'Shut up, you barefaced liar'
That is what one newscaster wants to say to the Israelis she interviews.
"The war against Lebanon caught us completely unprepared," an editor on Jordan's television station told Haaretz. "All of us were focused on what was happening in Palestine or Iraq. I know that the majority of Arab stations, except for news channels like Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya didn't even have permanent correspondents in Lebanon after the completion of the Syrian withdrawal, and after the elections in May-June 2005.
"Lebanon wasn't an object of interest. And then all of a sudden - war. How are we supposed to relate to it? How are we supposed to define Hezbollah? What is the official line we are supposed to take on the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers? What vocabulary should we be using? Everything needed to be rethought. Even the system to which we answer didn't quite know how to deal with it." Yet now, even after a week and a half of warfare, no one on the Jordanian station seems too troubled by the fighting. The same is the case on the Libyan and Moroccan networks, and most especially so on the Iraqi network. After all, Iraq has a large daily dose of death, with numbers several times higher than those in Lebanon.
This war has also rekindled the question of what format the reporter's interviews should take, and primarily how to relate to Israeli interviewees.
"There are times when I am forced to suppress a voice that rises within me, and which wants me to tell the Israeli interviewee: shut your mouth, you barefaced liar," says Mai al-Sharabani, a newscaster on the Al-Arabiya network, in an interview with Ibrahim Totanji, a reporter for Al-Hayat, the Arabic-language newspaper published in London.
"The newscaster has to always be ready to make the Israeli interviewee uncomfortable, to pin him down in the narrow alleys of his lies," declares al-Sharabani, who began her career at Egyptian television, from which she moved three years ago to the Al-Arabiya network. The problem is that you don't have enough time to prepare for interviews with "the Israeli," and events dictate both the pace and the length of the interviews, explains al-Sharabani.
Nevertheless, when they simply can't restrain themselves any longer, the newscasters have at their disposal those precious final seconds of the interview, in which they can make a venomous remark that will not garner any response by the interviewee, for the simple reason that it is the end of the conversation.
"Newscasters understand the magnitude of the responsibility placed on them in interviewing Israelis. Millions of Arabs watch them, waiting to see how we will embarrass them or crush them in an interview." says Mohammed Abu Obeid, another al-Arabiya journalist, who claims that he knows how to deal with Israelis, due to having worked in Palestine in the past.
Ibrahim Totanji, the writer of the article, has his own feelings on the subject. "Nobody wants to hear the Israeli drivel. But that is professionalism and its obligations. This is the 'curse' of democracy, of one opinion and of the other opinion that you can't avoid."
Interviewing Israelis, which has over time become an inseparable part of Arab news programming, broke a taboo that went back decades. "The curse of democracy," as Totanji calls it, continues to elicit protests from Arab listeners: They send letters in response to the Arab networks' Web sites, in which they express revulsion, a "sense of betrayal" and at times, abusive language over the fact that the networks devote their airtime to "Zionist propaganda," and especially at such a sensitive and difficult time as the days of war in Lebanon.
The breakthrough Al Jazeera network, the network that interviews the most Israelis, has not only generated competition among several other Arab networks, but has also provoked a proper response by Israeli PR spinners in the office of the IDF Spokesman and at the Foreign Ministry. These two institutions now dispatch articulate spokesmen who are fluent in Arabic, but who do not usually succeed in breaking through the familiar sheaf of cliches.
However, sharing airtime on Arab television with Israelis isn't the only thing drawing criticism. With the outbreak of war in Lebanon, there has also been a rise in sensitivity toward the vocabulary employed by newcasters on the various stations to describe the war. Egyptian television is the object of the most strident criticism, for example, for not broadcasting martial overtures before the news programs, or for not playing songs by Fairuz or other national Lebanese songs, as was the case during the first Lebanon War and even at the start of the Palestinian Intifada.
In addition, the Egyptian vocabulary has been softened, and broadcasters on state-run Nile Television seem to have been given instructions by the station manager, Hala Hashish, not to use the term "aggression against Lebanon" to describe IDF attacks, but to make do with the softer sounding "siege of Lebanon." Similarly, greater use has been made of the words "tension" and "military dispute" in place of "war." This vocabulary is fundamentally similar to that employed by the government newspaper Al Ahram, which quotes Mubarak talking about "military activities" and not about "aggression."
The terminology closely reflects the diplomatic consensus reached between Mubarak, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah of Jordan. Because they consider Hezbollah to be the source of all evil, any war against it cannot take on the air of an Arab war against Israel. But what is even more vexing is what is seen as the apathy of television stations outside Lebanon to what is going on in the country.
Again, the Egyptian stations are the main target of criticism, because of the excessively brief news coverage they offer about Lebanon and the fact that they have not, so far, adjusted their broadcast schedule to the war. "It's as if no Arab country was being attacked. As if there is no war here," read an e-mail to the Web site of a station in the Persian Gulf. Another writer wondered how the Lebanese satellite TV station, LBC, terms those who have been killed in Israel by Katyushas "victims," and why Lebanese civilians killed by Israeli bombs are termed either "victims" or "casualties," but not shahids [martyrs].
One of the most infuriating but amusing episodes took place on Egypt's Channel 1: The hostess of a light entertainment show said, "The war in Lebanon seems to be once again reviving the Arab dream of Arab unity... To that end, we have invited to the studio an important researcher in the interpretation of dreams."