Battle of the airwaves as Arab Spring gives boost to TV news
Viewership of news stations is said to have risen due to the Arab Spring. (Al Arabiya).The Arab Spring helped boost the popularity of regional news stations – and with more people watching, TV audience numbers are under the spotlight like never before.
Yet given the limited data on viewer numbers, the claims and counter-claims made by regional stations sometimes feels more like white noise than headline news.
The Qatar-funded Al Jazeera caused a media storm last month when it claimed it is the most-watched Arabic-language TV-news station in the Middle East and North Africa, ahead of rivals such as Al Arabiya, Sky News Arabia and BBC Arabic.
In covering Al Jazeera's press release, the respected global news service Agence France-Presse (AFP) was later forced to retract its report on subject, after it emerged that the “independent study” on Al Jazeera’s viewing numbers had not, in fact, taken place.
Quoting an employee of AFP, the Jeddah-based English language daily The Saudi Gazette reported that the alleged study was “inaccurate”, because “joint research across 21 Middle East and North African countries apparently carried out by Ipsos and Sigma” had not happened.
Despite the retraction, Al Jazeera sources insisted that the Qatari channel is number one in the region, according to the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper; the report by the leading pan-Arab daily was later endorsed by similar statements made by Al Jazeera to AFP.
“We have decided to publish those results in response to a campaign facing us after the Arab revolutions,” Al Jazeera’s director-general Sheikh Ahmed Bin Jassim al-Thani told AFP in a subsequent interview. “Many sides have attempted to spread rumors claiming that our level of audience has dropped.”
The follow-up AFP report did, however, state that Al Jazeera faces a fight in maintaining its audience share, amid competition from local TV channels, and in the face of public opinion over the Qatari network’s supports for new Islamist governments.
“Critics of the first-ever pan-Arab news channel claim that it has certainly lost audience in Arab states where Islamists have climbed to power, like Egypt and Tunisia,” the AFP report noted.
Sheikh Ahmed took control of Al Jazeera in September 2011, replacing Wadah Khanfar, who led the network for eight years. Al Jazeera had, under Khanfar, developed a strong editorial line – albeit one that sometimes drew intense criticism from the US establishment and elsewhere.
Yet some commentators raised questions over the appointment of Sheikh Ahmed, an executive at Qatargas and member of Qatar’s ruling family. The appointment “was said to throw the network’s independence into question in newspaper columns and conversations on social networking sites,” the Doha Centre for Media Freedom noted.
Officials from Al Jazeera declined to comment on this story when contacted by Al Arabiya.