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Arab Satellite Broadcasting and the State: Who Curbs Whom, Why and How?

Edited transcript of a contribution to the Cambridge Arab Media Project conference on The Media and Political Change in the Arab World, 28-30 September, 2004

I plan to start this talk with a few theoretical observations about states and broadcasters before going on to discuss the mechanics of whether one side can curb the other and, if so, how. First and foremost, I do not use the term "the state" to refer to a unitary actor. Examples have already emerged from our debate so far of how different state institutions within the same state may work at cross-purposes, or even in conflict with each other. Evidence of this kind is likely to be overlooked if the state is personified. Rational choice theory has sometimes been applied to states as though they were individuals, making decisions as rational egoists. But in fact it is more helpful when conducting political analysis to think of the state as a place or arena where people and institutions enter and exit, sometimes interacting with each other, sometimes not. This approach allows for the existence of conflict, competition, disunity, or bargaining among different state actors. The state as an arena endures while governments may come and go.

It might be supposed that Arab satellite broadcasting also represents a space where conflict is acted out. But there is an imbalance between the status of state actors, who have a real existence and an authority embedded in law, and that of the increasing number of non-state actors who occupy the virtual space of broadcasting, where they remain subject to the coercive apparatus of the state. It should also be noted that a large number of Arab satellite broadcasters are either state institutions themselves or are closely aligned with, linked to, or controlled by state actors. Keeping these links in mind can help illuminate apparent contradictions between the policies of different sets of state actors.

For example, Egypt's Dream TV was set up ostensibly as a private channel, financed by a private entrepreneur, Ahmed Bahgat, and it earned a reputation for broadcasting political content that dared to critique government policies. This served the government objective of proving that privately-owned media have a future in Egypt. But Dream was also tied to the government by means of a government shareholding in the company and because it was based in a free zone managed by a majority state-owned body. In some ways Dream served government agendas and in others it did not. Hamdi Qandil's slot on Dream was popular with viewers because they relished his biting criticism of US policy. Some people said he was pushing at the boundaries of censorship and obliquely seeking to curb the state. But others noted that his programme was actually helping the Egyptian government in its delicate diplomatic manoeuvres vis-à-vis Washington and the rest of the Arab world, by showing how unpopular US policies in the Middle East actually are. On the other hand, none of Dream's outspoken presenters proved immune from government intervention to curb their freedom of speech. Over time, Dream's owner took Hala Sirhan, Hamdi Qandil, and Mohammed Hassanein Heikel off the air to avoid the risk of his television station being closed down.

Contradictions have likewise been seen in Jordanian media policy. The royal court and the office of the Prime Minister sparred over a long period up to 2003 about what should happen to the Jordanian Ministry of Information. Their disagreement showed that coherent intentions or objectives cannot plausibly be ascribed to states. If we bear this in mind when studying satellite broadcasting we get a better sense of how state actors and broadcasters may be intertwined in ownership terms, or intertwined in terms of sharing some objectives and not others. Thus is it possible that stimuli for change may emerge through the programmes of a particular broadcasting institution as an unintended consequence of the objectives of certain state actors or institutions.

For example, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, Saudi owner of the newspaper Al-Hayat, teamed up with Lebanese channel LBC because he really wanted to own, or have a stake in, a satellite channel. Prince Khaled may be classified as a state actor insofar as he has been reassigned to a position in Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Defense. The prince's relationship with LBC reflects what we might call "trans-governmental" links between people in government in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon; these links affect who says what on Saudi and Lebanese broadcasting channels. But the LBC-Al-Hayat link proved problematic during the US invasion of Iraq because Syrian controls over what LBC could say about the war were not in line with the political thinking behind Al-Hayat. So, with regard to the question of who curbs whom, the most likely scenario is that different political actors will be vying and negotiating with each other in a way that may become visible through the media.

However, in considering the dynamics of competition and co-operation among political actors there is something to remember. Namely, that there is a mismatch between the transnational nature of satellite broadcasting and the national nature of state actors who come into the picture when we talk about "curbs." The very reason why editorial changes occurred on Arab satellite television, and not on terrestrial TV, is that most Arab satellite channels still operate under different regulatory regimes from terrestrial ones. In many cases, the controls on terrestrial television in Arab states are still incompatible with making interesting television that is relevant to ordinary people. Meanwhile programming on satellite channels is aimed at regional, not national, audiences. It is true that some Arab satellite channels have a remit to make an impact on the policies and actions of specific states. This is the case with Al-Manar, which exists to promote resistance against Israeli occupation of Arab land -- a mission that implies the aim of curbing the Israeli state. But in considering whether transnational Arab satellite channels are equipped to curb Arab nation states, our analysis should differentiate between criticising and curbing.

Someone senior in Abu Dhabi TV once said that his channel, like certain others, believed it was "healthy to air criticism of Arab leaders." But when such criticism is expressed, the vast majority of it is collective and general, not specific. Meanwhile governments continue their excesses, seemingly impervious to criticism. If the Saudi authorities were responsive to media comment, they might have avoided bringing to trial three human rights campaigners who wanted to set up their own human rights organisation, separate from the one appointed by the government. The campaigners were tried on charges of seeking constitutional reform. In fact, by reserving the space of transnational broadcasting for political criticism, while such criticism is disallowed on national broadcast media, you could say that satellite channels simply let regimes off the hook and have saved them from having to rethink national media laws.

The third and last thematic point is this. It is extremely rare in any context for television representations of public opinion to have any direct impact on government policy independently of other factors. We used at one time to hear a lot about the "CNN effect." It seemed to mean that images shown on CNN were having an impact on government policy. But media scholars have explored this phenomenon and suggested otherwise. Dwayne Winseck published an article on CNN a year after the Gulf war in 1991. In it he challenged the consensus view of the time that CNN had emerged from the war as a concrete exemplar of how the public would benefit from developments in communications technology. For example, we know that reporting by CNN's Peter Arnett from Baghdad was considered to go against the grain of supposedly "patriotic" opinion in the US. But Winseck also recounts how a number of major US advertisers pulled their advertisements from CNN news bulletins about the war, saying they wanted to be associated with more regular scheduled programming. CNN returned to its regular schedules later than other channels did, but it could not afford to sacrifice that amount of advertising revenue for very long.

At the same time, CNN did have an opportunity to curb the state in the law courts, by means of a challenge to the press pool operated under CENTCOM rules. Several media practitioners and institutions raised a case in a US District Court in April 1991 against the press pool on grounds of America's First Amendment. But CNN and other media outlets that had been allowed into the pool did not join the challenge.

What CNN occasionally did was to shine a spotlight on diplomatic manoeuvres that were previously conducted behind the scenes away from television cameras. Yet the most likely effect of doing away with secret diplomacy is to encourage diplomats and politicians to work harder on policy presentation, and maybe use public relations experts or "spin doctors." In this way they can face up to television scrutiny without having to change their policies.

Here I can link my first point (about disunity among state actors) with this point (about television representations of public opinion) by quoting the findings of Daniel Hallin, who researched media coverage of the Vietnam war. That coverage appeared to grow increasingly oppositional as the war proceeded, and appeared to be influencing government policy towards the war. Actually, however, Hallin found the opposite to be true. He showed that the media were simply reflecting divisions within government regarding the war. Hallin wrote the following in his book We keep America on Top of the World:
"…the media, as institutions, … reflect the prevailing pattern of political debate: when consensus is strong, they tend to stay within the limits of the political discussion it defines; when it begins to break down, coverage becomes increasingly critical and diverse … and increasingly difficult for officials to control."

Having sketched in this background of theory and research, I will now consider specific examples to try to answer the question of "who curbs whom, why and how?" Of course example Number One has to be Al Jazeera. Has Al Jazeera curbed states, or have states curbed Al Jazeera? I don't think I need to list all the times that Al Jazeera has been refused the right to operate in Arab capitals, or even to cover certain Arab ministers' meetings. The latest example is the ban on operating in Iraq. It was first instituted last September by the Iraqi Governing Council, while the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was still in charge. Then the Interim Government, the IGI, banned it again in August. That ban was supposedly on the recommendation of the new Higher Media Commission that Iyad Allawi set up as a higher authority than the National Commission for Media and Communications created by the CPA. Recently the ban was extended indefinitely.

Why did the interim Iraqi government impose the ban? (The title I was given for my presentation includes the question "why?") Well, I think The New York Times got it about right. They said, in an editorial on Aug. 10, that the IGI had closed Al Jazeera's Baghdad office to save the prime minister from the embarrassment of "having violence in Iraq made visible to a worldwide audience" and to give his government a freer hand to "abuse human rights and pursue personal political vendettas in the name of restoring law and order." Perhaps we should also ask whether the ban is effective. From what I have seen, Al Jazeera still manages to get good shots from inside Iraq, even though its reporter is not standing there holding the microphone. But I would say the ban works in more insidious ways.

Let's agree that the US was recently shown to still retain ultimate authority in Iraq, as demonstrated by the confusion last week over the release of the two women prisoners. If the US really objected to the IGI ban on Al Jazeera, it could probably do something about it. Instead the ban seems not to conflict with perceived US government interests. US antipathy to Al Jazeera might even be said to lie behind the Code of Ethics that Al Jazeera introduced in July 2004. To several observers it seems as though the Qatari leadership, being closely allied to the US, as demonstrated by the Al-Udeid military base, has asked Al Jazeera to adopt this Code of Ethics to mollify the US.

The Code of Ethics places a higher priority on making sure stories are valid and accurate than on getting a scoop. That sounds fine, but in the competitive world of breaking news, who decides how many sources are needed to establish accuracy? And it may be accurate to say that "such and such a person is saying such and such," even if what that person is saying is not accurate. Another clause in the Code of Ethics promises to give "full consideration to the feelings of victims of crime, war, persecution and disaster, their relatives, our viewers, and to individual privacies and public decorum." That is an all-embracing pledge that draws perilously close to the vaguely worded, loosely defined, open-ended prohibitions contained in standard Arab media laws. I would like to hear the views of other conference participants on this.

A second example before I finish. This one is related to laws affecting women. It has been suggested that satellite television in the Arab world has been a major player in debates about women's status, and that TV coverage of issues like so-called "honour killing" has contributed to changes and improvements in laws that discriminate against women. This suggestion is not my idea. I read it in the report of a conference in Amman last year, at which Adnan Shareef, who was then Acting Managing Director of Al Jazeera, made this point. The conference was convened by Queen Rania of Jordan, who is leading a campaign to remind Arab media outlets of the role they can play in helping to change "common public misconceptions" about subjects such as domestic violence, women's political participation, and so on.

I'm fairly sure that an argument saying that satellite TV helped to change the law on honour killing in Jordan would not stand up to scrutiny. The Jordanian parliament rejected a change in the law in November 1999. When parliament was dissolved in late 2001, the government stepped in to change the specific Article of the Penal Code dealing with honour killing. But it left the door open to compromise with those opposed to change by leaving two other articles intact, which still had a discriminatory effect. Meanwhile it was a crime reporter with the Jordanian press, not a satellite channel, who pioneered coverage of honour crimes in Jordan. Importantly, she had royal backing for the campaign. So the legal tussle was effectively between one set of state actors (the monarchy and its media friends) and another set (parliamentarians opposed to a change in the law).

I could go on. We could talk about television coverage of the struggle for women's right to political participation in Kuwait. Here again we have the appearance of a rift between two sets of state actors: the ruling Al-Sabah dynasty, who tried to legislate for change, and Sunni Islamist MPs who opposed it. Al Jazeera has covered this topic. They did so when the ruler of Kuwait first tried to introduce women's political rights by decree back in 1999. But there are two things to say about this. First, Al Jazeera's coverage is precisely that: coverage, not campaigning. Its talk shows give time to those for and against the empowerment of women. That's the whole point of the motto "Opinion and Counter-opinion." Secondly, let's assume for a moment that the "soft power" of media discourse did contribute to a shift in public opinion. How would this be translated into government action in an environment where publics do not choose their government? Even elected governments in the West, notably the British government, have defied public opinion on certain issues.

These remarks are not systematic or deep enough to warrant a full-blown conclusion. But I will finish by drawing together two points. First, any study of the impact of Arab satellite broadcasting on state policy would have to take account of many other factors affecting policy in order to judge whether television content had any effect. I doubt whether anyone studying recent debates about reform within Egypt's National Democratic Party would say: "Ah ha! Gamal Mubarak is worried about the media." They would say he's worried about US foreign policy in the changed Middle East landscape, about Egypt's faltering economy, about foreign investment, jobs, and his own family's future.

Secondly and finally: Yes, satellite TV may make some kind of difference. But the difference comes after the event, not before it. Rulers and their henchmen can no longer get away with doing things in secret. One or other television station will expose them eventually, even if it's only several years later on Shahid ala al-Asr (Witness to the Times). But even if secrecy no long prevails in the aftermath, the actions are still carried out in the first place, with or without satellite television. 

About Naomi Sakr

Naomi Sakr, a senior lecturer in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, is the author of Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East (I B Tauris, 2001), editor of Women and Media in the Middle East (I B Tauris, 2004), and a contributor to recent books on media reform, international news, the regionalisation of transnational television, and governance in Gulf countries. Her principal research interest is media policy in the Arab Middle East.

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