Arab news TV rivals draw up Egypt battle lines

DUBAI (AFP) - Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi's ouster has sparked a media war between the Arab world's big news rivals Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera along the policy lines of their Saudi and Qatari funders.

Their differences were first highlighted during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings when the television channels respectively gave the Saudi and Qatari perspectives in their coverage of fast-developing events, analysts say.

The Arab Spring "led to a polarisation in Arab media," says Saudi analyst Abdullah al-Shamry.

"Both channels became more concerned about delivering the opinions of their financiers than offering a professional and objective view," Mr Shamry said, adding that both channels were "losing their credibility" in the face of rivals such as France 24 and Sky News Arabia.

Analysts appearing on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are selected carefully to back their positions, Mr Shamry charged.

Gas-rich Qatar funds Al-Jazeera, founded in 1996, which has revolutionised the Arab media scene, that was for decades limited to state-controlled media, while Al-Arabiya is owned by Saudi businessman Waleed al-Ibrahim who has close ties to the ruling Al-Saud family.

Ties were strained between Saudi Arabia and the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas Qatar has strongly backed the Islamists on their rise to power.

The contrast was clearest in their coverage of the turmoil in Egypt since last month's street protests which were followed by the army's ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mursi.

"Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya covered the events in Egypt in two diametrically opposite ways," said Mohammed El Oifi, Arab media specialist at the Sorbonne university in Paris.

As Al-Arabiya aired live footage of the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square against Mursi, Al-Jazeera split its screen to relay images of a pro-Morsi demonstration at another square in the capital.

And as Al-Arabiya hailed Egypt's "second revolution", most guests hosted by Al-Jazeera described Mursi's ouster as a "coup against legitimacy."

For Oifi, Al-Arabiya's position was "an obvious reflection" of the line adopted by Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah became the first foreign leader to congratulate Egypt's interim president Adly Mansour, hours after he was named to replace Mursi.

But Al-Jazeera "adopted a more hostile position towards the June 30 events than the state of Qatar which seems to have more or less accepted the fall of Mursi," he said.

When 53 mostly Mursi supporters were killed outside Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo on July 8, Al-Arabiya ignored the Brotherhood's version of the incident and highlighted the army's statements.

Al-Jazeera was meanwhile airing footage from a field hospital showing dead and wounded pro-Mursi protesters and it ran live coverage of a Brotherhood news conference.

Early this month, several Al-Jazeera employees, reportedly seven, resigned over disagreements with the channel's editorial line or because of having received threats.

The managing director of Al-Jazeera's dedicated "Egypt live channel", Ayman Gaballah, wrote in The Telegraph on July 13 that "our staff have been receiving death threats, leaflets carrying blood have been distributed outside our offices, and we've been hysterically hounded out of military press conferences by supposed fellow journalists."

Kuwaiti academic Saad al-Ajmi, who previously served as information minister, said "both channels offered extensive coverage of the events but the differences were in their choice of words that reflect their political stances." They "covered demonstrations on both sides. However, the pictures' angles clearly reflected their attempts to concentrate on larger numbers of demonstrators on one side or another," he said.

Viewers have lashed out at both channels.

A page on Twitter with the hashtag "#Tweet Like You Are Al-Arabiya" mocks the Dubai-based channel's coverage.

And a Facebook group with more than 6,000 members calls for "kicking out the collaborator Al-Jazeera channel from Egypt," accusing it of "sowing sedition between Egyptians."