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Anti-Americanism on Arab Television: Some Outsider Observations

In the United States since 9/11 it has been fashionable to criticize Arab satellite television, especially Al Jazeera, for being hopelessly biased and unfairly hostile to America. A great deal of the criticism comes from people who do not understand Arabic and have never watched Arab satellite TV, but they have heard from others (many of whom also get their information second hand) that Arab TV is a major cause of America’s current image problem abroad.

That stereotype does not stand up to close scrutiny. It is true that instances of misinformation and unfair criticism of the United States occur on Arab television, but a fair evaluation would give a more nuanced and balanced picture.

For starters, the tendency to blame Arab TV for most of America’s poor image problems in the Arab world ignores the fact that opinion polls taken in Europe and Asia show respect for America is also very low there, and people in those areas don’t watch Arab TV. Moreover, Zogby polls taken in the Arab world show that Arab television viewers who regularly watch Arab satellite TV tend to have a more favorable opinion of America, not less, than those who do not watch it. This probably is due to the fact that those TV channels carry not only political programs that appeal to Arab nationalist and patriotic feelings, but they also carry material from American commercial networks that may, on balance, present aspects of the United States that Arabs like.

Clearly, Arab TV is different from American television, and the differences help create negative impressions in America about Arab television. Let us look first at its handling of news.

First, at least some of what Americans regard as deliberately and unfairly hostile can be accounted for by what I call the cultural bias factor that applies to every society. In every country, television and other media are shaped by the political, social, cultural, and historic environment in which they function. Media everywhere are to some extent market driven; in other words, TV editors and reporters give the viewers what they want. This applies especially to the selection of news. For example in reporting on Iraq, it is natural that Arab TV will focus on what is happening to Iraqis while American TV is focusing on what is happening to Americans. If one American is killed in Baghdad, that is bigger news in America than the death of one Iraqi, and conversely American casualties will get less Arab TV coverage than Iraqi ones.

Secondly, it is traditional practice in America to avoid showing close-ups of dead and dying people, but many Arab TV channels do not hesitate to show such footage, and when they do show Iraqis who have been injured or killed by US forces, Americans tend to regard that as an editorial decision deliberately intended to show America in a bad light. American TV editors have even complied with the Bush administration’s request not to show caskets of dead Americans returning from Iraq, on the grounds that such footage is inappropriate.

Third, many of the differences between American and Arab television simply reflect the different environments in which they operate. For example, American TV journalists tend to regard themselves as representing institutions that must be constant critics of the government, as guardians of the public’s right to know the “truth,” which they suspect the government often wants to hide or distort. This adversarial relationship is different from the relationship that exists in many Arab countries where television is owned and operated primarily by the government, and TV personnel are government employees. Because of that tradition, many journalists feel under some constraints in criticizing their government, and may practice self-censorship as a form of self-protection.

Fourth, in addition to any self-censorship created by the employer-employee relationship of the reporter or editor, there are in fact provisions in the law in most Arab countries that allow the government to restrict the freedom of TV reporters and editors, as well as print media journalists. Americans who advocate more democracy in the Arab world (and there are many such voices now) are fond of calling for greater adherence to the “rule of law” in that region. The term “rule of law” usually means that a country is not ruled in an arbitrary fashion by a dictator who does what he wants, but that there is a set of laws that have been promulgated that even the ruler must abide by. But anyone who looks closely at media laws in the Arab world, will find that in most Arab states there are detailed provisions in the law that allow the government to take steps against journalists in television and other media that restricts their freedom. These restrictions on freedom tend to be greater than any that exist in the United States.

For example, laws in most Arab countries prohibit journalists from criticizing the head of state or even the head of a friendly foreign state. It is also typical that these laws contain language that prohibits journalists from inciting violence or civil unrest, or “disrupting social peace” or “public order”; and there is often language in the law about the media’s responsibility to “protect the general welfare” or not to “harm national dignity.” Those phrases are, however, very vague and ambiguous, allowing for interpretation in different ways, so that a strong government can use them to crack down on journalists they dislike.

Western journalistic associations that monitor “press freedom” often cite cases of Arab journalists who have been sent to jail for what they wrote as examples of the lack of press freedom. From a Western point of view that makes sense, but these examples often ignore that the government was using the existing law and the court system rather than extra-legal measures outside the courts. Even the actions taken by many Arab governments to suspend operations of Al Jazeera and other news bureaus may be based on existing law, but outsider criticism usually ignores that. Critics will argue nevertheless that the media laws need to be changed in order to protect freedom better.

A fifth difference is financing, since American television is funded almost entirely by advertising, and Arab TV is not dependent on commercials. Nearly all Arab satellite TV channels are subsidized one way or another, because they cannot survive on advertising revenue alone. This is unlikely to change any time soon, for reasons related to the economy and advertising habits generally. It will be interesting to see what happens with al Jazeera if it is in fact “privatized,” as has been discussed, because despite the expectation when it was established in 1996 that it would be self-sustaining financially in five years, that did not happen. If it is privatized and the new owner is disinclined to lose money, will he seek to attract more advertising by changing the content so that it is not so annoying to so many Arab governments?

These comments about the way Arab television handles the news are general observations, and they are not intended to excuse the shortcomings that do occur. Some news presenters seem to go out of their way to give a negative spin to news about America, and at least one important channel, Hizbullah’s Al Manar TV, is consistently hostile to America, making no effort to be balanced on matters relating to the United States. But they are not the norm.

What about political talk shows, debates and call-in programs on Arab TV? Al Jazeera, for example, has attracted a large viewing audience partly because of such programs and they help it maintain its top position. These programs have dealt with a wide range of politically hot and socially and culturally sensitive topics like religion, government oppression and incompetence, poverty, and women’s rights, in ways that are relatively new. American TV of course also presents political debate and breaks some taboos. But some of the discussion programs on Al Jazeera can be fairly criticized for presenting only extreme views and neglecting the more reasoned and sober middle, which is entertaining, but misses opportunities to fully inform and educate the public. Others, like Abu Dhabi TV, tend to be more balanced and responsible.

Also, Arab television has almost none of the “investigative reporting” such as we see on American TV in programs like 60 Minutes on CBS. To prepare for those programs, journalists do a great deal of background work to look into a controversial issue, or they uncover a story that has been neglected, and they interview all sides. The result often makes the government or a corporation look bad, and the viewers are given insights that they otherwise would not have had. One reason Arab TV channels do very little of that kind of programming is that the political atmosphere currently doesn’t allow it. Another is the cost in time and money; it is easier and less expensive to put on a debate between two or three people in a studio as Al Jazeera and other Arab channels do. Perhaps they will also one day do more investigative reporting that will help educate the public.

There are, therefore, problems with Arab satellite TV, both in news presentation and in the political talk shows. But it seems clear that since it emerged in the 1990s, it has in fact brought about significant and even revolutionary changes have taken place in Arab television. On balance, most of these changes have been in the direction of more freedom and independence for TV reporters and editors, and much more lively and interesting programs for the Arab TV viewing audience. Although I am not part of Arab society, when I watch Arab television as an outsider, I am impressed by the fact that many channels carry excellent news coverage much of the time, given the conditions mentioned above that news editors and reporters have a cultural bias and seek to present what Arab viewers want. Aside from the news programs, the discussion and call-in shows also deal with politically and culturally sensitive issues that were taboo prior to the advent of Arab satellite TV.

Moreover, the popular game shows that ask questions about Arab history, society, and culture, demonstrate that people all over the Arab world, from Casablanca to Baghdad, have a common body of knowledge and awareness that unites them culturally. This shared body of knowledge is parallel to what we see in American television where producers of game shows can assume people from New York to San Francisco know the same facts. But America is one country and Arab satellite TV covers many countries who shared some basic knowledge about themselves. (Game shows in India or Australia are not intelligible to most Americans, despite the fact that they are in English.)

So it would be useful if Americans took a more careful, comprehensive, and dispassionate look at Arab satellite television. They need to understand that if it seems different, it was never intended to be just like ours, and it never will be. Programs sometimes cross the line of fairness, or lack professionalism, but it seems to me that only a relatively small portion of its content is deliberately anti-American, as some contend.

About William A. Rugh

William A. Rugh was a US Foreign Service Officer 1964-1995, serving in Washington and at seven Middle Eastern diplomatic posts including public affairs officer in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. From 1995 until 2003 he was president and CEO of AMIDEAST and he is currently an associate of Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, a trustee of the American University in Cairo and a board member at AMIDEAST. Rugh holds a PhD in political science from Columbia University and has taught graduate level courses on public diplomacy and US policy in the Middle East. He is the author of Arab Mass Media and editor of Engaging with the Arab and Islamic Worlds Through Public Diplomacy: A Report and Action Recommendations. He also serves on the editorial board of TBS.

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