News and Views : Radio: Town Crier of the Arab World

Times Staff Writer

During the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in October, 1985, Palestinian guerrilla leader Abul Abbas tried frantically to contact his men aboard the ship.

In a moment of desperation, Abul Abbas telephoned a number in Paris and, within minutes, his orders had been heard by his men--and by a large audience of startled radio listeners. Like most residents of the Middle East in times of crisis, the guerrillas aboard the cruise liner were faithfully listening to accounts of their actions on the radio.

In the Arab world, radio is the chief harbinger, a purveyor of news, sometimes a potent weapon and, as the Abul Abbas story illustrates, often a matter of life and death. Radio, in fact, has become a regional obsession, with listeners being fed a daily dose of information in Arabic from such local capitals as Cairo, Damascus and, increasingly, Jerusalem, and from as far afield as Washington, Beijing and even Buenos Aires.

'Lebanese Disease'

In Lebanon, which has been torn by civil war since 1975, radio listening is sometimes referred to as the "Lebanese disease." The number of radio stations has proliferated along with the country's political factions, and each militia group now counts among its assets at least one transmitter--and news slanted accordingly.

When Lebanon's newly elected Christian president, Bashir Gemayel, was killed in a terrorist bomb attack in 1982, the two Christian radio stations, steadfast to the last, broadcast for several hours that he was alive and participating in the rescue operation.

One Lebanese radio announcer, Sharif Akhawi, was dubbed the "voice of conscience" by grateful Lebanese for staying on the air for hours at a time during the worst of the civil war, warning both Christians and Muslims about which streets to avoid because of the fighting. He soon became the most beloved man in the country.

Radios Glued to Ears

Now, Lebanese wander the streets with transistor radios glued to their ears, poised for another downturn in the value of their beleaguered currency. A moment's delay in getting to the money changer's office can result in a month's lost wages.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, radio listening has caught on for a number of reasons, including the lack of serious competition from television--most government TV stations are on the air only a few hours each night. In poorer areas, such as Egypt, radio is the only affordable source of news.

The late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was one of the first figures in the Arab world to recognize the power of radio. He used the powerful Voice of the Arab World in Cairo to transmit his fiery, nationalistic speeches to a widening number of disciples throughout the region in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Radio is usually the main news factor in the area," said Mickey Gurdus, an Israeli who monitors Arab radio stations for NBC News. "Most of the radio stations represent the official line--if you want to know what's happening in Syria or Iraq, you have to listen to Damascus Radio or Baghdad Radio."

One sign of the important role that radio plays in the Arab world is that the CIA-funded Foreign Broadcast Information Service has set up huge listening posts in Jordan and Cyprus to record and translate the large volume of Arabic-language radio newscasts each day.

Iran and Iraq have become notorious for using radio as a weapon in the war they have been conducting against each other for the past seven years, resorting at times to disinformation or gross exaggeration of events.

Iran, for example, bombards the Shia Muslim populations of other nations in the Persian Gulf with Arabic-language exhortations to rise up against their governments. Tehran Radio even broadcasts a daily newscast in English, presumably aimed at expatriate workers in the gulf, with a Brooklyn-accented announcer who begins each day: "In the name of Allah, the merciful: Hi. This is the Islamic Republic of Iran."

"The Iranians began with preaching Islamic ideals, which attracted an audience, but they soon then turned to fomenting revolution," said Bahrain Minister of Information Tarik Moayyid, whose tiny country just across the Persian Gulf from Iran has a majority Shia Muslim population. "They made a major effort--and they are still inciting people--but it was a big flop in my view. They never achieved any credibility."

Because of tight censorship, newspapers and television stations in the Arab world frequently reflect the biases or outright propaganda of their governments. But radio broadcasts from outside the region travel easily across borders and long distances, and many Arabs regard those stations as the most reliable sources of unbiased news.

"The main factor accounting for the success of foreign radio stations is the issue of credibility," said Antoine Nofal, a Lebanese who is director of information at the Paris-based Radio Monte Carlo, by far the most widely listened-to foreign station in the Arab world.

"We give a complete view of the region with a maximum of honesty and objectivity," Nofal said. "Unlike most local stations, we have no censorship. We have earned the credibility of our listeners."

The widely imitated Monte Carlo format uses a mixture of pop music and flashy technique in the presentation of the news, including sultry sounding women announcers, who are a big hit in the conservative hinterlands of the Arab world.

Paradoxically, despite the years of tensions between the Arabs and the Israelis, surveys show that one of the most popular radio stations in the region is the Arabic-language service of Kol Israel--the Hebrew name for Radio Israel--in Jerusalem.

Arafat Listens Often

Even in government offices throughout the Arab world, one sometimes hears snatches of the news from Radio Israel. PLO leader Yasser Arafat, a frequent listener, and other Arabs commonly quote it.

In fact, a survey of urban listeners in Egypt conducted by the British Broadcasting Corp. in 1984 placed Radio Monte Carlo first, with 39.8% of those polled saying they listened to it. Radio Israel finished second with 26.4%, followed by the BBC with 25% and 23.9% for the Voice of America. Among Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Radio Israel placed first, outpolling Damascus Radio, Cairo Radio and even the Voice of Palestine, the PLO station that broadcasts from Baghdad.

Edmond Sehayek, director of Arabic programming at Israel Radio's Arabic service, said his station's popularity among Arab listeners is based on a record of credibility. While Arab stations face political censorship, in Israel there is only military censorship, which tends to focus on army incidents and violence.

No Ax to Grind

"It's funny, but we're the only station in the area that doesn't have an ax to grind," Sehayek said. "We don't care if the Syrians get mad at us."

Thus, Israeli Radio might report in detail on an event in the Arab world, giving background and analysis, while the Arab stations are afraid of offending a government leader and report only the barest facts, usually an airport arrival or departure.

Sehayek acknowledged, however, that the radio tries to "present a positive side" of Israel to its listeners. He noted that during a recent Cabinet debate, when one minister called another a "crazy maniac," the Arabic service played down the slur, while Radio Israel's Hebrew service led with the epithet. "If we followed the Hebrew service, people in Arab countries who don't understand how democracies work might think this country is falling apart," Sehayek said.

Conversely, Palestinian guerrillas are referred to as "terrorists," while the Palestine Liberation Organization, in an Arabic play on words, is frequently called the "Palestine Destructive Organization" by Radio Israel announcers. Sehayek said the radio usually makes a distinction between terrorist acts and political statements in castigating the PLO.

Radio Israel receives 5,000 letters a month from listeners in Arab countries, mostly Egypt. But, as Sehayek noted, "Some of it is very hostile, I must say."

Perhaps because of Radio Israel's success, stations in Egypt, Jordan and Syria have nightly newscasts beamed at Israel--in Hebrew.

Arab journalists maintain that Radio Israel's popularity also derives from the appalling quality of most newscasts from the surrounding countries, such as Jordan and Syria, where discussions of local topics and local leaders can be embarrassingly sycophantic and provincial.

A reporter in Amman recalls the first news of the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. On Jordan Radio, the news item began: "His Majesty the King today sent a letter of protest over the massacre. . . . "

Another leader in broadcasting to the area is the BBC, which devotes 63 hours a week to Arabic-language programming. Both Radio Monte Carlo, which is owned by a company controlled by the French government, and the BBC use transmitters in Cyprus to reach large audiences in the eastern Mediterranean--Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria--on the easily heard AM band.

The first BBC Arabic-language broadcast reported the deaths of three Palestinians in the West Bank of the Jordan River. The broadcast was aired on Jan. 3, 1938, and the men in question were hanged by the British, who then controlled Palestine.

Like the Voice of America, the BBC is sometimes regarded as an extension of its government's foreign policy, an accusation the BBC tries hard to dispel. But when a recent quiz show on the BBC mistranslated the word "authoritarian" to describe the government of the two Yemens--an announcer called them "fascist"--it quickly became a diplomatic incident in which the British Foreign Office became involved.

Staid and Boring

Although the BBC is considered staid and boring by many Arabs--the announcers speak a form of classical Arabic that is akin to reading the news in Latin in Rome--it has more standing in the region than any other station. Jordan's King Hussein and Libya's Col. Moammar Kadafi, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, are both acknowledged fans of the BBC's Arabic service.

"Stations like Monte Carlo appeal to younger audiences with things like their music, but when the chips are down, such as a big story, listeners always come back to the 'Beeb,' " said Bob Jobbins, director of the BBC's Arabic service.

The watershed came during the Suez crisis in 1956, when the British government tried to prevent the BBC Arabic service from quoting British critics of British policy toward Egypt. The BBC refused to bow to the pressure, and its popularity has been strong ever since.

On the other hand, stations such as Radio Moscow beam powerful transmitters at the Arab world with long programs in Arabic. But they have never caught on--the BBC's survey showed that only 0.4% of listeners in Egypt tune in to the Soviet broadcasts.

Recently, countries such as Libya and Saudi Arabia have joined the ranks of stations beaming to other countries. But despite transmitters of 1 million watts or more, they are rarely listened to outside their national borders.

"Listening to Saudi Arabia or Libya, you can feel their insecurity," radio monitor Gurdus said. "They are slow to react to the news. Sometimes, they never react at all."

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