DUBAI â€” When Arab news channels raced to cover Israel’s retaliation against Hizbollah’s capture of two soldiers on July 12, they had little idea that they were in for a long, all-out war.
The widely-watched Doha-based Al Jazeera, which initially adopted the logo “Lebanon under siege” for its coverage, soon replaced it with the more dramatic Arab-Israeli “Sixth War” â€” reflecting the magnitude of the unfolding conflict.
For Dubai-based Al Arabiya, it was “The Hot Summer,” with most of its airtime dedicated to live programmes dubbed “Lebanon under fire” and “Diaries of the war.” “All media were taken by surprise,” said Jihad Ballout, corporate communications officer of the Saudi-backed Al Arabiya which, along with Qatari-funded Al Jazeera, represents the main pan-Arab 24-hour news channels.
Other Arab channels that have provided extensive coverage include state-owned televisions and Lebanese private counterparts.
The latter have carried wide footage, which has been used by international news networks.
Benefiting from a high satellite television penetration in the Arab world, the two main channels brought the current war into most living rooms in the region.
“The same [surprise] applies to all Arab and international media. But we reacted swiftly … through relying on our permanent presence in Beirut until we reinforced it with more manpower and logistics,” Ballout told AFP.
Despite Lebanon’s history of violent conflicts, which includes a 1975-90 civil war and Israeli invasions in 1978 and 1982, this was the first time for the two pan-Arab channels to cover a Lebanon war. Al Jazeera went on air in 1996, while Al Arabiya was launched in 2003. Both had experience in covering the war in Iraq, and Al Jazeera was the only television to cover from Kabul the US-led war on Afghanistan’s Taleban in 2001.
Al Arabiya dispatched a number of its Iraq-war veteran correspondents to Lebanon to back up its team of local reporters.
Al Jazeera went further, placing some of its news anchors in Beirut.
From a rooftop in the newly-rebuilt central district of Beirut, Al Jazeera’s newscasters lead the channel’s main news bulletins with up-to-date reports on fighting and Israeli air strikes. As regional outlets with Arabic-speaking viewers across the world, these channels have outdone international counterparts in allocating air time to war coverage.
Both televisions have also mobilised their teams in Israel and the West Bank to cover Hizbollah’s shelling of northern Israel. On several occasions, they appeared being chased by Israeli troops from areas near the Lebanon border.
Al Jazeera correspondents, the first to report the first-ever bombing of the town of Haifa, were later briefly detained by police.
Both channels have also given Israeli spokespersons a platform to put their country’s viewpoint across to Arab viewers.
But on the Lebanon side, most reporters were locals seeing their country’s villages and towns being reduced to rubble, and their countrymen falling by the hundreds â€” a big test for their objectivity.
“A journalist cannot be isolated from his roots and feelings. I cannot imagine feelings being impartial … In this situation it’s even more difficult because the casualties are innocents,” said Ballout.
“But there are certain measures in practice to preserve objectivity … As usual, there must be a source for the news and/or witnesses,” he added.
Satellite channels are, however, playing a major role in mobilising the angry populace in Arab countries. Images of dead children and women being retrieved from rubble are repeatedly transmitted to people’s small screens.
“What we are showing now is only a fraction of the gruesome images which we have decided to withhold,” said Al Jazeera’s news anchor Jamal Rayan as he commented on fresh images of the aftermath of an Israeli raid which killed 28 farm workers in eastern Lebanon.
He vented his anger grilling an Israeli interviewee who was adamant that the raid had targeted a lorry suspected of transporting rockets to Hizbollah, while images of labourers torn to pieces were being shown.
“I doubt anyone will believe you, but thanks,” Rayan told his guest, ending the short telephone interview.
Al Arabiya appears to practice a stricter policy in terms of aired graphics.Â