Nordin Lasfar’s “The Battle for the Arab Viewer” puts the debate about media bias and political influence center-stage. The film argues that despite pretenses to the contrary, neither Al Jazeera nor Al Arabiya operate in total objectivity.
The film presents an excellent overview of the political dynamics that shape the editorial practices and perspective of both networks. It attempts to unpack the biases at work by following Al Arabiya correspondent Randa Abul Azm, and Al Jazeera’s Abdelfattah Fayed. During the Arab revolutions, and particularly during the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Al Jazeera portrayed itself as a champion of the people according to Lasfar. Furthermore with its overt progressive and even “revolutionary” posture, its detractors accused the Qatari network of actively taking part in the revolution through its intentional bias. In the case of Egypt, the network appeared to side decidedly with the anti-Mubarak protestors. As the commentators in the film suggest, this is not simply a matter of being on the right side of history, but rather is Arab politics in full view. The film presents Al Jazeera as an extension of Qatari state power, a network that emerged – according to political analyst Abdalaziz Alkhamis – from the Qatari Emir’s desire to put a public relations spin on his takeover of the country and shield himself from Saudi and other Gulf Arab leaders’ disapproval. In contrast, Al Arabiya, the network that allegedly emerged from a Saudi desire to counter Al Jazeera – supported up until the very end Hosni Mubarak. This tension defines the central message of the documentary, and is the frame through which everything else is read, including the brief explorations into the personal histories of both correspondents for Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
This frame effectively sets the stage of the conflict between the two networks, and also does well to describe the poor credibility and ineffectiveness of the pan-Arab networks. As a result, the viewer generates a growing sympathy for the Arab audience at the mercy of these two fundamentally political organizations. That being said, the film presents little substantial evidence and instead, depends on the authority of media analysts and professionals from both networks. The viewer is forced to decide the case based on association and accusation alone. In one particular moment, former Al Jazeera presenter Lina Zahreddine accuses the network of not spending as much time covering the abortive revolution in Bahrain. The ruling family of Bahrain is favored by the Emir of Qatar, so the logic goes, while Mubarak had “tense relations” with Al Jazeera. While this statement may be true, no evidence is actually presented to substantiate a purposeful editorial decision to ignore Bahrain’s troubles. A cursory search through Al Jazeera’s website will reveal coverage of the events in Bahrain, as well as a documentary about the Sulayman hospital, where doctors and nurses were eventually jailed for their supposed anti-government activities. If Zahreddine is making a claim on the amount or substance of Al Jazeera’s coverage, it is absent from the film. What we are left with is an interesting and thought provoking picture of an Arab world split between competing Gulf forces and their respective media arms, but little in the sense of deep political analysis.
The most powerful sequence of the film depicts an Al Arabiya former news presenter, Hafez al Mirazi, openly challenging the Saudi regime on television. The clip from Al Arabiya shows Mirazi state on air that he “will see if we can say anything about Saudi Arabia. Then we will see if Al Arabiya is independent.” Mirazi then goes on to tell the filmmakers about his subsequent ouster from the network. It is well known that Al Jazeera does not provide any news or commentary that is critical of the Qatari regime. Clearly both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are compromised news agencies, even if the degree of compromise cannot be accurately gleaned from the scope of the film. Mirazi, however, displays a moment of journalistic integrity that cuts through the accusatory back and forth that generates the films primary argument.
The film has high production value and a well-paced narrative, though it could have benefitted from a lengthier, more detailed analysis. Those familiar with the origins of both networks, and specifically their political and financial sponsors will find the film perhaps lacking further insight. However, even then, the final act of the film speculates on the future of both Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, and more interestingly, the future of Arab media in general. Hafez al Mirazi speculates that the era of the official, state sponsored media will eventually give way to a local, independent one. It’s an optimistic thought, and one that millions of people across the Middle East no doubt hope will come true.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 64
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Featured image courtesy of Icarus Films via Al Jadid.