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Arab news program sparks outcry

By Sarah Andrews / Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Controversial show to air on NewTV

Plans for NewTV to begin broadcasting a collection of news broadcasts from the Middle East that critics say are both anti-American and anti-Semitic has thrust Newton's cable access channel into the middle of a controversy that it may have no control over.

At issue is the program "Mosaic: World News from the Middle East," a collection of news broadcasts from 11 Middle Eastern countries, including some which have state-controlled media.

West Newton resident Arthur Obermayer has requested that NewTV begin broadcasting "Mosaic," and under NewTV rules, the station must honor any resident's programming request. In addition, FCC rules prevent cable access operators such as NewTV from exercising editorial control over content. (See related story, page 11.)

Airing of the program became possible last week after NewTV Board of Directors unanimously agreed to begin using the satellite technology the station acquired last month to broadcast outside programming on NewTV.

According to NewTV Executive Director Paul Berg, the station has already received two other requests to air satellite programming. Two residents, Obermayer included, have requested "Democracy, Now!" an independent news show broadcast from New York City, and one resident requested a conservation program produced out of Marblehead called "Clear Skies, Clear Lies."

Several residents appeared at last week's board meeting to speak for and against the idea of airing "Mosaic," which could be on the air in the next week or so and would probably air five times a week.

Opponents say the show is anti-Semitic and anti-American propaganda manufactured for a U.S. audience and isn't a realistic portrayal of what people in the Middle East actually see.

Supporters disagree, saying that the broadcasts give Americans a diverse array of information about how the country is portrayed in the Middle East. They say although there is anti-Semitic and anti-American content, it's an issue of free speech.

Charles Jacobs, a resident of West Newton Hill, was the first to speak out against the show at last week's meeting, joining many others, including two Newton-based rabbis and former alderman candidate David Shein in opposition. Jacobs likened it to "bringing the KKK" into Newton, and criticized the broadcasters shown on the show for saying that Israel and the U.S. were responsible for the state of the Arab world.

"This will not bring more truth, but less," he said.

Newtonville resident Simon Levy said he moved his family to Newton from Morocco to escape anti-Semitic propaganda, recalling Egyptian broadcasts from his youth where people were urged to "slaughter" the Jews.

"Do I want my kids exposed to this in Newton? This is the very reason I came here, the very reason I left Morocco," he said.

But several others, including Brooke Lipsitt, former president of the Board of Aldermen, and members of the anti-war group, Newton Dialogues, came to support the show and oppose any censorship.

Peter Harrington of Newtonville said all American liberties rest "on the back" of free speech.

"Everyone is in favor of free speech except when someone says something [people] disagree with ... without the ability [to have free speech], all of our other liberties are in danger."

Lipsitt said that NewTV should welcome opportunities to fill programming, as they already don't have enough to fill the hours in a day and that the board shouldn't be in the business of censorship.

"There is very little downside to taking advantage of the latest technology," she said, adding, "And I trust the judgment of my fellow citizens."

Obermayer first requested "Mosaic" last May, before the station had a satellite dish. Though he offered to help them purchase one, NewTV decided to buy one independently and took advantage of a deal from Dish TV and Free Speech TV, which provides a free satellite dish to stations or individuals who pay the annual subscription fee, says Berg.

He says the fee, which he estimates to be a few hundred dollars, is paid out of NewTV's annual $650,000 budget.

Obermayer says he requested the show because of concerns over the U.S. media's portrayal of the war in Iraq, feeling it was important to see how other countries viewed us.

Obermayer, who is Jewish, said, "A lot of the material is anti-American or anti-Israeli and makes me feel very uncomfortable. However, I feel it is important for me to know what 280 million people in that part of the world are exposed to."

"Mosaic" is available via satellite off WorldLink TV, a nonprofit network, several times a week and also via the Internet all the time. The show is aired with a disclaimer that some of the content is state-controlled.

Producers of the show say these news reports are viewed by 280 million viewers in 22 countries across the Middle East. "Mosaic" co-producer Jamal Dajani says the show is available to 21 million homes in the U.S. via satellite, and co-producer David Michaelis says that about 10 U.S. local cable TV stations broadcast the show. One is in New York City.

Dajani, a Palestinian journalist, and Michaelis, an Israeli journalist, began working on the show together four years ago and produce it from WorldLink studios in San Francisco. They monitor more than 30 Middle Eastern networks and pick breaking news stories to air in the first 15 minutes of the show. Al Jazeera is not included in "Mosaic."

Dajani says half the broadcasts are already in English, and they translate the others into English in their studio, aiming to bring different perspectives from different countries to each story.

Both him and Michaelis say that so far, they have received positive feedback about the show and haven't seen division within a community like that in Newton.

"This is information that's out there and people ought to see it and make a decision for themselves ... we are a team of Jews, Muslims and Christians, and we all work under one roof and have one goal, which is freedom of information," he said.

Dajani also said he sees this as a personal choice, one of "looking in a mirror or looking through a window."

"People have the right to choose if they would rather watch Fox News ... but we feel it is important to get out of our media bubble and see what is going on in the world," he said.

Michaelis said that he thinks the show illustrates the gap between the U.S. and the Middle East, saying that many U.S. citizens were shocked to learn the extent of Arab hostility toward the U.S. after 9/11.

But Upper Falls resident Brenda Loew, who appeared on Jackie Morrissey's Wednesday night talk show, "Newton Talk!" last week to protest the show, says "Mosaic" is "spreading terrorist propaganda" during a time of war and said that she and a few other residents are looking into a treason lawsuit against the station.

"This is not a free-speech issue when we are at war. There are times when you have to draw a line in the sand and say 'no,'" she said.

"To have Middle Eastern propaganda come in [to Newton] is almost like an effort to subvert the U.S. Constitution. There is no love of country or statement of patriotism," she added.

Earlier in the day last Wednesday, the Boston Israel Action Committee sent out a press release and urged its members to appear at NewTV to protest the meeting. The BIAC is also active in lobbying against the National Public Radio affiliate, WBUR-FM, for what they say is biased coverage on Israel.

BIAC member and Newton resident Diana Appelbaum argues that "Mosaic" producers are misleading by saying some broadcasts are from the private media, which she says does not exist in the Middle East the same way it does here. She says another problem is that "Mosaic" broadcasts are always about Iraq or Israel, not other issues affecting the Middle East.

Lawrence Kletter, Newton resident and member of the Jewish Action Taskforce, posted an assessment of "Mosaic" on JAT's Web site, in which, among other things, he argues that some of the program's translations are incorrect, which Dajani denies.

NewTV board members approved one of two policy amendments under consideration. The first one would have required them to exert control over programming content - something they have never done in the past. Berg said the station's lawyers advised against this, because it could result in First Amendment issues for the station.

By approving the second amendment, the station will continue to air programs requested by a Newton citizen or community member either via satellite or videotape. The requester must agree to be responsible for the legality of the program's content. Obermayer has agreed to do so for "Mosaic."

Board members also argued that approving the policy amendment would not affect whether "Mosaic" could be aired or not, since someone could just as easily tape the program off their satellite at home and submit it to the station that way.

The vote, they maintained, was whether to utilize the station's new technology, since their bylaws were written before the technology was acquired.

And though some residents criticized the board's content-neutral stance, saying NewTV was behaving irresponsibly, Berg said that controlling content "is not our mission."

While Berg and other board members didn't express any sentiments toward the content of "Mosaic" at the meeting, they all agreed that this could be an opportunity for the station to expand its programming and its role in the community, suggesting that people opposed to "Mosaic" produce their own show to discuss the program's content.

Berg quoted former Supreme Court Justice William Brandeis, who said in his landmark 1927 ruling on Whitney v. California that, "To avert the evil by process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not forced silence."

Bunnie Riedel, executive director for the Alliance for Community Media in Washington, D.C., says that NewTV's policies are no different than other community access channels, but the important thing for people to remember is that the community is invited to provide counterpoint.

And she said about 70 percent of cable access channels in the U.S. allow outside programming.

And more programming could be seen as a plus for NewTV, since the station currently repeats certain programs a few times in one day and has hours of open airtime, currently used to post community announcements.

For now, it looks like NewTV will air "Mosaic" five times a week during a time it is available via satellite, giving viewers the choice of whether or not to tune in.

Sarah Andrews can be reached at

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