NICOSIA, Cyprus — During the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in October, 1985, Palestinian guerrilla leader Abul Abbas tried frantically to contact his men aboard the ship.
In a moment of desperation, Abul Abbas telephoned a number in Paris and, within minutes, his orders had been heard by his men--and by a large audience of startled radio listeners. Like most residents of the Middle East in times of crisis, the guerrillas aboard the cruise liner were faithfully listening to accounts of their actions on the radio.
In the Arab world, radio is the chief harbinger, a purveyor of news, sometimes a potent weapon and, as the Abul Abbas story illustrates, often a matter of life and death. Radio, in fact, has become a regional obsession, with listeners being fed a daily dose of information in Arabic from such local capitals as Cairo, Damascus and, increasingly, Jerusalem, and from as far afield as Washington, Beijing and even Buenos Aires.
In Lebanon, which has been torn by civil war since 1975, radio listening is sometimes referred to as the "Lebanese disease." The number of radio stations has proliferated along with the country's political factions, and each militia group now counts among its assets at least one transmitter--and news slanted accordingly.
When Lebanon's newly elected Christian president, Bashir Gemayel, was killed in a terrorist bomb attack in 1982, the two Christian radio stations, steadfast to the last, broadcast for several hours that he was alive and participating in the rescue operation.
One Lebanese radio announcer, Sharif Akhawi, was dubbed the "voice of conscience" by grateful Lebanese for staying on the air for hours at a time during the worst of the civil war, warning both Christians and Muslims about which streets to avoid because of the fighting. He soon became the most beloved man in the country.
Radios Glued to Ears
Now, Lebanese wander the streets with transistor radios glued to their ears, poised for another downturn in the value of their beleaguered currency. A moment's delay in getting to the money changer's office can result in a month's lost wages.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, radio listening has caught on for a number of reasons, including the lack of serious competition from television--most government TV stations are on the air only a few hours each night. In poorer areas, such as Egypt, radio is the only affordable source of news.
The late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was one of the first figures in the Arab world to recognize the power of radio. He used the powerful Voice of the Arab World in Cairo to transmit his fiery, nationalistic speeches to a widening number of disciples throughout the region in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Radio is usually the main news factor in the area," said Mickey Gurdus, an Israeli who monitors Arab radio stations for NBC News. "Most of the radio stations represent the official line--if you want to know what's happening in Syria or Iraq, you have to listen to Damascus Radio or Baghdad Radio."
One sign of the important role that radio plays in the Arab world is that the CIA-funded Foreign Broadcast Information Service has set up huge listening posts in Jordan and Cyprus to record and translate the large volume of Arabic-language radio newscasts each day.
Iran and Iraq have become notorious for using radio as a weapon in the war they have been conducting against each other for the past seven years, resorting at times to disinformation or gross exaggeration of events.
Iran, for example, bombards the Shia Muslim populations of other nations in the Persian Gulf with Arabic-language exhortations to rise up against their governments. Tehran Radio even broadcasts a daily newscast in English, presumably aimed at expatriate workers in the gulf, with a Brooklyn-accented announcer who begins each day: "In the name of Allah, the merciful: Hi. This is the Islamic Republic of Iran."
"The Iranians began with preaching Islamic ideals, which attracted an audience, but they soon then turned to fomenting revolution," said Bahrain Minister of Information Tarik Moayyid, whose tiny country just across the Persian Gulf from Iran has a majority Shia Muslim population. "They made a major effort--and they are still inciting people--but it was a big flop in my view. They never achieved any credibility."
Because of tight censorship, newspapers and television stations in the Arab world frequently reflect the biases or outright propaganda of their governments. But radio broadcasts from outside the region travel easily across borders and long distances, and many Arabs regard those stations as the most reliable sources of unbiased news.
"The main factor accounting for the success of foreign radio stations is the issue of credibility," said Antoine Nofal, a Lebanese who is director of information at the Paris-based Radio Monte Carlo, by far the most widely listened-to foreign station in the Arab world.