Arabs cheer anti-war spin

Starting with a blood-red background and pounding musical score, the television screen suddenly morphs into a virtual anti-war banner.

The pictures that flash by juxtapose images of Adolf Hitler and World War II battle scenes with recent footage of Palestinian strife and Iraqi cities under siege by U.S.-led forces.

Finally, a blackened screen and the words, "Stop the war."

Al Moustaqbil (the Future), a popular Lebanese satellite television station, runs this footage regularly as a prelude to its news updates on the war in Iraq.

Most Arabs cheer on their media and play down the apparent bias shown by much of it, saying it is normal in a time of crisis. Likewise, they accuse the Western media of forsaking its own freedom to serve Washington and London.

However, a few Arab journalists suggest that the Arab media's anti-war slant is deluding the region's viewers. They question the value of stories that emphasize setbacks for the "foreign aggressors," rather than the more dispiriting facts on the ground for the Iraqis.

In conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia, officials fret over the coverage, fearful that angry mobs will be inspired to turn against foreigners, radicals will recruit new followers and, ultimately, ruling regimes will face new challenges.

Reporting on `aggression'

Arab television stations, newspapers and radio often speak of the American-led forces as "occupiers." They prefer "aggression" to "attack."

As the allied troops reached Baghdad's airport, the Saudi newspaper Al Jazira's take on the situation was a front-page headline that said the Iraqis had "lured the Marines into urban warfare."

Since the war began, Arab television stations also have linked the Iraq war with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In frequent television interviews, Palestinians have said the pictures they see from Iraq are familiar to them.

Among Arabs, no other issue carries as heavy an emotional tug as the Palestinian uprising. Another hot-button issue is the treatment of Arabs by foreigners and the fear of humiliation.

Perusing the Saudi newspaper Al Watan this past week, Mohammad Sulaiman Ahmed, a journalism professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, noted that the sole picture on the front page showed an Arab sprawled on the ground, being searched by a U.S. soldier. Inside, he pointed out another of Iraqi women being searched by U.S. soldiers.

"The Kuwaiti papers would not use these kinds of photos," he remarked, explaining that Kuwaitis' support of the war would lead them to avoid images likely to stir deep feelings among Arabs.

To Ahmed, these are good days for the Arab media. "They have started to react as an Arab media," he said. "They are showing their sympathy for the Iraqi people."

More freedom from regimes

Before, he said, the Arab media would have relied on cues from Arab leaders on news coverage. He recalled the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when Saudi newspapers went several days before explaining to readers that Iraq had invaded Kuwait.

"In this situation, the governments are not included, and there is more freedom," said Fahd Askar, a journalism professor at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University in Riyadh.

But several journalists who work for Arab media--and asked not to be named--questioned how much more freedom they have won and, if any, how long they can hold onto it.

Wherever there is a television set, you will often find people glued to the images of war, and the television station Al Jazeera is the favorite, although its competition has been growing.

Arabs say Al Jazeera's coverage is more comprehensive than American channels. With eight camera crews throughout Iraq, it is well-placed to capture footage of battles and civilian casualties in what amounts to a local story for Arabs.

"It's excellent," said Hassan Abdullah, a producer for the political show "Ala al-Hawa" for Orbit Productions, a Saudi-owned array of satellite channels. "They don't hide anything."

On Friday, Al Jazeera footage included blood-soaked Iraqi civilians, Americans searching for Iraqi fighters and Saddam Hussein's inner circle discussing the defense of Baghdad.

"This has a great effect," Abdullah said. "It shows this is not a liberation force. This is an invasion force."

Cultural differences seen

U.S. government criticism of Al Jazeera, criticism of the channel by American news organizations and even the New York Stock Exchange decision to bar an Al Jazeera reporter reinforce the impression among Arabs that the American news media are not really free.

Hussein Abdel-Ghani, Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Cairo, blamed the American reaction to Al Jazeera's war coverage on what he said was a lack of experience with other cultures' points of view.

"They've discovered that the coverage might make the Arab world angry about American policy," Abdel-Ghani said. "But the people have a right to know what is going on around them."

Mamoun Fandy, a Georgetown University professor and columnist for Asharq al Awsat, a widely circulated, Saudi-owned newspaper based in London, worries that some Arab journalists are revisiting bad habits.

They are going along with what's popular rather than reporting the news, he suggested, crediting Abdul Rahman al Rashed, editor in chief of Asharq al Awsat, with saying so recently in two columns.

"He [al Rashed] said this is not even 1967, it is worse," Fandy explained, referring to the Six-Day War, when the Arab media falsely claimed that the Arab armies were defeating the Israelis.

"He's somebody who called a spade a spade, and it's significant that it comes from a major mainstream newspaper."