The new, Beirut-based pan-Arab TV station Al Mayadeen attempts to redress the perceived biases of the Sunni Gulf Arab-financed channels such as Al Jazeera. But will Al Mayadeen be truly objective and independent?
At 3pm local time on Monday, a new pan-Arab news channel that many regard as the anti-Al Jazeera, hit the airwaves with coverage aimed as a counterweight to the Qatari-financed channel’s perceived bias against the Syrian and Iranian regimes.
With its slogan, "Reality like it is," the new channel, Al Mayadeen - which translates as “the public squares” - promises to objectively cover a region that has been home to strong opinions and even stronger emotions.
But Al Mayadeen has its own critics who say the channel is backed by the regimes in Syria and Iran, making for its own set of biases.
Not so, says Ghassan bin Jiddo, a well-known Tunisian journalist who heads Al Mayadeen.
“We do not speak in the name of Iran or the Syrian regime, we are a completely independent channel which reflects reality as it is,” said bin Jiddo at a press conference in Beirut this week.
Bin Jiddo was the Beirut bureau chief of Al Jazeera before he quit to head the new channel. He’s one of at least five journalists from the Qatari channel’s Beirut bureau who joined the new TV station.
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Bahrain, an ignored uprising
As the winds of revolution sweep through the Arab world, the spotlight has been turned on the Arab media’s coverage of events. Ali Hashem, another journalist who quit Al Jazeera to join Al Mayadeen, made headlines in Lebanon in March when he vented his anger over the one-sided coverage of Syria on Al Jazeera in several emails, which were leaked by Syrian hackers.
In his emails, Hashem criticized the Qatar-based channel for refusing to cover the anti-regime uprising in Bahrain, a Shiite majority Arab country ruled by a Sunni monarch.
“I felt in one way or another, I am losing my integrity as a journalist, being pushed to lie. It’s the owners of Al Jazeera, those who own Al Jazeera, the Qataris. They are pushing this channel toward journalistic suicide,” said Hashim in an interview with FRANCE 24.
It’s a sentiment shared by Al Mayadeen's news division head.
Sami Kleib, who worked as a journalist in France for many years, is also an ex-star of Al Jazeera. He criticises the partisan nature of the main pan-Arab channels. “When you feed, for example, sectarian wars in the Arab world, you become a killer, not a journalist. That's the problem. Our job is to describe reality, not to falsify it or change it in the interest of one country or another,” said Kleib.
The mystery financer
But there's just one problem: Kleib's wife is the communication adviser to Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, a sensitive subject that he refuses to discuss. The question of the channel's financing is similarly awkward: Kleib himself says the channel is funded by Arab businessmen, but he does not provide any details.
Omar Ibhais, a freelance Lebanese TV producer, claims that he has learned, from inside sources whom he refuses to name, about the new channel's funding source.
“Al Mayadeen channel is a joint venture between the Iranians and Rami Makhlouf, who is the cousin of President Bashar al-Assad,” says Ibhais, referring to the wealthy Syrian businessman who is believed to control as much as 60% of the Syrian economy through his web of business interests that include telecommunications, oil and gas, construction, banking, airlines and retail, according to the Financial Times.
Syrian uprising ‘saturates Lebanese politics’
According to Ibhais, Iran launched a media campaign about a year ago to support the revolution in Bahrain and the minority Shiite regime in Damascus.
Franklin Lamb, a US journalist who works for the English service of the Iran-based al Itijah radio and TV station, says the Syrian uprising is a particularly sensitive topic in neighbouring Lebanon, a country that has the same confessional divides as Syria and was under a 30-year Syrian occupation until Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon following the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
“There is not the objectivity, frankly, that one would expect on the subject of Syria. It's just because it's so divisive and it so saturates Lebanese politics,” says Lamb.
The Syrian uprising has split the entire Arab world, according to Roland Barbar, a media specialist who works for Future News, a channel financed by Hariri’s son and former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
“You could say that the situation in Syria has polarised opinion, evidently, and with even more virulence than the Iraqi crisis or even the Middle East's central conflict - the Palestinian-Israeli issue.”