November 28, 2012

Arab-American Media

Arab Satellite News

There are numerous Arab satellite channels and networks broadcasting news across the Middle East and North Africa, many of which can be accessed in the United States on websites such as Live Station, as well as over satellite because they are "free-to-air" feeds. Free-to-air programming is transmitted in unencrypted form, allowing anyone with the appropriate equipment to receive the signal and view content without a cable or satellite subscription.[1] This means channels not available from cable or major satellite providers are accessible via free-to-air services. Viewers in the United States are able to pick up the signals from the Arab news channels, usually over satellite Galaxy 19.[2]

Arab news outlets provide information directly from "the homeland" and offer a wide array of content, making it possible for viewers to access specific programming, based on country of origin, political views, or religious affiliation. Siblani said that typically this programming appeals to more recent immigrants who are closely attuned to events in Arab countries.[3]

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya lead the Arab television news business, though it is difficult to get figures on viewership.[4] Exact numbers on their operating budgets are also unknown, but some estimates put the figures in the hundreds of millions.[5]

Al Jazeera was started in 1996 as a television channel with a $150 million grant from the emir of Qatar.[6] By 2010 Al Jazeera had expanded to a network with annual expenditures reaching $650 million, $29 million of that from its subsidiary, Al Jazeera English.[7] In addition to the initial startup grant, the Al Jazeera network "is kept alive by the $100 million it receives annually from the Qatari government," according to journalist, Vivian Salama.[8]

"Al Jazeera was never launched as a profit center," Middle East scholar Abdallah Schleifer told Bloomberg Businessweek. According to two former Al Jazeera employees, after the 2007 financial crisis, Qatar purportedly placed minimal restrictions on what news executives were allowed to spend. When the English-language channel was launched in 2006, there were no budgetary limits and the network was not structured to collect payments from advertising sales. However, the Qatari royal family is now beginning to cut spending for the network’s "English news-gathering efforts," and investing in sports coverage, specifically European soccer.[9]

Al Jazeera English is slowly gaining popularity in the United States. While Arab news channels in the Middle East and North Africa tend to be delivered to U.S. audiences exclusively via satellite or online, Al Jazeera English is also carried by a handful of cable providers-Time Warner Cable, Buckeye Cable, Burlington Telecom, Full Channel, Comcast, and Verizon Fios.[10] The cable markets that have access to Al Jazeera English are New York, N.Y.; Toledo, Ohio; Burlington, Vt.; Bristol, R.I, and the Washington, D.C. region.[11]

Al Jazeera English continues to push for wider inclusion in the cable market.[12] Part of the organization’s argument for inclusion is the number of people turning to its online coverage, specifically during the Arab uprisings. According to the Huffington Post, 60% of the website’s traffic during the height of the protests in Egypt was from the United States.[13]

Al Jazeera English’s target audience is different from its Arabic parent network, Al Jazeera, though both are owned and funded by the Qatari government. The English version is geared towards viewers outside of the Middle East, and provides content that is not exclusively relevant to Arab and Arab diasporic populations. While a demographic breakdown of Al Jazeera English’s audience is unknown, the channel does enjoy brand recognition among Arab-Americans, due to the prevalence of Al Jazeera in the Middle East and North Africa.[14]

Launched in 2003, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya is a news channel on the Middle East Broadcasting Network. Al Arabiya received a $300 million initial investment from the Middle East Broadcasting Network, Lebanon’s Hariri Group, and investors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf States.[15]  Based in the United Arab Emirates, the channel was created to compete with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are more than simply competitors within the Arab news business, though. Arab media scholar Lawrence Pintak noted in a 2011 article that political motives run deep within the outlets’ rivalry. A "battle for regional influence" between Qatar and Saudi Arabia underlies their approaches to covering events.[16]

Initially created as an independent and alternative news source, Al Jazeera has since come under criticism for reflecting Qatar’s regional ambitions.[17] Vivian Salama argues that the massive amount of information available online and from other satellite channels "has exposed gaps in [Al Jazeera’s] reporting of issues that do not fall in line with the [Qatari] government’s agenda, while also highlighting its biases in the various uprisings."[18]

Critics of Al Arabiya have similar accusations, saying it covers events in such a way that furthers the Saudi government’s political interests. In the 2011 independent documentary "Battle for the Arab Viewer," filmmaker Nordin Lasfar examined how the two networks’ coverage of the Egyptian uprisings reflected a rivalry not just for viewers, but also perspective. In the film, professor and broadcast journalist, Hafez al Mirazi, said his show "was taken off Al Arabiya’s airwaves after promising to put Saudi Arabia under the microscope."[19]

Some argue that coverage of the Arab uprisings has exacerbated the politics of Arab satellite news. Former Al Jazeera reporter Ali Hashem wrote in The Guardian that when covering protests in Bahrain, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya "were more interested in regional security than Bahrainis’ dreams of democracy and freedom and their revolt against tyranny."[20]

The outlets have given the Syrian revolt a significant amount of airtime, but again, some observers raised questions about the coverage. Hashem wrote that Al Jazeera did not air footage of gunmen fighting the Syrian regime on the Lebanese-Syrian border because it "didn’t fit the narrative of a clean and peaceful uprising."[21] As Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya compete for viewers, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are utilizing "their media assets to hasten Assad’s demise," according to Syrian journalist and pro-democracy activist Malik al-Abdeh.[22]

The political tension in the Middle East and North Africa is not only apparent in Arab outlets. It also transfers over to the relationship between Arab-American communities and their news media. As Arab-American outlets step in to provide news about the ongoing unrest and political upheaval back home, they can fill a void left by the mainstream U.S. news media, whose reporters are no longer in those countries. However, they are also faced with the challenge of covering politically and religiously charged events within a diverse community. The growing use of social media in accessing and disseminating information presents another interrelationship-one between the events in Arab countries, Arab-American media outlets, and the Arab-American community at large.


Footnotes

[1] "Free to Air TV." PC Magazine Encyclopedia

[2] The content aired on Galaxy 19 used to be broadcast over Galaxy 25. A list of channels available in the U.S. can be

found at Free to Air Satellite Channels in the U.S.

[3] Siblani, Osama. Interview with PEJ. Aug. 24, 2012.

[4] Al-Abdeh, Malik. "The Media War in Syria." The Majalla. Oct. 4, 2012.

Kivelin, Ian. Interview with PEJ. Aug. 29, 2012.

Siblani, Osama. Interview with PEJ. Aug. 24, 2012.

[5] Sultan Al-Qassemi. "Breaking the Arab News." Foreign Policy. August 2, 2012

[6] Sultan Al-Qassemi. "Breaking the Arab News." Foreign Policy. August 2, 2012.

[7] Hamp, Andrew. "Al Jazeera English Looks to Build Audience Before Ads." Advertising Age Global. June

13, 2011 in Sultan Al-Qassemi. "Breaking the Arab News." Foreign Policy. August 2, 2012.

[8] Salama, Vivian. "Al-Jazeera’s (R)Evolution?" Jadaliyya. May 20, 2012.

[9] Nicholson, Chris V., Matthew Campbell, Tariq Panja, and Caroline Richenberg. "The New Al Jazeera: More ESPN, Less CNN." Bloomberg Businessweek. Sept. 27, 2012.

[10] "How to Watch Al Jazeera English on TV" Al Jazeera English. Last Modified April 30, 2012.

Stelter, Brian. "Al Jazeera English Arrives on N.Y. Cable." Aug. 1, 2011.

[11] Al Jazeera English. "Demand Al Jazeera in the USA."

[12] Al Jazeera English. "Demand Al Jazeera in the USA."

[13] Grim, Ryan. "Al Jazeera English Blacked Out Across Most of U.S." Huffington Post. May 5, 2011.

[14] Ali, Lorraine and Marisa Guthrie. "Why American Cable Systems Won’t Carry the Al Jazeera Network." The Hollywood Reporter. March 17, 2011.

[15] Feuilherade, Peter. "Profile: Al-Arabiya TV." BBC News.November 25, 2003. 

[16] Pintak, Lawrence. "Breathing Room: Towards a New Arab Media." Columbia Journalism Review.

May/June 2011.

[17] Sabbagh, Dan. "Al-Jazeera’s Political Independence Questioned Amid Qatar Intervention." The Guardian.

Sept. 30, 2012.

[18] Salama, Vivian. "Al-Jazeera’s (R)Evolution?" Jadaliyya. May 20, 2012.

[19] Icarus Films. Synopsis of "The Battle for the Arab Viewer." Directed by Nordin Lasfar. 2012.

[20] Hashem, Ali. "The Arab Spring has Shaken Arab TV’s Credibility." The Guardian.

[21] Hashem, Ali. "The Arab Spring has Shaken Arab TV’s Credibility." The Guardian.

[22] Al-Abdeh, Malik. "The Media War in Syria." The Majalla. Oct. 4, 2012.