Arab Networks Compete For News
at Democratic Convention
By Seth Effron And Henry Rafael
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
BOSTON -- At the political conventions four years ago, Arab language television
didnt 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 wasnt enough room for all of the banners.
Al Jazeeras booth is positioned in such a way that when television cameras
-- focused on the podium and speakers -- go to wide shots, the networks
banner would be on prominent display.
They approved the original sign and everything, said Hafez al-Mizari,
Al Jazeeras 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.
Well be carrying the whole convention live, simultaneously translated
into Arabic, said Mouafac Harb, director of network news for Alhurra. "Well
do a recap in the prime time [for the Middle East] and a talk show from the convention
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 Arabiyas 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
isnt 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 wont 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 weve 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
We always go out into the street. Most people, when you stick a microphone
in their face, theyre going to talk. That works in our favor, Thomas
She said the networks reporters have been well received by people in
the communities theyve 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
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 doesnt call us and tell us 'Dont talk
about Mr. Kerry or Mr. Edwards.'