by: ZEINA KARAM /BEIRUT – A new pan-Arab TV station that went on the air Monday courts viewers who see mainstream coverage of the political upheaval sweeping the Middle East as biased against the regimes in Syria and Iran and their close ally in Lebanon, the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
The Beirut-based station Al-Mayadeen, Arabic for The Squares, hopes to counter the influence of regional media heavyweights like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, both funded by oil-rich Sunni Gulf Arab countries that have backed the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. It also promises to support the Palestinian cause and all forms of “resistance” — a term in Mideast parlance usually used to describe Hezbollah and other groups that fight Israel.
Al-Mayadeen is headed by Ghassan bin Jiddo, a well-known Tunisian journalist who quit Qatar-based Al-Jazeera last year to protest what he contended was one-sided reporting in favor of the Syrian opposition. Since the Syrian revolt began 15 months ago, some Arabs have accused Al Jazeera of whipping up public opinion against Assad’s regime and playing on sectarian tensions.
“I am against any media that may deviate to the level of provocation, incitement and sedition,” bin Jiddo has said of his resignation from Al-Jazeera.
Bin Jiddo has pledged a balanced and professional approach at Al-Mayadeen, but his background has skeptics wondering whether the station will simply be a mouthpiece for Iran and Syria. Bin Jiddo used to lead Al-Jazeera’s Beirut operations and was the only journalist who was granted an interview by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
“We do not speak in the name of Iran or the Syrian regime, we are a completely independent channel which reflects reality as it is,” bin Jiddo said at a press conference in Beirut this week.
There has been much speculation over the source of funding for Al-Mayadeen, which employs about 300 workers. Bin Jiddo has denied it was receiving money from any country, saying it is funded by businessmen whose identities he would not disclose.
Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the two most viewed news stations in the Arab world, are funded respectively by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Syrian regime often refers to the two stations as the “incitement” channels or “death” channels.
The new station will also be competing with scores of other all-news Arab TV news channels, including BBC News Arabic and more recently, Sky News Arabia — all trying to draw viewers at a time of momentous political change in the Arab world. The Arab Spring uprisings that have swept the region since last year have polarized the media, with journalists accusing each other of taking sides.
The split has highlighted a growing schism in the region. Sunni-led Gulf Arab countries are at odds with Shiite Iran and its ally Syria, and have called for international military intervention to oust Assad.
Many of Assad’s supporters deny that he is facing a genuine popular uprising, saying the revolt is instead a conspiracy fomented by foreign countries seeking to topple the Syrian leader because of his support for anti-Israel groups.
Syrian opposition groups say more than 13,000 people have died since the uprising started in March 2001. The revolt, which began as a largely peaceful movement, has morphed into an insurgency. A peace plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan has failed to end the violence.
On Monday, activists said dozens were killed as Syrian troops attacked a rebel-held town in central Syria with helicopter gunships and shelled other restive areas across the nation.
The new station led its Syria coverage with statements from both the opposition and Syria’s state-run media. In a later program, the channel hosted Anis Nakash, a Lebanese pro-Iranian figure with a controversial past.
Bin Jiddo said earlier that the new channel will champion Arab nationalism, primarily the Palestinian cause.
“We will fight sectarianism and stand against colonialism and foreign intervention,” he said. “The station’s compass will always be turned to Palestine and the resistance.”
The channel has attracted journalists from across the Arab world and even beyond. George Galloway, an outspoken former British lawmaker, will host a weekly program called “A Free Word.”
In the run up to the launch, billboards advertising Al-Mayadeen popped up across Lebanon with the words: “Reality as it is.”