|Arab media has been accused of ignoring the crimes committed in the Darfur region of Sudan [GALLO/GETTY]
A number of Arab journalists have rejected criticism that Arabic-language media has ignored the Darfur conflict.
In recent months, western experts and media advocacy groups have said that the alleged crimes committed in Darfur – rape, burning and razing of villages, and the plight of tens of thousands of refugees – have been poorly reported in the Arab press.
As recently as April 2007, the Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri) said the violence in Darfur had "received scant coverage in most of the Arab media".
Though Memri acknowledged that there were some Arab media reports on Darfur, it accused the press of "minimising" the importance of "ethnic cleansing" in the south Sudanese region.
But Ahmed Sheikh, the chief editor of Al Jazeera's Arabic channel, said it was Arab media that first reported on the violence in Darfur and brought it to the attention of the West.
He said: "As far as Al Jazeera [Arabic service] is concerned, it is unfair to say we were blind to Darfur, we were the first actually before any western media organisation even mentioned the word Darfur.
"We were the first to enter the area and do a documentary about it, and the first images of the burned villages and the atrocities committed there came on our screens not the BBC or CNN. We were the first to break the story."
Other journalists say there are differences in the way Arab and western media have reported on the Darfur crisis.
Abd al-Bari Atwan, the chief editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, said that western coverage has exaggerated the events in Darfur.
"Arab media has not been blind to southern Sudan, but we can say that the western media overstated what is happening in Darfur in a bid to back a western plan to break up the country," he said.
Theories of a plan to partition Sudan have moulded Arab public opinion.
In a 2007 editorial published in Al-Gomhuriya, an Egyptian daily newspaper, the phrase "crisis in Darfur" was described as a cover for an American-Israeli plan to redraw the Arab world, beginning with Iraq and moving on to Sudan.
Preparing the public
Ali Fudail, the chief editor of the Algerian daily Al-Shorooq, believes western media has been particularly focused on Sudan because it is paving the groundwork for a break-up of the country.
"Their media is working hard to demonise Omar al-Bashir [the Sudanese president] in the same manner they used against Iraq," he said.
"I think after thousands of proven false reports about Iraq, western journalists are not in a position to criticise Arab media. Arab media proved to be right in denying that Iraq had any links to al-Qaeda or that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction."
Atwan believes that the link to the Iraq war goes even further.
"Western media is in a state of alliance with western governments in imposing a black out on what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and wants to divert the world's attention by focusing on Darfur," he said.
Covering Arab aggression?
Nevertheless, criticism of the Arab press in covering the violence in Darfur has persisted, with some media analysts saying there has been a campaign to cover up Arab aggression toward Africans.
"There is always going to be some sort of reluctance to demonise their own, the Arabs as they will see themselves," Opheera McDoom, the news correspondent for Reuters in Darfur, told Al Jazeera's The Listening Post programme.
Mahmood Mahdani of Columbia University also told The Listening Post: "I think it is about linking Darfur with the larger war on terror by portraying and framing the perpetrators of violence in Darfur as Arabs."
But Fudail rejects the claim that the image of Arabs in the west plays any role in news coverage of Darfur.
"It is unacceptable to describe the Arab media as blind to Darfur, on the contrary we keep a close eye on what is happening in Sudan whether in Darfur or in the south, and any reader can see that on daily basis.
“We do not care if the aggressor was an Arab or non-Arab."
The missing link(s)
Arab editors have also criticised western media for failing to contextualise the conflict in Darfur. While the violence is seen as an act of Arab aggression on African tribesman, the realities on the ground paint an entirely different picture.
According to 5 Truths about Darfur, an article written by correspondent Emily Wax in The Washington Post on April 23, 2006, several facts have been dropped from western media reports on south Sudan.
|Protestors in London march to raise awareness of the situation in Darfur [GALLO/GETTY]
The most important point is that the conflict is between Muslims; Muslims are both the victims and the perpetrators of the violence. Wax also writes that this is not a racial conflict; again blacks are both the victims and perpetrators of the violence.
Such failures to accurately report context are what Tahir al-Adwan, the chief editor of the Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm, believes differentiates western and Arab media.
He said: "Just because we do not cover it from the same angle that the western media covers it, our colleagues in the west tend to deny our coverage. How can we ignore the killing of thousands of people? We definitely would not.
"We cover Darfur's issues in a way that would not harm the integrity of Sudan, while they want to start a fire ... that is the difference."
Why only Darfur?
But Al-Adwan also blamed some of the discrepancies on a failure of western media to read the Arabic press and to apply the same passion for reporting Darfur elsewhere in the world.
"If they really read Arab media, they would see how much coverage we give to Congo, for example, and for the continuing chaos in Somalia. But how much coverage about Somalia do we see in the western media? Not much, simply because they do not have particular interests there."
Al Jazeera's Sheikh agrees: "There are crises taking place in the world, there are many atrocities being committed in Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and in Iraq where western forces are killing innocent civilians and they [the western media] are not talking about these. Why?"
According to Save Darfur, a US-based advocacy group calling for immediate military intervention in South Sudan, "hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, even by the most conservative estimates".
UN and human rights organisations estimate that between 200,000 and 400,000 people have been killed with an additional 2.5 million displaced by the six-year conflict.
Save Darfur has labelled the conflict a "genocide" - a term first used by Colin Powell, the then US secretary of state, in 2002.
But Atwan says western media pick and choose their news reporting priorities based on foreign governments' agendas.
"How many people have been killed in Darfur? Two-hundred-thousand while we have millions killed in Iraq, and at least 3 million Iraqis who are now refugees all over the world. So why do we not see the same attention given to the Iraqis?" he said.
Atwan also said that western media has largely ignored the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
However, he also acknowledged that the crisis in Darfur coincided with what he called the "debacle in Iraq".
"I do not know how they think, they think we would not care for the deaths of thousands of people?
"However, in news there are priorities, and Darfur synchronised with the Iraq disaster, and no one can blame us if we gave the priority to Iraq news."