a preference for appealing to audiences over journalistic objectivity.

Theoretical Background

Until the early '90s, TV broadcasting in the Arab world was based on a government monopoly model, which derived from the notion of broadcasting as a tool of national development that should be under government control. Under this model, broadcasting functioned as a tool of government propaganda, rather than as an independent source of information (Boyd 1993, Karram 1999, Ayish 2001). Operating within ministries of information, television organizations were funded almost exclusively from national budgets, and their employees were viewed as part of the public-sector bureaucracy. This was reflected by both broadcasting techniques and content.
Nightly newscasts were the major component of television journalism, and they were dull and monolithic in format, content, and delivery. Television news editors selected their topics with a view guided mainly by existing political, social, and cultural arrangements. Political news dealing with leadership speeches, official visits, and protocol activities always topped Arab world TV news agendas. Other news coverage on Arab television was dominated by government sources (Karram 1999). News formats were characterized by serious and formal delivery methods. The visual potential of television news was barely evident, neither was the coverage of domestic issues outside the government agendas. In its basic configuration, a newscast was a lineup of either very long items dealing with leadership news or very short items dealing with regional and international developments. Outside broadcasts were hardly used, as the newscast drew on studio delivery (Sakr 2000). Such a single-channel environment provided viewers with limited exposure to regional and international television from neighboring countries and around the world.
In this context, the natural order of Arab terrestrial TV was to mute the Palestinian problem while emphasizing the particular regime leader's efforts to end it. This is a much analyzed, much commented-upon theme in Arab journalism and politics: Never show the Palestinian problem to be bigger than the leader who claims to speak and act on behalf of Palestinians.
In September 1991, Arab audiences had their first taste of private satellite television when MBC went on the air from studio facilities in London with Western-style programming. More private broadcasters followed suit: Orbit in 1994 and ART in 1995, both owned by Saudi businessmen based in Italy, LBC and Future Television, both Lebanese, in 1995, and al-Jazeera from Qatar in 1996. By the end of 2002 there were more than 150 Arab satellite TV stations, either government or privately owned, capable of reaching every Arabic speaker in the world (Rinnawi, forthcoming). These services brought to Arab homes not only a wider range of program choices, but new programming genres that continue to be distinctive features of Arab television screens. The main implication of this development has been a dwindling of government channel audiences and fiercer competition with print media for limited advertising revenues.
The launching of Arab transnational commercial television has broadened viewers' programming choices and also provided access to new formats and styles rarely used in government-monopolized television. Professional rather than political considerations seem to be the driving force behind news at private stations keen on establishing a foothold in a highly competitive media market. For private stations, what makes news is a host of values that relate to the event or issue and its significance for the audience. To this end, private broadcasters have invested heavily in news development by introducing state-of-the-art technologies and establishing far-flung networks of reporters and correspondents. The visual capabilities of television are highly utilized, with rich graphics and video materials, as well as sleek delivery formats.

Al Aqsa Intifada Coverage

During the second Intifada, Arab satellite TV has been characterized by intense coverage of the conflict during news hours, although in most cases the usual programming schedule has not been altered (except during peaks of confrontation, such as in October 2000 and April 2002). The exceptions to this have been al-Jazeera, al-Manar (Lebanon) and New TV.
The coverage of the conflict reflects the interests of satellite television stations, not only in conveying newsworthy events to their viewers, but also in underscoring their desire to bring the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation to the attention of Arab world audiences.
Objectivity, in the sense of balanced reporting of conflicting views, seems to be virtually non-existent. A case in point is the use of the term "martyr" for Palestinians killed by Israeli fire, while Israelis are referred to as aggressors. Although al-Jazeera and MBC draw on Israeli sources for information on developments in the Occupied Territories, and feature Israeli personalities on their news programs, the way those sources are handled by news anchors reflects a clear disenchantment with Israel's excessive use of force against Palestinian civilians.
Ayish's research on the five Arab transnational TV stations shows that anti-Israel items were reported by all five services, with the highest number of negative items reported by SSC (Syrian Satellite Channel), Abu Dhabi (Abu Dhabi Satellite Channel) and al-Jazeera (Ayish 2001). This supportive attitude towards Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation reflects the commitment of transnational Arab TV to furthering the Palestinian cause.
Arab satellite TV has also promoted a transformation of the Intifada to "al-Aqsa Intifada," finding its center of concern in preserving an Arab Jerusalem - a useful, perhaps unconscious move in appealing to a pan-Arab, mostly Muslim audience. The latest Intifada began in the al-Aqsa compound, encouraging pan-Arab identification with the Palestinian side of the conflict.
Arab satellite TV has also encouraged emotional reflection on the Intifada. Songs about the Intifada and Jerusalem have been repeatedly broadcast on all the Arab satellite channels. Even the Lebanese channels like Future, New TV, and MTV, which usually present light variety programs, have broadcast these types of songs, with pictures of Mohammad al-Durrah, funerals and corpses of victims in the background (El-Tounsy 2002). During peak times of conflict, nationalist movies meant to remind Arabs of their dignity are aired, such as "Nasser 56." Feature films and documentaries on the Palestinian cause were also broadcast. All Arab satellite stations have at some stage designated an "Open Day" for the Intifada to fundraise for Palestinians. Programs are run under passionate slogans such as "The Massacre" on MBC, "All of Us are Palestine" on Abu Dhabi, or "For Your Sake" on the Abu Dhabi and Emirates channels.
El-Tounsy (2002) points out that, during the Defensive Shield operation in April 2002, most Arab satellite stations, with the exception of the Egyptian, Jordanian, Kuwaiti and Saudi channels, seemed to voice the views of their peoples. This was manifest in escalating talk about the inefficacy of the Arab regimes and the call for boycotting Israeli and American products and for using oil as a weapon.

Content Analysis of Newscasts

News Items: During a two-month period focusing on al-Jazeera news, pro-Arab and pro-Islamic attitudes were reflected in 41 items out of a total of 86, with 24 on the Intifada. Intifada items were normally on the newscast promo, and were the leading or second item. In six of eight al-Jazeera newscasts, the Intifada was the opening item. In 21 of the 24 items on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, covert and overt anti-Israeli reporting was evident.
News Format: Twenty nine percent of al-Jazeera newscast items dealing with the Intifada used the report format, while only 17 percent used the voice-over format, reflecting the strength of al-Jazeera's journalists and a minimal reliance on news agencies to provide pictures and news texts.
Attitudes Toward Selected Political Players: Besides extensive media coverage through newscasts of the issues of the Palestinian Intifada, al-Jazeera covered these events with a clear editorial position. This was expressed by different parameters: time given for these issues and language used by anchors and reporters in describing events or giving reports using superlatives and different sets of terms, which tended to be unbalanced on behalf of the Palestinian side.
Air Time: Al-Jazeera lets people speak for longer than other good news and current affairs stations would allow, particularly in live interviews. In particular, it virtually gives a free platform to the PA and local leaders. This is not a flaw in and of itself - clearly Arab audiences are willing to hear such people speak if al-Jazeera has continued to use this policy. However, Israeli spokespeople and "antagonistic" parties are not normally provided a free platform or a sympathetic host asking simple questions.
Who Speaks - Official Voices: Whether due to the sensitivities of Israeli army spokespeople appearing on camera, problems of access to their physical locations or a perceived unimportance, Israeli sources are cited far less frequently than Palestinian sources, and when they are cited they are usually juxtaposed with what Palestinians have said. Al-Jazeera could do more to include more Israeli voices, to actually allow their faces to appear more frequently on screen and to allow them more time to speak. Allowing Israelis to speak on al-Jazeera seems to be the individual prerogative of al-Jazeera reporters, rather than station policy.

How Facts Become Facts

Gathering facts is a precarious business in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While many Anglo-European journalists tend to head straight for the IDF offices to check with English speakers on Palestinian deaths, occasionally rounded down to the lowest believable figure, without a name, story or history, al-Jazeera heads for opposite logical sources: hospitals and civil society institutions. However, Palestinian institutions, such as hospitals, Red Crescent workers and eyewitnesses, do make mistakes, although they are the best first point of contact.

Context and Binaries

Individual Arab satellite TV journalists have tended to create a background with subtle binaries indicating who is right and wrong, who is most likely to tell the truth, and conversely, to lie, and who the victims and aggressors are. In terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, these assumptions are easily built into the audience's own worldview, based on their own backgrounds, and the fact that the journalist is one of them. Satellite TV journalists reporting from the Israel-Palestinian conflict are, indeed, Palestinians who live the circumstances they report.
When Walid al-Omari is reporting, and a missile lands close by, this is not scripted (although it will inevitably be included in the final edit). Or when Shirin Abu 'Aqleh is literally marooned in the al-Jazeera office in Ramallah, reporting for 12 to 18 hours a day because the other journalists cannot leave their houses, and she receives a fax that soldiers have entered the building and are stationed on the floor beneath her, there is a sense of immediacy, legitimacy and feeling to the reports. This creates given binaries, emphasized through the very circumstances al-Jazeera reporters live, and then through background reports.

It is in this context that al-Jazeera is often accused of sensationalism: reporting live from funerals, sites of conflict, filming dead bodies and the ubiquitous checkpoints dividing up Palestinian territories and lives. Ayish (2001) uses the example of the footage (played and replayed) of the Palestinian child Mohammed Al-Durrah being shot dead while cowering in his father's lap, which was used to attract viewers' attention and inflame anti-Israeli sentiments. Ajami (2001) argues that the second Intifada was a Godsend for al-Jazeera, with attractive visual shots of masked Palestinian boys aiming slingshots and stones at Israeli soldiers, making for compelling television.
While most observers of the Arab media argue the new transnational media is a positive development, and will improve the negative image of Israel among Arab audiences, I suggest that this medium is strengthening a negative image of Israel, making the conflict more salient and live through sensationalism in the short term. However, in the long term, a process of normalization has already begun, which, once the conflict abates, will continue to work to create a spirit of openness about Israel - both negative and positive but, essentially, placing Israel firmly in Arab consciousness and on the Arab political map.

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