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BBC Arabic TV Irks Syrian Government

Many Syrians are welcoming the BBC’s new Arabic-language broadcast channel despite their government’s hostility to the television station.

BBC launched its Arabic TV channel in the Middle East on March 11. It is expected to compete with the most two most widely-viewed Arabic news channels, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.

BBC Arabic is shown in Syria through satellite providers.

One of the government’s official newspapers, Al-Thawra, accused the new channel of aiming to "use British lies to win over the Arab audience". The author of the article, Syrian journalist Maen Aqel, argued that Britain’s objectives in launching the station were political, as the UK had a long history of colonialism in the Arab world and was part of the occupation of Iraq.

Many Syrians welcomed the channel, however, saying they expected it to be one of the best in the region.

"All Arab media are subject to a regime or political movement that tries to push their political and ideological perspectives,” said one Syrian journalist. “The BBC could be a relatively independent and neutral voice in the Arab world."

For the older generation in their fifties and sixties, the BBC evokes nostalgia.

"Many topics and news were taboo in our local media, but the BBC [radio] was there,” said one Syrian citizen who grew up watching the BBC. “If somebody wanted to prove certain ideas or news items, he would say, ‘I got it from the BBC.’ To that extent, this channel had credibility."

The journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that while the Syrian government may not support the new channel,

"Its credibility is well-established.”

Al-Thawra predicted that BBC coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict would be biased toward Israel and dismissive of Arab public opinion. The western media’s coverage of Israeli-Palestinian issues is often criticised by both the government and the Syrian public.

The newspaper predicted that the BBC "will not spread principles of freedom, justice, equality and human rights, because no mother will cause harm to her … spoiled child, Israel".

A writer who did not want to be named said the government’s view of the new channel was hardly surprising.

“The open media have really affected Syrians’ lives,” said the writer. “All these TV channels and the internet have opened long-closed doors of information for the Syrian people. Why should the Syrian government, which blocks dozens of websites and controls all local media, welcome a new independent channel?"

The BBC had an Arabic TV channel that broadcast for two years until its closure in 1996, when many of its journalists went over to a new station - Al-Jazeera.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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