Bob speaks with Mazen Hayek, a spokesman from the Arabic-language news channel Al Arabiya, who responds to Sultan Al-Qassemi's critique. Hayek says the network has a history of covering conflicts without bias, and is doing its best to cover Syria fairly under difficult reporting circumstances.
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BOB GARFIELD: Sultan Al Qassemi believes Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are so eager to support Syrian rebels that they’re misrepresenting the reality on the ground. We asked Mazen Hayek, the official spokesman of the MBC Group which owns Al Arabiya, to respond to Qassemi’s critique. Mazen, welcome to On the Media.
MAZEN HAYEK: Thank you, Bob. Let’s begin with the basic premise that either out of zeal to criticize Bashar al-Assad and his regime or for the state interests of Saudi Arabia, Al Arabiya is throwing journalistic distance to the wind. Is it true?
MAZEN HAYEK: Definitely not true. Sultan Al Qassemi is a renowned young Arab blogger and social media activist, followed by many peers, but in reality he never worked as a professional journalist. Sultan Al Qassemi hasn’t picked up the phone and checked with Al Arabiya if what he’s claiming is true. And without checking, he’s practically doing what he’s accusing us of doing.
BOB GARFIELD: Well then let me do what you say Al Qassemi did not do and, and go down the bill of indictment point by point. Can we start with evidently the frequent appearance on your channel of the firebrand Sunni Cleric Adnan al-Aroor? I wonder how he is deemed to be an honest broker of events on the ground.
MAZEN HAYEK: Al Arabiya is known to be a moderate news channel, is known to never promote radicals or extremists. In this case of this sheikh or another one, these are the available sources in a country that is close to us, where you don’t have access, where you don’t have reporters, so you’re relying on phone commentators, whoever is available to comment.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the questions that’s been asked about the rebellion is what is its composition. How much of it is freedom fighters dedicated to overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, what percentage of it is criminal gangs exploiting the chaos for their own gain? What percentage of it is al Qaeda? But one thing is clear. All of these components are present, and one of the charges by Al Qassemi is that Al Arabiya has suppressed any discussion of the al Qaeda element within the anti-government forces.
MAZEN HAYEK: It’s not up to a news network to classify or to give percentages of the type of fighters –
BOB GARFIELD: Mazen, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I, I simply could not disagree with you more. Of course, it is the news organization’s responsibility to report on the nature of the opposition.
MAZEN HAYEK: Bob, you’ve asked me clearly for a percentage of al Qaeda within Syrian Free Army, who could give you those percentages.
BOB GARFIELD: I understand but the charge he made is that Al Arabiya is suppressing any discussion of any al Qaeda representation in the Free Syrian Army.
MAZEN HAYEK: That’s not true. I mean, every – every debate is open, and we’re opening the channel for whoever is ready to talk about the conflict in Syria.
BOB GARFIELD: Did at any time Al Arabiya show user-generated video purporting to be taking place at one place in time when, in fact, it had taken place at a – at a, at a previous time –
-in a different location?
MAZEN HAYEK: Bob, in a conflict of a year and a half, 24 hours breaking news, tens of thousand of received material and footage, I tell you such material has not exceed the bar of a handful number of abuse. And they were immediately withdrawn, and there was an apology or a mention that these were not accurate.
BOB GARFIELD: I think maybe his most serious charge –
MAZEN HAYEK: Mm?
BOB GARFIELD: - is the allegation that Al Arabiya is acting not as an independent news organization but as an instrument of the State, of Saudi Arabia and of the interests of the Gulf States versus Syria and Iran. Al Arabiya built up huge credibility covering the war in, in Iraq, in covering the Arab Spring. And -
MAZEN HAYEK: Mm -
BOB GARFIELD: -the question is has it squandered that credibility by lining up so directly behind the interests of the Gulf States?
MAZEN HAYEK: No, it hasn’t. Being Saudi-owned doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a foreign policy tool for Saudi Arabia. The accusations of Al Qassemi are simplistic, the same way they accuse US media of being pro-US administration by the mere fact of being American. We’re Saudi-owned, yes, but that doesn’t mean we suddenly become a, a foreign policy tool.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s no way for me to verify it because I, I do not understand Arabic, at the source, whether his charges have any merit. But I do know this, that in the midst of the Arab Spring, when the uprising began in Bahrain, Al Arabiya did not cover them to anywhere near the degree that it covered them in Egypt, in Libya, in Tunisia. And the assumption, not just in my studios but around the world, was that your Saudi and Gulf owners wanted no part of giving oxygen to those protests.
MAZEN HAYEK: As far as Bahrain is concerned, we covered the Bahrain not in a distorted exaggerated manner. Remember, incidents in Bahrain happened when our crews in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya. Libya was at the peak of it. Which is the priority for you on that month? I’m just asking you. You’re the editor in chief of – on duty, and you have your resources, and you’re deploying them, and you want to cover everything, every time, 24 hours. It’s been two years and a half now of, of 24-hour coverage.
BOB GARFIELD: Mazen, thank you very much.
MAZEN HAYEK: Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Mazen Hayek is the official spokesman for the MBC Group which owns Al Arabiya.
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We contacted Al Jazeera and it gave us a written statement saying in part that, quote, “Just like news channels in the US, Al Jazeera Arabic is also accused by people with specific religious and political views for not reflecting them 100 percent. Our job is to report news from the ground in an in-depth, balanced manner, which we do very successfully.”