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July 27, 2004

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Arab Networks Compete For News and Viewers
at Democratic Convention

By Seth Effron And Henry Rafael
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

BOSTON -- At the political conventions four years ago, Arab language television didn’t get much notice or attention.

This year, before the convention started, there was an uproar about whether the Al Jazeera network could post a banner from its skybox booth in the upper level of the Fleet Center. Democratic convention officials asked that it be removed -- claiming that there wasn’t enough room for all of the banners.

Al Jazeera’s booth is positioned in such a way that when television cameras -- focused on the podium and speakers -- go to wide shots, the network’s banner would be on prominent display.

“They approved the original sign and everything,” said Hafez al-Mizari, Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief. Every time the network asked why the banner was removed, "we get a different answer.” In a statement, Peggy Wilhide, the convention spokeswoman, said, “our first priority is putting a convention on, not advertising the media.”

Stephanie Thomas, the bureau manager for external affairs at Al Jazeera, said the sign flap has helped the network get attention, but now it is ready to spend time covering the convention.

Following the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, interest in Arab-language news media -- and how U.S. policies and politics are portrayed by these news outlets -- has gone from nonexistent to the subject of major film documentaries and media analysis.

Here in Boston, three Arab language networks are competing for coverage and viewers. While Al Jazeera, based in Qatar, claims to be the network with the most viewers and greatest resources, Dubai-based Al Arabiya, which says it is a close contender to Al Jazeera, and the U.S. government-funded Alhurra TV/Radio Sawa are scrambling to attract viewers and break news.

All the networks are planning live convention coverage, along with interviews and live reports during the day.

“We’ll be carrying the whole convention live, simultaneously translated into Arabic,” said Mouafac Harb, director of network news for Alhurra. "We’ll do a recap in the prime time [for the Middle East] and a talk show from the convention site. … This will be the first time a convention is broadcast into the Arab world, in Arabic, real time.” The network will provide similar coverage for the Republican convention.

All of the Arab-language networks are working with U.S.-based news operation such as ABC and APTN (the television service of The Associated Press) for satellite uplinks and other technical support. Al Jazeera has 16 of its staff here, while Alhurra has eight staffers and Al Arabiya has six. Al Jazeera covered both the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2000.

Lukman Ahmed, Al Arabiya’s Washington correspondent, said a portion of its coverage will focus on Arab-American delegates at the convention: who are they, where they are from and their view on U.S. and international policies and politics. The Arab American Institute says there are 43 Arab-American delegates representing 25 states.

Al Jazeera says it has about 40 million viewers in the Middle East. But, according to Thomas, it also has a growing audience in the United States, where it is available by subscription through Dish Network and has about 300,000 subscribers. (Precise numbers for Middle Eastern viewers for all three networks aren't officially tracked and therefore aren't available.)

Monday morning, the Al Jazeera broadcast trailer was abuzz with word that filmmaker Michael Moore, who has a hit documentary in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” agreed to an interview that evening.

With its growing audience in the United States, Thomas said, Al Jazeera coverage isn’t simply about presenting the convention and political news to a non-American audience but also providing news and context to its total estimated 1.5 million U.S. viewers. “Our coverage will be comprehensive and multisided,” she said. “We think there will be more Arab Americans watching than the audience in the Middle East because of the time difference.”

The 11 p.m. news in the Middle East will be broadcast at 4 p.m. in Boston -- when there won’t be any live convention activities. But the network will broadcast live from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Boston time with convention coverage, in-studio guests and interviews for U.S. viewers. All together Thomas estimates that Al Jazeera will provide about four hours of convention coverage nightly.

Still, the networks are well aware that, for many of their viewers, U.S. politics and campaigning are alien and can seem bizarre.

Since January Al Jazeera has been broadcasting a weekly one-hour show that seeks to explain the basics and subtleties of the American political system and election campaigns. Alhurra, which launched last February, started a similar weekly show last week.

“The fact that we’ve been producing a one-hour weekly talk show explaining aspects of the electoral process since late January" has helped viewers, Thomas said. “If someone has been watching since then, they will be equipped with the information they need for understanding the process and the context of what is going on.”

Through the campaign, the network has sent correspondents to cover caucuses and primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere in the United States.
“We always go out into the street. Most people, when you stick a microphone in their face, they’re going to talk. That works in our favor,” Thomas said.

She said the network’s reporters have been well received by people in the communities they’ve covered. “We do our jobs with remarkably little frustrations and problems. One thing that was remarked upon in Iowa was that our reporter was, herself, the object of considerable media interest.”

Al Jazeera has been the source of much concern and criticism by some U.S. officials, who contend that the network is biased against current policies in the Middle East and Iraq. Network officials contest this and point to their recently adopted code of ethics. “Al Jazeera aspires to be a bridge between peoples and cultures to support the right of the individual to acquire knowledge and strengthen the values of tolerance, democracy and respect for liberties and human rights,” according to the code.

In contrast to Al Jazeera's independent posture, Alhurra struggles with the view that it is a propaganda arm of the U.S. government – the source of its financing.

“Some people think that [Defense Secretary] Mr. Donald Rumsfeld calls us every morning to say what we need to do,” said Nassar Hssaini, an anchor for the network. “But we are not a mouthpiece for the government. Our job is to be meticulous. Mr. Bush doesn’t call us and tell us 'Don’t talk about Mr. Kerry or Mr. Edwards.' ”





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