International Arabic-Language News Channels: Who’s Watching?
Moscow: Sami Ammara
Paris: Michel Bou Najim
Only a few months remain before Arab viewers worldwide can tune into the British Broadcast Corporation’s (BBC) Arabic Service satellite channel. Soon to follow suit, Lyon-based European broadcaster ‘EuroNews’ has announced the impending launch of its own Arabic-language venture.
Hopping on the bandwagon of Western interest in ‘addressing the Arab world’, ‘EuroNews’ Chairman, Philippe Cayla revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat in an earlier interview that the preliminary plan was to start broadcast by the new year.
This comes shortly after the launch of Russia’s ‘Rusiya Al-Yaum’ [“the first Russian TV news channel broadcasting in Arabic. The Channel is established and operated by autonomous non-profit organization TV-Novosti,” is the text ¬as it appears on the channel’s website. The newly launched channel was not announced prior to the launch and did not have an advertising campaign much to the surprise of many.
Meanwhile, France’s 24-hour global satellite news channel, ‘France 24’, has revealed that it intends to increase the hours of its recently launched Arabic service [April 2007] from four to twelve hours, until it ultimately reaches its target 24-hour broadcast.
However, despite the current interest in ‘communicating with the Arab world’, most of these television ventures have yet to prove their success. In the US, many are criticizing the government-funded Arabic-language channel, Alhurra, one of the pioneers in the field, for failing to achieve its stated goals. Alhurra has been under ongoing scrutiny and is continuously questioned by both Arab and American critics alike. Only recently, the Alhurra channel was the topic of a special session held at the US Congress.
Thus, the question to be asked is: What strategy will be adopted by these new channels (and those yet to be launched) so as to ensure that the set goals can be met? But more importantly, what exactly do they seek to achieve?
Most of the aforementioned projects are government funded not commercial ventures, which means that there is no profit motive. This could also mean that it is irrelevant whether the content appeals to the viewers or not in terms of the continuity of the channel.
‘Rusiya Al-Yaum’: The Undeclared Launch
Launched last May 5th, ‘Rusiya Al-Yaum’ took many Arabs (the channel’s target audience) by surprise because of the absence of media or advertising campaigns preceding its launch. Many Arabs still remain unaware of its presence. A spokesman for the channel said that it is difficult to determine the number of viewers at this early stage as ‘Rusiya Al-Yaum’ has only started to air recently and that no audits or studies hade been conducted as of yet.
He added that ‘Rusiya Al-Yaum’ did not intend to compete with Arab channels, such as Al Jazeera or Al Arabia. He explained that the channel will not tackle local issues (as Arab channels do) and that it deems it necessary to distance itself from competition and to focus on becoming a comprehensive source of information and news.
The distinguishing difference between ‘Rusiya Al-Yaum’ and other channels, according to the spokesman, lies in the content it presents on Russia and the country’s position regarding Arab and international issues.
Regarding the absence of a pre-launch advertising campaign, the spokesman said that the channel will soon appoint an international or Arab advertising agency to take care of that matter. “We did not view it as important (at the time) since advertising could run parallel with broadcast,” he said.
‘France 24’: “Judge Us After We Become a 24-hour service”
‘France 24’ Chairman, Alain de Pouzilhac, said, “If you look at the survey results in Morocco and Algeria they are most likely not sufficiently detailed, meaning; we cannot discern if they are related to the Franco-Arabic channel, the Anglo-Arabic channel, or the French one. Nevertheless, ‘France 24’ has achieved great success in North Africa. The survey results that we have for Morocco and Algeria, however, have revealed that ‘France 24’ is well ahead of CNN and the BBC in Morocco, and is on par with these channels in Algeria,” he said.
But, de Pouzilhac argues that it is difficult to compare a channel that airs four hours of Arabic broadcast daily with two channels that offer 24-hour services. As such he said, “We cannot compete with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but we do challenge them.” He added, “We intend to increase our daily Arabic broadcasts from four hours to 12 and ultimately to 24 hours. Then, given all the advantages, I believe that ‘France 24’ can rival today’s two leading Arabic satellite channels.”
When asked what these advantages were, de Pouzilhac said: “Audiences are sceptical about the pervasive Anglo-American view on international current affairs. In fact, in surveys that questioned whether a French international news channel would be considered useful or not, the overwhelming majority thought it would be useful, with 61 percent in the country with the lowest score results and 92 percent in the country that scored the highest.”
Although no specific date has been announced for the launch of BBC’s Arabic service channel, it is expected launch sometime next spring. The channel continues to reiterate that it will be the pioneering media organization to have a strong tri-media presence, offering news, current affairs programs and information for Arabic-speaking audiences in the region and worldwide.
In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, a spokesperson for the BBC said, “The new BBC Arabic Television news and information channel service will complement the BBC’s existing and highly regarded news and current affairs services on radio and online for Arabic speaking audiences in the Middle East and around the world.”
He revealed that, “The BBC is already regarded as the most successful, trusted and respected international voice in the Middle East after broadcasting for 67 years on radio,” furthermore stating that, “ongoing research on viewers in seven capital cities across the region indicates that between 80-90 percent of those surveyed would be either ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to use the new BBC Arabic television service. Most potential users cited the reliable nature of the BBC brand and its strong record for impartial news coverage as their main concerns.”
The BBC Arabic television’s performance will be assessed by BBC management; the BBC’s independent regulators: the BBC Trust, which set the objectives and assesses the performance of all BBC services; and the UK Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which funds the BBC World Service.
But, the BBC Arabic radio has been repeatedly criticized, most recently in an article written by American Professor Frank H. Stewart in the New York Times (NYT). Stewart’s article was titled “The Biased Broadcasting Corporation”, and included the quote, “This new television station might sound like good news for America. Many of us pick up BBC broadcasts in English, and we respect their quality, but the World Service in English is one thing, and the World Service in Arabic is another entirely.”
His view is that, “if the BBC’s Arabic TV programs resemble its radio programs, then they will be just as anti-Western as anything that comes out of the Gulf, if not more so.” Furthermore, he accused the BBC Arabic Service radio by saying, “The Arabic Service not only shields Arab leaders from criticism but also tends to avoid topics they might find embarrassing.”
The BBC issued a statement in response to Stewart’s article that said, “Due impartiality is at the heart of the BBC’s programs and services. It applies equally to all parts of the BBC, including the BBC Arabic Service radio, online and future television services. There is no difference in the stringency with which we apply our editorial guidelines across the services.” The statement concluded by saying, “The article also asserts that we shy away from topics like human rights, corruption, and the role of security forces. This is not true as any regular listener to BBC Arabic would know.”
Additional reporting in London by Faisal Abbas