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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 March, 2003, 03:05 GMT
Arab media go to war
By Paul Harper
BBC News

Alongside the military campaign in Iraq, a battle is being waged in the Arab media to be the first to bring the most dramatic pictures to people's television screens.

al-Jazeera broadcast the pictures of US PoWs that shocked Americans
It is the first time war in the Middle East has been fought live on Arab television, and the impact could be far-reaching.

Satellite television came of age in the last Gulf War, pioneered by the American news channel, CNN.

That was the station people worldwide tuned to, to see the very latest pictures, or even to watch events live.

Since then, Arab governments and companies have invested heavily in technology that allows them to broadcast news as it happens to anyone with a satellite dish.

'Insatiable demand'

The best known of these new Arab TV stations is al-Jazeera, which has transformed its host country, Qatar, from a tiny Gulf state largely unknown outside the region, into a major force in Arab and international politics.

Iraqis queue to fill water canisters in Basra
al-Jazeera is the only non-Iraqi broadcaster in Basra
War produces an almost insatiable demand for the latest images and information.

And it was 11 September 2001 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan that made al-Jazeera essential viewing in the Middle East, just as CNN had been in the Gulf War a decade earlier.

Just as CNN had been the only source of live pictures of bombs falling on Baghdad in 1991, al-Jazeera became the only source of live pictures of the American assault on Kabul and the latest videotaped messages from Osama bin Laden.

CNN was quickly challenged by other international broadcasters, including the BBC, and al-Jazeera is now fighting for viewers with other Arab TV stations that are only too aware of the importance of this new instantaneous medium in the battle for hearts and minds.

New contenders

Some of the most dramatic pictures in the current conflict, such as the aerial bombardment of Baghdad, have been relayed by government-run Abu Dhabi Television, based in the United Arab Emirates.

A few weeks ago, a new contender joined the fray in the shape of al-Arabiyya, a slick-looking satellite news service backed by Saudi money and based in Dubai.

Air raids on Baghdad
Abu Dhabi TV broadcast some of the most dramatic pictures from Baghdad

Arab news junkies - who in these days of crisis in the Middle East include just about anyone with access to a satellite dish - are likely to be channel-hopping between al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi and al-Arabiyya.

One other button on the remote control in danger of being worn down is al-Manar - the impressively well-produced news station of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

The dogged refusal of al-Manar's presenters to conform to traditional norms - men are usually unshaven and without ties, and the women wear Islamic headscarves - would probably surprise Western viewers.

More shocking to Western eyes is the unflinching emphasis of all these channels on the gory consequences of war, including lingering close-up shots of corpses.

There are signs that the traditional, terrestrial TV channels in the Middle East - closely controlled by Arab governments - are trying to adjust their rather staid formats to meet the challenge of these new satellite stations.

Arab viewers are grateful they are no longer dependent on the Americans to watch events as they're unfolding.

But the governments are probably apprehensive that graphic, instantaneous images of the fighting are becoming a big factor in fuelling popular anger about a war that is almost universally opposed in the Arab world.

We will be discussing Middle East perspectives on the war in the Talking Point global 'phone-in programme on Sunday March 30 at 1400GMT. If you want to take part e-mail and include your telephone number.

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