Every now and then, there is talk within the media that a certain nationality dominates within the establishments of Arab satellite news channels. Some believe that the employees of that nationality form a mafia like group that rejects employees of other nationalities or undermines them to the extent that they do not achieve either success or popularity in the same way that those of the dominant nationality do.
In this report, Asharq Al-Awsat looks at the nationalities that make up the news teams of the most prominent Arab television satellite news channels. The channels examined are all of a similar nature in that they target viewers throughout the Arab world as well as Arabs who do not live in the Arab World. After all, it is not surprising that local media institutions are dominated by one nationality as they have a set audience.
The news channel Al-Arabiya is made up of 31 presenters, 12 of whom are from Lebanon. The rest originate from a number of Arab countries, 4 Jordanians, 3 Palestinians, 3 Egyptians, 3 Syrians, one Moroccan, one from Saudi Arabia, one from Oman, one from Iraq, one from Algeria, and one from Sudan.
Nabil Al Khatib, the executive editor in chief of Al Arabiya (a Palestinian), told Asharq Al Awsat, "Most satellite channels seek to employ those who have the right experience and who can present material in a modern way that conforms to their style." Concerning Al Arabiya, he continued, "We look for candidates from Arab countries where the broadcasting channels reach a level of professionalism similar to that of our own. Our employee should be dynamic, should enjoy a strong presence on screen, and should have excellent proficiency of the Arabic language." He stated that a diversity of nationalities amongst the team of employees on screen or off screen is required because Al Arabiya targets all Arab viewers. Therefore, he added, the choice of a particular nationality among Al Arabiya”s employees is unintended. Al Khatib asserted that throughout his time at Al Arabiya, he had never noticed any difference in behavior towards a particular nationality and had never been instructed to deal with employees according to their nationalities rather than their merit and qualifications.
According to Al Khatib, the officials responsible for hiring the staff of Al Arabiya maintain a certain image in mind when they look for new presenters. They look for somebody with a strong presence, the appropriate appearance, and dynamism that would correspond with the Al-Arabiya”s style. Al Khatib added, "When you apply this criteria to candidates from various Arab countries, you would find that Lebanon has the most deep rooted traditions in non-governmental (private) TV media work. I cannot deny that other Arab countries have a lot of experience too, but in Lebanon, the experience is more apparent. This has made those who work in media acquire more experience in television than others; especially that government state television usually imposes many restrictions upon their broadcasters in a way that could not permit them to express freely their individual and distinctive styles."
The news channel Al Jazeera on the other hand, did not respond to Asharq Al Awsat”s numerous attempts to obtain information about the composition of its employees in terms of nationality. However, according to the provided information on Al Jazeera”s website, there are 28 newscasters within the establishment. The majority of presenters are from Jordan, three of whom are originally Palestinians. The remaining news presenters originate from a number of Arab countries; 4 Lebanese, 4 Syrians (one of whom holds a British passport), 3 Tunisians, 2 Egyptians, 1 Sudanese, 1 Saudi, 1 Moroccan, 1 Iraqi, 1 Algerian, and 1 Qatari.
BBC Arabic Service
The BBC has recently announced that it will launch an Arabic language news channel in 2007, creating a number of new jobs. Rumors are already circulating that the Egyptians will form the majority of the news team. Asharq Al Awsat spoke with Houssam Al Sukari (originally Egyptian) who is the first Arab to become the director of BBC Arabic language radio. Al Sukari stated that he is aware of the rumors yet he added, "It is not how it would seem."
According to Al Sukari, there are approximately 100 employees in the Arabic BBC radio team along with 20 correspondents worldwide. Al Sukari however declined to specify the nationalities of the employees. He responded, "I do not believe we can present such details because we are currently launching a recruitment campaign for people of all nationalities." In response to the rumors that the majority of workers are Egyptian, he said, "We never discriminate either positively or negatively based on nationality." He added, "The Arabic BBC radio service employs a large number of workers from all over the Arab world except the Gulf region as we have a number of problems there. The problem is the lack of local journalists as the local media itself hires foreign staff." He also explained that another reason for the limited number of journalists from the Gulf area was that many of them prefer to work in their own countries where they would receive a better wage.
Al Sukari added, "Most of the media institutions which are not initially biased would mainly hire Egyptian workers." He presented three explanations for this, "Firstly, the Gulf region does not have enough journalists. Secondly, proficiency in the English language is very important which reduces the chances for North African journalists, as English is not the second language for them (despite that, however, we have many). Finally, Egypt makes up a third of the Arab world, has the most university degree holders and the largest number of radio and TV stations." Al Sukari mentioned that the recruitment process is made up of a number of stages including a written test for a selection of the applicants (in Arabic grammar, journalism skills, and translation), and an interview for those who pass the written test. Al Sukari said that the same recruitment procedures would be applicable when choosing employees for the Arabic TV channel, re-emphasizing that nationality is not a criterion.
Asharq Al Awsat asked the spokeswoman of the American Al Hurra Arabic-language satellite channel, Dierdre Kline, to offer a list of the employees names and nationalities. Despite Kline”s popularity for her cooperation with journalists, she declined to offer such a list or to answer the question. She merely stated that the journalists who work for Al Hurra are from 22 countries and "are the best professional journalists." After calling her again, she did not provide any statistics. However, she answered all other questions posed by Asharq Al Awsat.
The salient impression about Al Hurra is that its employees are predominantly Lebanese. A Lebanese worker for Al Hurra considered that "the very fact this topic is raised is inappropriate. The efficiency of the employees should be the only issue to focus on regardless of nationality or race." However, the prominent American congressional representative, Dana Rohrabacher, disputed this opinion. In the most recent congressional hearing, Rohrabacher highlighted the matter of the "Lebanese Nature" of the channel. The News Editor of Al Hurra, Mouwafac Harb (An American of a Lebanese origin) responded as he emphasized that the predominance of the Lebanese employees is no longer a problem. Harb stated that amongst 12 broadcasters there are 4 Lebanese, 4 Egyptians, 1 Qatari, 1 Sudanese, and 2 Palestinians. He added, "We try to reflect the diversity of the Arab World." Harb explained the large number of Lebanese employees when the channel was newly established, saying that Al Hurra made the most of the closure of a Lebanese TV channel, which had an already qualified crew. Yet he insisted that now, Al Hurrah employs journalists, producers, and writers from various Arab countries. Others have stated that the Lebanese channel closed because it failed and that Lebanon was replete with media qualified workers who were rejected by Al Hurra, while others much less qualified were employed. Thus, the reasons for their employment are unknown.
A source from within Al Hurra, who said that he was instructed not to speak to any newspapers, said the problem was not that of qualified personnel since there are many of those who work in Al Hurra. According to that source the real problem was not making full use and benefit of these qualified employees of various nationalities. He urged that there should be more equality in opportunity between employees based on merit only, and the same for applicants. Meanwhile the American Arabic language satellite channel advertised vacancies for writers and producers on 18 November. The observers regarded that such an announcement in itself signifies a positive change that will enable the channel to employ the best qualifications based on standards of merit like the other channels.