AFP- Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster has sparked a media war between the Arab world’s major news rivals Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera over the policy lines of their respective funders in Riyadh and Doha.
Their differences were first highlighted during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings when the television channels respectively gave the Saudi and Qatari perspectives in their coverage of fast-developing events, analysts say.
The Arab Spring “led to a polarisation in Arab media,” says Saudi analyst Abdullah al-Shamry.
“Both channels became more concerned about delivering the opinions of their financiers than offering a professional and objective view,” said Shamry, adding that the two are “losing their credibility” in the face of other Arabic-language news channels such as France 24 and Sky News Arabia.
Analysts appearing on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are selected carefully to back their positions, says Shamry.
Gas-rich Qatar funds Al-Jazeera, founded in 1996, which has revolutionised the Arab media scene that was for decades limited to state-controlled media, while Al-Arabiya is owned by Saudi businessman Waleed al-Ibrahim who has close ties to the ruling Al-Saud family.
Ties were strained between Saudi Arabia and the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas Qatar has strongly backed the Islamists on their rise to power.
The contrast was clearest in their coverage of the turmoil in Egypt since last month’s street protests which were followed by the army’s ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi.
“Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya covered the events in Egypt in two diametrically opposite ways,” said Mohammed El Oifi, Arab media specialist at the Sorbonne university in Paris.
As Al-Arabiya aired live footage of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square against Morsi, Al-Jazeera split its screen to relay images of a pro-Morsi demonstration at another square in the capital.
And what Al-Jazeera branded as a “coup against legitimacy”, Al-Arabiya hailed as a “second revolution”.
For Oifi, Al-Arabiya’s position was “an obvious reflection” of the line adopted by Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah became the first foreign leader to congratulate Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour, hours after he was named to replace Morsi.
But Al-Jazeera “adopted a more hostile position towards the June 30 events than the state of Qatar which seems to have more or less accepted the fall of Morsi,” he said.
When 53 mostly Morsi supporters were killed outside Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo on July 8, Al-Arabiya ignored the Brotherhood’s version of the incident and highlighted the army’s statements.
Al-Jazeera was meanwhile airing footage from a field hospital showing dead and wounded pro-Morsi protesters and it ran live coverage of a Brotherhood news conference.
Early this month, several Al-Jazeera employees, reportedly seven, resigned over disagreements with the channel’s editorial line or because of having received threats.
The managing director of Al-Jazeera’s dedicated “Egypt live channel”, Ayman Gaballah, wrote in The Telegraph on July 13 that “our staff have been receiving death threats, leaflets carrying blood have been distributed outside our offices, and we’ve been hysterically hounded out of military press conferences by supposed fellow journalists.”
Kuwaiti academic Saad al-Ajmi, who previously served as information minister, said “both channels offered extensive coverage of the events but the differences were in their choice of words that reflect their political stances.”
They “covered demonstrations on both sides. However, the pictures’ angles clearly reflected their attempts to concentrate on larger numbers of demonstrators on one side or another,” he said.
— Viewers lash out —
Viewers have lashed out at both channels.
A page on Twitter with the hashtag “#Tweet Like You Are Al-Arabiya” mocks the Dubai-based channel’s coverage.
And a Facebook group with more than 6,000 members calls for “kicking out the collaborator Al-Jazeera channel from Egypt,” accusing it of “sowing sedition between Egyptians.”
For 18-year-old Hossam, a date vendor in Cairo, “Al-Jazeera exaggerates about and concentrates on the Muslim Brotherhood. Its coverage is biased.”
Abdel Fataah Mohammed, an Egyptian expat in the United Arab Emirates, said “Al-Jazeera is slightly inclined towards the Brotherhood but this is because this point of view does not get its share of coverage elsewhere.”
The channel however still “portrays events live as they take place and hosts guests from all sides” unlike its rival. “I’ve stopped watching Al-Arabiya lately. They weren’t at all objective,” said Mohammed.
To Ajmi, this is healthy competition. “Their varying coverage of the events benefits the audiences… It’s unfair for the Arab viewer to hear only one point of view.”