Satellite Broadcasting (12/98)

"One thing about our part of the world," said an Iraqi professor enthusiastically; "it’s always changing. We don’t usually know what is going to happen, but things are constantly moving in the Middle East." The latest phenomenon in this capricious world is called Al-Jazzerah Television Network, and it has the entire Arab world talking about its controversial political talk shows.

First, Al-Jazzerah drew attention for airing Lebanese opposition party views; then it dared to debate the sensitive issue of "who is a Jordanian?" The majority of Jordanians are Palestinian, and there’s been debate about whether they should have equal citizenship. Al-Jazzerah is the first to tackle such controversies. Doubtless, its location in a distant corner of the Arab world helps. So does wealth: Al-Jazzerah is funded by oil profits.

But this adventure in journalism is also part of the growth of competitive satellite television networks in the region. Al-Jazzerah, or "The Island" (the name could refer to its self-image in journalism), is produced out of Qatar, a normally quiet Gulf state far from the center of Arab political affairs. No one expected to hear any challenge to the political status quo from such a marginal member of the Arab community. But for satellite transmission, geography is less significant; the availability of highly trained journalists and cameramen is more critical.

Like controversial radio stations before it, Al-Jazzerah is heavily staffed by Arab expatriates. It benefits from their expertise and perhaps draws on their opposition to their home governments, as well. Still, Al-Jazzerah isn’t all that unique. As communications technology changes worldwide, Middle East media has leapt into satellite TV broadcasting on a massive scale.

The new Arab language networks find funding from governments, rich scions, and international corporations like Coca Cola and Toyota. With that backing, they have rapidly gained popularity with a public that appreciates the airing of once taboo political issues. Just as important, however, is the quality of programs – especially international news – now available to them.

"Each network has a team of correspondents in the field, reporting from across the world," remarks a viewer in Jordan. "MBC [a Saudi-owned company] even has a reporter in Jerusalem. Arab journalists file stories live from Moscow to Tokyo, Sao Paulo to Cairo." This is new. And, according to her, "For the first time, we feel that our news is not subject to British, American, or French interpretation. Our long time reliance on Western sources is gone at last."

This indisputable change in the television business can only be good news for Arab citizens. Yet, it’s too early to tell if the advance brings real political freedom. If outside observers or advisors hope the communications revolution is democratizing the world, they may still have to wait.

Finding an Audience

In the US and Europe, where open debate on political policies is considered a given, there’s little evidence that massive media sources really advance civil rights. Certainly, hundreds of new program options do offer wider market choices. But it’s like competing cereals on a supermarket shelf. On the whole, they’ve failed to motivate people to address the ills of their societies and governments. Yet, we expect that expansion of media alternatives and opportunities worldwide ought to sweep others onto the democratic road, as if they wouldn’t also be mollified merely by the cereal alternatives.

So, what about the Middle East? There, a population of 400 million, the majority of them young and bereft of basic freedoms, dreams of liberation. At the start of the international TV boom barely nine years ago, Arab homes found themselves deluged by "Western TV" programs. Families in Rabat and Baghdad, Beirut and Kuwait became absorbed with television sitcoms from France and the US. They also had hours of children’s cartoons, and, of course, "uncensored" news commentaries, mainly from CNN and Sky TV.

For a few years, these imported programs had some impact. But that new exposure didn’t stimulate reform. Far from it. Instead, CNN coverage of the Gulf War likely helped sell Washington’s rationale to the Middle East public. The sitcoms, crime series, and cartoons seemed to further pacify the Arab public.

In the short run, global television only helped the young and despairing forget their problems. Soon, however, two new social currents emerged. After 1991, the number of applicants for emigration soared all across the Middle East. Then, partly stimulated by growing religious conservatism and the mean policy of economic sanctions on Iraq, anti-US sentiment developed. People seemed to care less about freedom of speech -after all, it wasn’t their free speech they were hearing – and more about accurate, respectful presentations of Islam and Arab history.

Enter Arab satellite television. In just a few years, a host of new Arab language satellite channels were in place and winning over local audiences. From Qatar at the extremity of the Arabian peninsula to Morocco, new satellite companies have sprung up since 1994. Arab audiences can view specials during Ramadan holy month, pan-Arab football matches, and Arab poetry. This reaches the Arab Diaspora across the globe. But the main audiences are in the Middle East itself, where satellite dishes are common.

Some companies operate out of local production offices in places like Cairo or Damascus. Others are based overseas – mainly in London, today’s center for Arab language news media. London had already become the home base of major Arab dailies. Now many TV companies have their head offices there. Saudi Arabia’s MBC is the largest. ANA is a strong second, and in third place is Dubai TV. But they are being challenged by Syria TV, other Saudi-owned channels, several companies from Lebanon, and ART in Egypt. Kuwait and The Palestinian Authority also have satellite operations.

Stirring the Pot

Like established international Arab newspapers, the most successful new TV companies are heavily news oriented. Contrary to glib and racially-based Western reports about TV access offering Arabs wider pornographic possibilities, what really interests Arab men and women, after football, is world news. While the companies model themselves after US news networks, they’re quick to say they aren’t simply an Arab translation of CNN or NBC. Indeed, most Arab viewers feel theirs are superior, offering more depth on Middle East issues and a better understanding of regional history.

Like many of the companies, Syria TV is state owned. Nevertheless, viewers get reports from genuine Arab correspondents located around the world. Or they can switch to Dubai TV for a slightly different point of view. Each has correspondents on the spot for disasters, political summits, and other developments. Across the world, Arab viewers appreciate these networks’ implicit respect for Islam and Arab culture and history.

An Egyptian employee of a major Arab paper notes, "Our channels are free of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias. And our announcers do not have that imperial arrogance of the British or the Americans." Even so, old biases haven’t disappeared.

Neither Saudi Arabian nor Syrian TV is completely up-front about policy issues affecting its interests. But this doesn’t deter most viewers, who have learned to approach media with skepticism after years of listening to Arab radio from around the world. They have always relied on hearing a number of alternatives before coming to their own conclusions.

The emergence of a rebel in this new media business was inevitable. Perhaps the Arab public was just ready for more confrontation. Al-Jazzerah certainly provides that. Its talk show hosts are young and bold, trained in journalism and media image-making. Gone are the stiff and stony-faced pedants who once dominated Arab TV news.

Thus far, the debates aired on Al-Jazzareh haven’t unsettled any ruler or inspired a rebellion. As one critical viewer, who finds fault with Al-Jazzareh’s factual reportage, notes, "They do more to stir than actually inform." Yet, perhaps that kind of "stir" is what the Arab public now wants.

The question is: Will the Emir of Qatar, the highly pro-US young leader who owns Al-Jazzareh, allow the same kind of open debate on a touchy Qatari issue?

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based anthropologist and broadcast journalist, is a regular TF contributor.