In early 2011, people around the world tuned into Al Jazeera to watch the Egyptian revolution in real time. Meanwhile, rival broadcaster Al Arabiya was also offering near continuous coverage, with cameras on a balcony overlooking the 6th October Bridge, where protesters and police clashed.
How was the content of those broadcasts - and the networks' subsequent coverage - influenced by their political allegiances?
Featuring interviews with current and former journalists from both networks, and analysis from independent pundits, The Battle for the Arab Viewer highlights the philosophical differences between the two pan-Arab networks.
Al Jazeera was created by the Emir of Qatar after he deposed his father in a coup. The station typically champions the poor and social movements - such as the Muslim Brotherhood - that are hostile to the Saudi regime. The station has grown highly influential. In the film, a passerby stops Al Jazeera's chief Cairo correspondent on the street to thank him and the government of Qatar for supporting the anti-Mubarak forces, saying the network is "90%" responsible for the revolution.
With Al Jazeera supporting elements hostile to Saudi Arabia, the Saudis set up their own network as a counterpoint: the more conservative Al Arabiya, owned by a close friend of the royal family.
While The Battle for the Arab Viewer offers insight and analysis, it also shows how the battle between the two networks plays out on the ground in Cairo. We go behind the scenes with Al Arabiya journalist Randa Abul Azm and Al Jazeera's Abdelfattah Fayed as they follow stories, break news, and cover events such as Hosni Mubarak's trial. (Azm is allowed into the courtroom, but Fayed is not.)
Azm and Fayed each mirror their networks' respective demographics. Al Arabiya appeals to well-off, middle-class viewers who value security and stability. Enter Amz, who lives in a building built by her engineer father, on a street named for her grandfather. Fayed, representing the network that purports to stand for the downtrodden, shows us a photo of his father, who worked in agriculture.
Both deny that their work is influenced by the political agendas of their networks' owners. But former employees of both networks tell a different story. Particularly striking is the case of Hafez al Mirazi, who was taken off Al Arabiya's airwaves after promising to put Saudi Arabia under the microscope on his show.
Media bias is nothing new - as Mirazi says, viewers of Fox News and MSNBC each know what they are going to get. What is different in the Arab world is that the networks are directly owned by states. He says, "They keep shifting according to the countries they are sponsored by, and that affects the stories their citizens get on a daily basis."
Ultimately, the problem may resolve itself. As democracy spreads through the region, will truly independent media follow?
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. "Lasfar is able to astutely position the Egyptian Revolution as a prism through which viewers of the film are able to see the ideological slants/biases of the two networks play out in real time, while they also shape and in some cases directly influence events on the ground...These examples in tandem with significantly improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar serve to underscore the film’s larger point that these tremendously important, influential Pan-Arabic media outlets sit precariously on top of an ever shifting firmament of delicate regional alliances and fragile political relationships susceptible to drastic change that is then reflected in the tone and tenor of the networks coverage and information dissemination. Lasfar’s film highlights the negative impact such sudden, jarring shifts in editorial perspective can have on public discourse in the Middle East, while underlining the need for authentic independent media outlets.The Battle for the Arab Viewer would be an
excellent addition to all media studies, journalism, communication and Middle Eastern studies collections." —Educational Media Reviews Online
2012 MESA FilmFest, Middle East Studies Association
"Presents an excellent overview of the political dynamics that shape the editorial practices and perspective of both networks." —Al Jadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts
"Beyond its exposure of the policies of Arab-language TV news, the film also gives an intimate insight into the work of the chief reporters working for both. One senses from these scenes that both reporters are aware of the limits and constraints imposed on their work by the political environment and strive to do the best job they can." —Brian McNair, Journalism Practice
"A very timely and instructive video, showing that media and politics are not only each lively on their own but necessarily and unavoidably intertwined." —Anthropology Review Database