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Analysis: Arab media comes of age

By CNN's Caroline Faraj in Dubai

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Dubai, UAE (CNN) -- The war on Iraq put the Arab media in the spotlight, for the way they reported the conflict, and how they were perceived by viewers in the Arab World and beyond.

Several Arab commentators have noted that for the first time during the conflict, Arabs were able to rely on the Arab media. And some of the top Arab satellite channels -- Al Jazeera, Al Arabyiah and Abu Dhabi -- even seemed to compete with the Western media.

Professor Mohammed Ayish, acting dean of the College of Communication at the University of Sharjah, in the UAE, says: "All news media in the Arab world did a good job in covering the war by dispatching their reporters, hosting experts to voice their opinion, and preparing the equipment to achieve live coverage."

Ayish says Al Jazeera Satellite TV channel was the most popular broadcaster in the Arab World, followed by Abu Dhabi Television, and Al Arabiyah channel respectively.

Maintaining neutrality was the main objective of Al Jazeera Satellite television, according to Ibrahim Hilal, the channel's Chief Editor.

But Hilal is unhappy about charges that Al Jazeera was biased towards Iraq -- even though the Iraqi government expelled some Al Jazeera correspondents.

Abdul Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper says: "Before the war, we had decided on describing this war as 'a coalition on Iraq.' We also called Iraqis killed in the war 'martyrs' rather than 'casualties.'

"We based that on ethical and professional standards more than on anything else. The U.N. was seen as the international source of legitimacy for the war."

The case is different for the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Qabas, which drew on readers' views when deciding on terminology, while Emad El Kadi, senior news editor at Lebanon's LBC Satellite channel, says: "We described it as the war 'on Iraq' not 'in Iraq.' There is a difference in the meaning and we should be very careful while reporting our news."

Hassan Muawad -- editor-in-chief at the Saudi-owned radio, MBC FM -- has a different perspective. "We don't need any terminology to describe the war, because we don't take a specific political position," he said.

"If the media were forced to use certain terminology, they are going to change in accordance with shifts in their countries' policies, which is not the right thing to do."

Arab media 'transformed drastically'

Suzanne Afanah of the Saudi MBC TV, said the media in the Arab world had transformed drastically since the first Gulf War, when Arabs were either getting their news from state-run television, or from CNN.

"Arab viewers have a wide array of partially-independent TV networks to choose from, with professionalism and technical capacity that can to some extent compete with their western counterparts.

"Arabs have proven that they do not need to rely on western propaganda any more than they need to tune into their state-owned TV channels."

The majority of the media in the Arab world is dominated by the Saudis, either directly, by ownership, or indirectly, through advertising.

One Arab observer, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "It was obvious during the 1991 Gulf war, that the general policy in the Arab media was more of a diplomatic one, for it stayed away from using any harsh terminology against the U.S., due to the fact that the Saudis were part of the coalition."

However, the story was different in the 2003 Gulf war.

"The fact that the Saudis in this war were not, and apparently could not, be supportive of the U.S. and the coalition's military actions, left the door open to anybody who would like to attack the Americans and paved the way for the media to show their clear stand -- which was anti-war and against the U.S. presence in Iraq and the region as a whole."

The observer also noted that while U.S. forces were described in the Arabic media in 1991 as "coalition and friendly troops", and the Iraqis as invaders", this time U.S. forces became "invaders", the war became "aggression", and the Iraqis were "brothers under U.S. occupation."

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