Ex-Chalabi aide launches Arabic news channel, taking aim at Gulf perspective

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 9, 2012 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In a media environment where television channels are frequently accused of taking sides, a new station based here and aiming to capture an audience across the Arabic-speaking world is promising a counterweight to the current giants of the industry, which are owned by conservative Persian Gulf governments.

"I'm trying to give the Arab viewer a chance to make a decision on their own," said Entifadh Qanbar, the general director of Asia TV, which launched this week.

With offices in Tehran, Damascus and Baghdad, Qanbar said he is hoping Asia TV will offer a different perspective on events from those offered by Al Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar, and Al Arabiya, whose owner is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Both have been accused in the past year of giving positive coverage to revolutions in countries such as Libya and Egypt, while stifling coverage of unrest in autocratic countries in the Gulf such as Bahrain.

"Everyone is afraid of the Saudis," Qanbar said. "They also own most of the major print media."

"The way of politics in the gulf — as far as I can have witnessed in my life — has not been positive for the Arab countries," said Nisreen Nassereddine, who hosts a show called "Heart of the World," which promotes an alliance between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

Qanbar said 34 programs are in some stage of development, with some ready to begin airing in the next week, including the station's two-hour morning show.

But Qanbar's favorite is "Kleptocracy," a show that discusses corruption and mismanagement in government. The first episode of the program will focus on corruption in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense in 2004, when the American-appointed minister allegedly fled to Jordan with millions of dollars.

Qanbar himself is linked inextricably to politics. Before taking over Asia TV in June, he served as a top adviser to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician best known for providing the Bush administration now-discredited information about former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.

Qanbar also served as the spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi's political organization, which assisted the United States in its preparations to invade Iraq in 2003. Chalabi, who fell out of favor with the U.S. in 2005 after being accused of working for the Iranian government, has since presented himself as a mediator between warring Iraqi political factions.

Qanbar said the station has no direct links to Chalabi.

"He supports us and is a strong friend of the station," he said. "We mentioned him yesterday in a story about corruption in Iraq."

Qanbar said he no longer has time to work as an adviser to his former boss, but that it doesn't mean he's no longer involved in politics.

"If I leave politics, politics won't leave me," Qanbar said. "We're going to be honest about our views, and we'll be transparent."

His experience with the Iraqi National Congress and its advocacy for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had given him an excellent basis for directing a TV station, he said.

"We don't write about history — we are history," he said.

The channel's employees come from a range of backgrounds and varying levels of experience.

"We used to say that the press was the fourth estate," said Suhair Mortada, the station's lead anchor, who left Al Arabiya's office in Qatar after nine years to return to her native Lebanon to work for Asia TV. "Now we say money is the fourth estate."

"It's never happened in the Arab media industry," Mortada said. "We will focus on being as professional as we can be."

Mortada did not want to criticize her former employer and said that the accusations that media coverage had helped create unrest in Egypt and Libya last year were overblown.

"Those things were already there," she said. "It takes two hands to clap."

Coverage of Syria in Arabic-language media has become a contentious issue, and Asia TV promises to provide its own perspective.

According to al Akhbar, a Lebanese news website, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Beirut recently resigned from the station over what he said was censorship of the coverage of Syria and the uprising in Bahrain, where Saudi troops were deployed in a crackdown on demonstrations against that country's rulers last year.

"In other channels you can see just the opposition areas, and on other channels you can see only the people who support Assad," said Mario Abboud, one of Asia TV's anchors. "Here you can see both."

"We are emphasizing how important reform is," Qanbar said. "We understand Syria needs democracy. But we're not going to be fooled by Qatar."

Qanbar declined to give a figure for Asia TV's budget.

"It's never enough," he said with a laugh.

Asked who was putting up the money, he said only that it came from businessmen who supported free speech and the channel's stated principles.

Lebanon boasts the freest media environment in the region and is home to many satellite channels that compete for viewers with a range of programming and political viewpoints. The monitors in Qanbar's office were tuned to a matrix of other programming, ranged from Al Manar, a station owned by Hezbollah, which the United States has branded a terrorist group, to BBC Arabic, owned by the venerated British news operation.

"It's super-oversaturated, but we have a niche," Qanbar said.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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