Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Who's Watching Al-Arabiya?

Since 2003, the politics of Arabic language satellite television have been defined by the rivalry between the Qatar-based al-Jazeera and the Dubai-based/Saudi-funded al-Arabiya. Indeed, al-Arabiya's sole raison d'etre since its founding in 2003 is to counter al-Jazeera. Needless to say, the last eight years have seen some rather interesting media wars between the two.

A poll released last week will be sure to up the ante. The poll was conducted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and focused on ascertaining which news sources Egyptians tuned into during the protests. The BBG is a Washington based group that apparently used regional subcontracting to carry out the actual polling of 502 Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria. The results indicate that 65% of Egyptians turned to al-Arabiya to get the majority of their news during the uprising, while only 22% turned to al-Jazeera. I'm sorry, but these results are just not credible.

Anyone who has spent any time at all in an Arabic-speaking country where al-Jazeera is available realizes that it is by far the most popular satellite news channel in the Arab world. During my time in Cairo this past summer, al-Jazeera was simply ubiquitous. Even the World Cup (which I watched religiously) was broadcast on al-Jazeera Sport. I can't remember ever seeing anyone watch al-Arabiya.

Another reason why I have a hard time accepting the credibility of this poll is because its results indicate that Egyptians deemed Nile TV - Egypt's state channel - to be more credible than al-Jazeera. Now, it goes without saying that al-Jazeera certainly has its biases and limitations (doesn't everyone?). But to say that Egyptians put more trust in their state television channel than al-Jazeera is simply laughable. Until Mubarak was practically out the door, Nile TV was continuously downplaying the scale of the uprising in order to discourage popular support. Furthermore, the poll indicates that al-Hurra was more popular and more credible than al-Jazeera during the protests. I find this extremely hard to believe, to say the least.

So what's going on here? My guess is that a significant part has to do with al-Jazeera being blocked by the Egyptian authorities for a week during the uprising. The polling took place between February 4 and February 10. al-Jazeera was blocked during a good part of that period. I wish I could come up with a more sophisticated critique that focuses on the poll's methodological flaws, but it's been a while since I took statistics and econometrics as an undergraduate. Therefore, I'll just stick to my instinctual critique that this poll surely cannot be credible.

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