The long march of Pan-Arab media: a personal view
Issue 1, Spring 2007
Arabic mixes with international brands in a Syrian TV shop. Kim Badawi.
Early in the summer 2006 I booked a flight to Beirut scheduled for the 12 July that would take me home after thirty years abroad. Little was I to know that the date displayed on my ticket would be inscribed in Lebanese history. But being well aware of Lebanon’s acute vulnerability in the volatile politics of the Middle East, I kept to myself the excitement I was feeling about returning home.
Mid-morning July 11, a work colleague walked into my office asking if I had heard the latest news. Two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped by Hizbullah, he told me. Thinking about my scheduled July-12 flight to Beirut, I rushed into the TV monitoring room at the Pan-Arab Research Center where I work. I was eager for the very latest news. The first report I saw featured the Israeli Army chief’s threat to take Lebanon back thirty years. With the painful experience of civil war and Israeli invasions that I share with most Lebanese, I took these threats literally.
The first images of war that I witnessed were the flashing shells hitting Beirut airport’s runway. This was an agonizingly familiar image. Our leaders have let the vulnerability of Beirut airport be enshrined in our national psyche: images of the national airport succumbing to the Israeli Army go as far back as 1967 and have been replicated in the subsequent series of attacks against Lebanon. I have particularly strong visual memories of war as my home village lies just 350 meters above Beirut airport and is an ideal place for a panoramic view of all Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. These images of war remain vivid; nothing can erase them from my memory.
A colleague, who was also scheduled to fly July 12 to attend the concert of a national icon—Fayruz—singing for Lebanon, called me early that morning to confirm that the airport was closed and that all fights were canceled. This was what I had expected from the moment the crisis broke. Had I traveled a day earlier I would have witnessed the bombardment of the southern district of Beirut from the roof top of my family home in Ain Anoub, which offered a sort of first row seat during the battles of the civil war.
As the first shells fell, I longed to be at home in Lebanon with my parents. But I soon realized that the roof top of my parents’ home was no longer the best view-point for keeping track of the war. With access to hundreds of Arab and foreign satellite channels; 24-hour access to the Internet; access to national, regional and international newspapers and magazines; mobile phones and SMS, I was probably as well informed as any other Lebanese living in Lebanon.
Through email exchanges and telephone calls, I also kept abreast of the word-of-mouth rumor and intrigue that were formerly the main sources of news in conflict-ridden Lebanon. This conversational news is an invaluable complement to modern media news in any war; mass media cannot replicate the experience of hearing about life in war first hand. I am always struck by how the public opinion surveys I help to produce professionally routinely ignore the value of word-of-mouth in the gamut of sources real people rely on for news in war.
Nevertheless, when you compare the Israel-Hizbullah war of 2006 with previous Arab-Israeli wars, you cannot help but notice a central difference: the Arab media coverage of the 2006 war was without parallel in modern Middle Eastern history. Word-of-mouth is no longer the main conduit of insider news from Beirut to Baghdad. The extent and range of coverage of the 2006 war has far-reaching implications not only for Arab public opinion, but also possibly the global perception of the war.
Lives Lived through Wars, not Wars Lived through Television
During the first half of the last century, much of the land of Palestine was incorporated into the state of Israel with hardly any media coverage—be it Arab or international. Those were the heydays of word-of-mouth news. In the 1956 British-French-Israeli war against Egypt, the only footage Arabs saw was provided by British and French news services. The first major Arab-Israeli war I lived through was also marked by abysmal and deceptive Arab coverage. In the afternoon of June 6, 1967, I was fighting lethargy in my fourth grade class when a teacher barged in announcing that a war with Israel had just broken out and that the victorious Arabs had already downed fifty warplanes.
All the pupils of the Ain Anoub English missionary-run elementary school paraded out to the schoolyard chanting nationalist songs. Days later, we knew that the downed warplanes were Arab. The Sinai Desert, West Bank, Syrian Golan Heights and Qunaitara were all lost to Israeli control in less than a handful of days, again with Arab audiences kept in the dark. Only those with access to BBC World Service or the Israeli Radio knew the true story of the 67 war—the Nakbat or Calamity in Arabic—as it happened.
In Lebanon, coverage of the 1967 war consisted of official warnings and instructions broadcast and published in the state media. We were advised to paint household light bulbs with blue dye so that Israeli warplanes could not target our homes at night. Some villagers instead painted their windows so they could keep the lights on at night.
My experience was typical. As a ten-year-old living with my family in a village barely twenty minutes from Beirut, I had very little access to media. Only a handful of homes had television, and even radio sets were rare. But even though I was a child, I had greater access to media than many thanks to the customers of my father’s grand country store. This alone brought me into contact with print media. Because of my father’s chronic illness I had to assist him in running the store at a very early age. Many villagers who subscribed to newspapers and magazines were more than willing to give me their copies. I could recall the BBC programme Huna London (This is London). There was also a magazine I used to read published by the US embassy in Beirut. Initially I was interested in the photos but the exposure to print encouraged me to read the headlines and subsequently the articles.
It was not until 1968, a year after the war, that we owned our first transistor radio set. The set was a gift from my uncle to my father to help lessen the pain of his illness. Even then our contact with big media was intermittent at best. When the batteries ran out, many weeks would go by before we could replace them. One way we found of making four batteries last a few hours longer was by boiling them in water.
But even for Arab families who owned television and radio sets in the 1960s and 1970s, there was not much to listen to or watch. When the October 1973 War broke out, state-owned television was beginning to grow, allowing Arab audiences a glimpse of the initial Arab military successes. But we were not shown the subsequent humiliating defeats. Right up to the mid-1980s Lebanon had only one state-owned television channel that would broadcast for no longer than eight hours a day, and even then a limited range of content. The radio scene was equally limited; there was one state-owned AM station in addition to BBC AM relaying form Cyprus and Sawt Al Arab from Egypt. This narrow media landscape was not unique to Lebanon; it was replicated across the Arab world. Each country had one state-owned television channel and one or two radio stations at the most. Perhaps the Lebanese were lucky for having a relatively vibrant print media compared to some other Arab countries.
In the 1960s and 70s, radio and television played only a minor role in shaping Arab public opinion. Political grievances were keenly felt, despite the relatively limited audio-visual media. Of course, print news reports had some impact. But hardening attitudes towards Israel and the Arab political elite’s false promises of imminent change developed in the absence of the ubiquitous and varied images of Palestinian suffering. Although often powerful, photographs depicting the Israeli occupation—soldiers beating a Palestinian child or holding a women at a gun point—were few. Often the same image would reoccur across the Arab print media. Clearly, Arab political opinion does not depend on media coverage. When three of the PLO’s leaders—Kamal Adwan, Kamal Nasser and Abu Yusuf—were assassinated in one of the more affluent neighborhoods of Beirut on a sleepy night in April 1973, it was not live Al Jazeera coverage that mobilized the tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian protesters to march at their funeral. By contrast, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the US, Arab agitation against Israel and the US is attributed (problematically) to the Al Jazeera Factor.
Political Reaction Finds Multiple Forms of Expression
The prevailing American perception that the pan-Arab media are the main agitators of Arab opinion points to a profound ignorance of Arab politics in the US. Many Arabs backed the PLO struggle against Israel in the 1970s and early 1980s for precisely the same reason they cheer on Hizbullah today. As a young teen growing up in a village in Lebanon, it was not the Lebanese state-owned television channel or the radio station that mobilized my generation. Nor were recorded cassettes as influential in Lebanon during my youth as they were in the Iranian Islamic Revolution led by Khomeini. The main conduits through which networks mobilized in Lebanon—print and word-of-mouth—were in a kind of symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relationship. Informal conversations, lectures, demonstrations and speeches of political figures deploying inflammatory oratory were backed up by flyers, pamphlets, posters and books. There was a tremendous number of flyers and books circulating at this time, dozens of which I still have in my personal library in Lebanon. These were cheap to print and easy to disseminate, and because they were given out for free, were more widespread than newspapers which had to be paid for.