Conflict & Justice

Al Jazeera's impact on Libya

By Alex Gallafent

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Libyans get much of their television via satellite. It's cheaper than the Internet – and it's hard to block, despite the best efforts of the Libyan regime. At the top of the TV tree is the 24-hour news channel Al Jazeera Arabic.

Al Jazeera is funded by the Emir of Qatar. Still, most Arabs consider the channel a source of credible journalism. So said Joe Khalil, co-author of the book, "Arab Television Industries."

"I don't think audiences in Libya or anywhere else ignore the fact that Al Jazeera is based in Qatar and has this type of link," he said.

But at the same time it looks at the types of stories that it's producing in comparison with the kinds of stories that are available to them on their local media scene.

Libya's local media scene is dominated by the state broadcaster, Jamahiriya. There are actually about a half-dozen state-run channels. Muammar Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam launched them a few years ago.
Curbing outside media

Khalil said it was an attempt to trump any outside competition by saying 'look at the wide range of material that's available to you in your own dialect, with people like you.'

A promotional video for one of those channels featured a woman taking cover from a storm. Then the clouds part and she gazes up at the sun – which transforms into a station logo. The idea is that the Libyan channels were providing independent news, a ray of sunshine if you will.

But these channels were all toeing the government line, said Marwan Kraidy, an expert on Arab media at the Annenberg School for Communication.

He said that in recent days all the local channels have begun broadcasting the same message of support for the Gaddafi regime. But Kraidy added that there are signs on-screen that all is not well.

He recalled watching a very Orwellian scene of forced confessions of people who took part in the protests.

Then, he said, there was a jump cut in the video without warning, to a montage of street scenes set to patriotic music of young women waving portraits of Gaddafi.

And then equally abruptly, the video takes viewers from that to a jump cut into a talk show where the hosts and the guest are discussing the conspiracy against Libya.
Propaganda?

Compared to this kind of thing, Al Jazeera Arabic seems authoritative and credible. But Mokhtar Elareshi, a Libyan doctoral student currently based in Britain, said it's not as simple as that.

"Many, many people in Libya believe that Al Jazeera is just propaganda," he said.

Elareshi's friends back home have been warning him not to take everything at face value. They told me not to believe what you see on Al Jazeera, because they are noisy and exaggerate the news.

Arab media expert Marwan Kraidy said Al Jazeera Arabic definitely played games.

You could see it very clearly if you watched it when it shifted coverage from Egypt to Bahrain. In Egypt it was very hostile to Mubarak: it allowed all the dissidents on the air, intellectuals, poets, politicians, journalists criticizing Mubarak.

As soon as it shifted to Bahrain it nearly turned into a propagandist for the regime.

Kraidy said Al Jazeera English has remained consistent in its coverage but al Jazeera Arabic has tacked with the wind. In Libya it's back on the side of the protestors – in a big way.

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is an influential Egyptian cleric and a regular on the channel. Al-Qaradawi did something that's quite remarkable, said Kraidy

He issued a fatwa saying it was okay to kill Gaddafi. You know, giving a death sentence to a leader is not exactly impartial news coverage.

Still, Al Jazeera Arabic remains the go-to channel for many Libyans, especially now. And Mokhtar Elareshi understands that.

Sometimes you don't have choice. You need to follow the news.