The decline of America’s influence in the Arab World has coincided with the rise of Iran’s and the collapse of Middle East’s old order. The result is a power vacuum manifesting itself in a series of regional proxy wars such as those in Syria and Yemen. Not only is a battle between the Gulf States and Iran taking place on the ground, but it is also being played out on the airwaves. Here, the primary role of Arabic language news stations is to win the propaganda war, and regardless of which side they are on, their reports follow a similar pattern.
In September 2014, al-Arabiya’s Hisham Melhem courageously put his head above the parapet by openly stating the uncomfortable but patently obvious truth that the Arab world was collapsing in front of our eyes. Of course the Arab world has always been unstable, with conflicts in the Gulf, the Levant, and Mesopotamia, but they have been contained. What one is seeing now is different, with the vacuum caused by the collapse of the nation state in places such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen not only being filled by nihilistic millennial movements such as Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and al-Qa’ida, but that some of these countries have become multinational battlegrounds in a struggle for influence over the region taking place between the Shi’i Iranian and Sunni Saudi camps. Two major theatres of conflict between these blocs are Syria and Yemen.
The battle lines have been drawn not only on the ground but also on the airwaves. What one cannot, however, fail to notice is that the news reports from the media affiliates representing these diametrically opposed sides in this conflict–both state media and pan-Arab news stations–are virtually identical to each other, with the only difference being for whom they are acting as cheerleaders. While it would be naive to expect anything remotely resembling fact-based impartial, accurate, and transparent journalism from Syrian and Iranian media outlets, this also appears virtually absent from the two major pan-Arab news networks–Qatar’s al-Jazeera and the Saudi al-Arabiya.
Both stations market themselves as having editorial independence; al-Arabiya’s slogan is “To Know More,” while al-Jazeera explicitly states in the very first line of its code of ethics that it “Adheres to the journalistic values of truthfulness, intrepidness, impartiality, balance, independence, credibility and diversity–and without commercial and political considerations taking precedence over professional ones.” Yet upon studying the news coverage of the Syria and Yemen conflicts–with al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya representing the Sunni bloc, and the Shia bloc represented by Ali Abdallah Salih’s Yemen Today TV and Syria’s al-Ekhbariya, one sees a strange homogeneity start to emerge.
The stations under the Iranian bloc’s umbrella discussed in this article were selected at random. In their place, Iran’s al-Alam TV, Hizballah’s al-Manar, or Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen–which is rumored to be funded by the Iranians and Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf—could have easily been chosen. They are all much of a muchness pushing the same editorial line.
On March 22, 2015, shortly before it fell to the rebels, the Syrian news channel al-Ekhbariya broadcast footage from inside Idlib reporting that civilians were being deliberately targeted by rebels whom it described as terrorists.
News Anchor: We’ve just this moment got footage from Idlib about the mortars which have been targeting innocent civilians in the city. This mortar fire has resulted in martyrs and injuries. We’re seeing the footage here on al-Ekhbariya Syria. This targeting is continuous and has been repeating itself in Syria for over four years now in an open war of terrorism against Syria.
We’re seeing this footage from Idlib which comes a few days after the terrorist explosion which targeted innocent civilians in the town of Hassaka.
Dr. Afif, in regards to these recurring terrorist crimes, which have been going on in Syria for the last four years, and at this stage we’re talking about the changes that have taken place in the region and also the Syrian battlefield – can we connect them [the mortar attacks] with the successes the Syrian Arab Army have achieved on the ground?
Dr. Afif: We can put this within the context of the battle itself. First, the battle is still taking place. Second, yes, whenever the Syrian Army advances in a number of axes on the battlefield they [they rebels] are trying to make up for this both on the morale and material levels. So how do they try and achieve this recompense? They do it by stepping up their crimes and by targeting civilians in residential areas. This fact, even on the level of the idea of making up [for their losses], is an expression of defeat and being routed. When anybody seeks redress he goes to the battlefield, they don’t targets civilians in this way.
A week later when a coalition of Islamist rebels, headed by Jabhat al-Nusra, took Idlib from the Syrian regime, its media was replaced by al-Jazeera. Jazeera’s reports from inside the town mirror al-Ekhbariya, right down to the accusations of revenge attacks on civilians. This is hardly surprising given Qatar’s support for Islamist fighters. In neither report does one see troops getting hit; all one sees are dead or injured civilians. Nor do any of the reports mention the other side’s accounts of the situation or their claims of civilian casualties:
In an airstrike, which the town of Idlib hadn’t been accustomed to, dozens of dead and wounded were under the rubble of the buildings that were destroyed by the Air Force. This was part of the regime’s response a few days after the opposition took control of the town.
In these graves lie the bodies of dozens of people killed by air strikes that used explosives and ammunition, which the inhabitants of the town experienced for the first time. They had previously been used in a number of (other) towns. [This is a reference to barrel bombs].
The Syrian regime was vicious in trying to keep Idlib under its control due to its strategic location and because it was one of the most important centers for the distribution of its soldiers. So losing it meant that the regime’s army lost a second town as well as losing its main supply lines between the town of Aleppo in the North and Latakia in the West.
Today Idlib is facing an uncertain future full of fear of what could be the potential response from the regime. The regime issued threats warning of bombardments and not ruling out the use of poison gas. And this indeed did happen when the regime targeted the town center. It used poison gas, which according to medical sources in the town resulted in cases of asphyxiation.
The Syrian regime’s threats to respond to the opposition taking control of the city has had a big impact on its inhabitants. Hundreds of civilians have chosen to flee the town rather than remain and face an uncertain future, most likely one of vengeance but nobody can predict what will happen.
Those who remain as well as facing air strikes also face tough living conditions as there is a near complete lack of services. There is no electricity, water, or means of communication, which constitutes a major challenge to the opposition forces both on the political and military aspects. This has put it to the test to demonstrate its ability to protect the city and manage its affairs amidst all these challenges it is facing.
One sees the same phenomena occurring in news coverage of the Yemen conflict, the difference being that here, unlike in Syria, the coalition forces of the Sunni bloc have air supremacy. Al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera are throwing their weight fully behind Operation Decisive Storm. Al-Arabiya was especially gung ho in the early days, frequently broadcasting footage devoid of analysis and overlaid with dramatic music. Not only was the footage “Hollywood-esque,” but it also started to resemble the propaganda Syrian TV has broadcast on its channels throughout its conflict.
Another aspect to al-Arabiya’s coverage is that it devotes some of its airtime to report social media commentary, all of which featured is breathless in its support of Saudi Arabia, with any critical view of the conflict being kept well away.
Welcome to Interact Com. We begin with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s speech at the Saudi Consultative Assembly. The biggest reaction on social media was to his sentence, “We’re not calling for war, but we are ready for it.” Prince Faisal’s positions since the start of Operation Decisive Storm, and especially his response to the Russian message at the Sharm al-Shaykh, caused many to express their appreciation.
And on this subject, we have the second tweet from Shaykh Adal al-Kilbaneh expressing his thanks to Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Now with a counter campaign, but this time a positive one, Saudis have put up on Twitter the hashtag “A message of love to our brothers in Yemen,” which expresses the solid relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, both between its leaders and its people. This hashtag has been Tweeted 300,000 times in just two days.
For example, this Tweet talks about Yemen and Saudi Arabia sharing the same destiny.
We have another in which the Tweeter asks, “How could anybody not love Yemen and its people?”
The people of Yemen have responded to the message of love and appreciation from the Saudis with a similar hashtag–“A message of love to our brothers in Saudi Arabia,” such as this Tweet, which reaffirms the feelings of brotherhood between the two peoples.
We have another Tweet, this one from Mubarak Bin Amru, which says that the Yemeni people won’t forget Saudi Arabia standing by their side.
In a surprising move, Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman changed her position and announced her support for Operation Decisive Storm. On her Twitter and Facebook accounts, she put out these Tweets saying in one that she was proud of Saudi Arabia’s role and in the other that she feels a sense of gratitude to everybody who helps and supports Yemen in freeing itself from Iran.
After the Decisive Storm coalition announced a no-fly zone over Yemen, some people have been observing the airspace by using the latest apps. And not a single airplane appears in Yemen’s airspace as we see here. And another picture shows the Yemeni coast without any ships.
Among the pictures, which have been getting the most circulation on social media, and especially Whatsapp, is this picture that is said to be of a Saudi soldier saying goodbye to his sick son in hospital just before he heads off to take part in Decisive Storm.
We stay with pictures that have been circulated online; this one comes from a school in the province of al-Majarada in Saudi Arabia’s south. In it, the school honors the sons of the soldiers stationed at the very south of the country.
When it comes to editing video clips, Saudis are innovators. This clip used part of an al-Arabiya news report in which our colleague, Muhammad al-Tamayhi reads the news of King Salman launching Operation Decisive Storm. Let’s have a look.
To interact with this subject or others, use the hashtag Interact Com appearing on the screen in front of you. Till next time.
Al-Jazeera, like al-Arabiya, includes live reports from coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmad al-Assiri’s press conferences. It is a standard military press conference focusing on the aims and achievements of the military campaign and shows footage of precision bombing of strategic military and logistic targets. It is no different from the 2003 CENTCOM briefings during the Iraq war.
Strike! Kill! Displace! Destroy! Besiege! The Yemeni people resist all the conspiracies and attacks by the hostile aggression led by Saudi Arabia, whose air force has targeted installations, homes, factories, and farms. And on top of that, the killing of hundreds of people and those who’ve been injured.
All-out war, with no aim or goal other than trying to subdue the Yemeni people, who are known for their patience, wisdom, and who seek peace and security. For most of the country’s regions have be subjected to the Saudi aggression missile attacks, without mercy or consideration of women and children’s weakness.
According to military experts, there have been more than 3,000 non-stop missile strikes carried out by the Saudi aggression over a period of 12 days. These strikes have hit villages, homes, convoys, transport, refugee camps, and everything standing still or moving.
The latest statistics from human rights organizations reveal that there are more than 857 martyrs as a result of this aggression. Among the martyrs were more than 160 children, 32 women, 13 elderly, and more than 1,214 injured. The statistics also record more than 936 residences in 13 of the country’s regions having been damaged by the Saudi aggression.
In addition to this, apartment blocks and facilities have also been hit.
The suffering of the Yemeni people is increasing with the Saudi aggression imposing an air, sea, and land blockade on the country’s airports and crossing points as well as preventing the International Red Cross from bringing in medical and food aid to those affected. And all of this while the petrol crisis is worsening. As for food, the Chamber of Commerce reassured Yemeni citizens that there exists enough to last six months.
It appears that the aggression will lengthen as politicians suggest. Yet others point to indications of a political solution to revive talks between the political forces at a time when the Yemeni wound in the Arabian Peninsula’s side has become deep as a result of the brazen Saudi aggression.
While Yemen Today claimed that the Saudis were targeting civilians, al-Jazeera said exactly the same thing about the Houthis in the south of the country:
The Houthis have chosen to open up their battle on Aden on all militarily and humanitarian possibilities. This has become clear by the random shelling which they commenced a few days ago and is still going on and is being carried out without mercy in order to frighten the inhabitants and break up the alliances which have formed in the city in order to support the legitimacy of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
The results on the ground reveal an increase in the number of civilians being killed. According to Yemeni sources, more than 50 people were killed during the last 24 hours–half of whom were Houthis and around 20 of whom were civilians. Dozens of civilians have been killed up to now, while at the same time there has been a systematic targeting of water and electricity stations along with health centers. Even shopping and consumer centers haven’t been spared from the Houthis’ weapons.
Though the Popular Resistance Committees were successful in stopping the Houthis advance on many fronts as well as capturing the Houthis’ weapons.
However, an all-out bombardment remains the largest challenge facing both the resistance and inhabitants of the city.
The Popular Resistance Committees are expecting an increase in support from the Decisive Storm forces–either by it striking Houthi positions or by air-dropping weapons and combat equipment.
For the Battle of Aden carries a symbolism and a significance to make it the Mother of all Battles for all sides involved.
The similarity in the reporting among these adversaries may seem surprising. One might expect the pan-Arab stations to far more introspective and editorially independent than Syria and Iran’s media organs. Yet as Lee Smith pointed out in 2013, the primary role of Arab news media is to promote the interests of Arab states,rather like buying a football team.
Nearly all of these are authoritarian or totalitarian states built upon identical power structures. Their regional ambitions resemble each other’s–no matter what side they are on; it therefore follows that their news reports will have an almost identical format. The only difference is that some of these states are allies with the West and have shared interests, while others are most definitely not.
Egypt’s Tahsin Bashir has described the rest of the Arab world not as a collection of nation states, but as “tribes with flags.” If one were to apply this model to its satellite news channels–including the Egyptian ones–and what we have is a collection of tribes with mics.
* Dave McAvoy is an expert on the Arabic-language media based in London who lived and studied Arabic in Damascus. With a background in television production, his research focuses on Arab Satellite TV news coverage, which he has been following for a decade. His articles have appeared on Harry’s Place and in The National, among other media outlets.
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