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Arab Satellite Broadcasting: Democracy Without Political Parties?

The famous Arab news network Al Jazeera has been considered one of the most important de facto “Arab political parties.” Since most Arab countries have not yet established functioning democracies, relevant institutions, such as political parties and a parliamentarian opposition, are still rudimentary. To many observers, Arab satellite television seems to have the potential to take over part of their designated role. As a mouthpiece of Arab peoples and "the common man," Arab satellite broadcasting seems able to mediate between the state and society. In the international context, the transnational Arab news networks in particular have made tremendous inroads into the Western-dominated flow of news. Perhaps for the first time ever in history, Arabs have an effective and up-to-globalization tool of information at their disposal to inform the world about their own views on regional conflicts, whether in Palestine or Iraq.

However, to what extent can Arab satellite broadcasting really play a proactive and avant-garde role for Arab democracy? The international debate on Al Jazeera and other Arab satellites in recent years has been characterized by tremendous controversy and insecurity. While Al Jazeera, in particular, was considered by some to be the herald of Arab democracy and civil society, its critics highlighted the networks’ anti-Israeli or Anti-American biases and their sensationalist tendency towards “politainment.” Proponents applaud Arab transnational television for opening up the public discourse, but opponents argue that they are doing quite the opposite because they resonate and perpetuate intrinsic biases of Arab political culture. That Al Jazeera has been labelled “The Arab CNN” is not really helpful in assessing the network's political effect since American networks and other mass media also showed many (pro-American) biases especially after 11 September 2001 and during the Iraq War in 2003.(1)

The stagnation of the debate that is entrenched firmly in the above-mentioned bipolar views results not only from empirical and research deficits, but also from the fact that there is no clear theoretical basis for considering the role of satellite television in the process of political transformation. Media in authoritarian countries operate under completely different conditions when compared to Western consolidated democracies. While in the West the identification of mass media with or as "political parties" is believed to discredit their legitimacy as objective information hubs, media in authoritarian countries face a double challenge that plays no role in the operations of their Western counterparts. While their basic aim is still to disseminate “objective” and “neutral” information, the extraterritorial location of satellite television enables satellite broadcasters to take over some of the functions of political parties and political movements. The idea that Arab satellite broadcasting might be capable of articulating and mobilizing civil society and thereby encouraging democratic transformation surely is part of the fascination about this medium.

Whether one sides with the critics or with the sympathizers of Arab satellite broadcasters depends much on one's premises. It seems naïve to measure the performance of Arab broadcasting according to Western mainstream standards because the political systems and political cultures they operate in are in many regards different from those of developed democratic systems. As a consequence, the functional dualism of Arab satallite broadcasting creates new problems. What is the role of Arab broadcasting when the political culture that the media represent is not sufficiently "democratic" in nature and direction—as might be the case with Arab-Muslim societies that have no experience of full-fledged democracy? To what degree can broadcasting networks and journalists compensate for the weaknesses of Arab democratic political movements, organizations, institutions and sometimes intellectuals—a new and complex role that journalists have neither been mandated nor educated for? To what degree can one realistically and legitimately ask Arab satellite broadcasters to take the lead in the move towards democracy? And when do they need to be protected themselves by the democratic constitution of the political systems governing the societies to which they broadcast?

This paper seeks to elaborate on the theoretical role Arab transnational news networks can play in the process of political transformation and to interpret the often insufficient empirical evidence for the feasibility of such a role. I attempt to analyze the ways in which contemporary networks already fulfil a democractic political role. I suggest that Arab television has achieved a great deal, but that, particularly after the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the Iraq war in 2003, structural changes will be required in the newsrooms and in the Arab satellite broadcasting system to consolidate and advance a role supportive of democracy. Otherwise the danger is inherent that instead of succeeding, perhaps for the first time in history, in making mass-mediated journalism an avant-garde for a globally and regionally inspired democratization, Arab networks could lose their critical function.

1. Theoretical Perspectives: Media as an Alternative to Political Parties

The state of political affairs and the role of the media in Arab societies contradict many lessons of history and ridicule mainstream transformation theory, which holds that political parties were created as a reaction to modernization processes, mostly as class-based parties like the German Social Democrats or British Labour.(2) In this view, the more middle-class Western societies became, the more political parties reflected the interest of ever-larger parts of the populace. They developed from class parties to popular parties by integrating broad underlying values of societies, such as, for example, conservatism versus social equality ideals. Parties are at the same time a reflection of underlying social structures and self-conscious elites who aggregate the political will of large fragments of a society, articulate it and thus develop the democratic project. Transformation theory emphasizes the role of elites(3) who, in the case of political parties, design political programmes and finally create governments and recruit political personnel for leadership. In summary, according to democratic transformation theory (non-revolutionary) political reform and democratization always has been the privilege of political counter-elites and oppositional parties. Mass media has played no role in the process.

Many general media and communication scientists do consider the media important for democracy.(4) But the theoretical debate in political science about democratic transition never has done so. The so-called “small media” like the Internet or even the underground press might be considered important(5) —but the big mass media always have been thought to follow rather than lead democratic change.(6) Authoritarian regimes, however, fear neither the Internet nor the underground press, since in widely illiterate societies such as Asia, Africa and Latin America, the usage and the effects of these media are limited to small elite groups.

Consequently, they hardly are suitable for broader societal mobilization. Many Arab and other Middle Eastern political regimes have, for example, liberalized parts of their media systems, like the Internet in Morocco, Egypt, or Jordan or the press, especially weekly or monthly journals, in countries like Jordan or Iran.(7) But none of the Middle Eastern states ever has opened up the TV sector with the partial exception of the Gulf states, which host the new regional Arab news networks like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya or Abu Dhabi TV.

But despite the regimes' fear of television and the fact that it might be the only medium reaching "the masses," transformation theorists consider only the struggle for media freedom important for democratization, but not television itself, largely for two reasons. First, transformation theoreticians believe that television, in particular, but also other large mass media, act according to the primacy of organizational goals. Politics or market forces seem to dominate the media, and the organization of the media constantly struggles for its own survival. Television in particular is an industrial process that easily can becontrolled by the state.(8) Second, the mass media have never been considered primary social actors. Rather they seem determined by actors like the government, lobbies, or political parties.

For all these reasons mainstream transformation theory has never considered big mass media as an “avant-garde” of democratization. On the contrary: The classical and influential book Four Theories of the Press by Friederick S. Siebert, Wilbur Schramm and Theodore Peterson claimed that the media always been shaped by their respective social and political structures, be they authoritarian or democratic in nature.(9) It is only after systemic changes to democracy occur and electoral democracy is established that television is considered important for formulating the public agenda and representing civil society in a functioning democracy. Transformation theoreticians stipulate that the mass media, television and the big press, is not as crucial in the authoritarian phase as certain dissidents, artists and other freedom fighters might be, and that it is only in the phase of consolidation of democratic institutions that the media are effective.

However, this theory was written for nation-based media, not for the new reality of satellite television that crosses national borders. In this situation state control over television regresses and big media gain more freedom—a freedom they can use to play a role in early democratization processes. These processes take place on a transnational, but limited, plane. It is not so much globalization and Western media that are crucial here, but regionalization and the geo-lingustic unity of regions like the Arab world that creates new challenges at the crossroads of regionalization and democratization.(10) It is telling that at the same moment Arab television gained more freedom, it created a Pan-Arab dialogue on democracy and reform (see below).

From a theoretical point of view, the new situation of television in the Arab world is one of growing freedom, but also new problems. Of the two reasons that television never was considered a democratic avant-garde (state control and the prominence of primary social actors in media production) the former, state control, is diminishing in importance. The reactive character of the media vis-à-vis primary social actors still is a salient feature of the Arab media system. In the Arab world, the media operate in a vacuum of political mobilization because political parties, if they exist at all, are hardly ever relevant or representative.(11) Many Arab political institutions are weak, and the reason is that a socio-economic imperative for creating political parties based on class, as was the case in Europe during its modernization process, is non-existent in the Arab world. Moreover, many organizations and intellectual elites of Arab civil society show a certain degree of ambivalence about democracy.(12)

If they function at all, social movements and opposition parties head in different directions than the ethical and religious groups that captured non-state areas like Imbaba and Ain Shams in Cairo.(13) Islamists are not necessarily democracy-minded, but they are the most effective opposition with an established constituency in the Arab world. However, even their impact on society is disputed among scholars as either growing(14) or slowly eroding.(15)

In this situation, there are two intellectual alternatives to consider. One is that the media revolution already was “dead” before it became effective in helping to create new democracies because there is no sustainable link between media and political parties. Alternatively, one can accept that media take a leading role in democratization themselves and substitute at least some of the tasks political parties do not fulfil.

In principle, television can take over some functions of political parties. It can integrate, aggregate and articulate the political will of the people; it can mobilize people for non-parlamentarian political action; and while it might not be able to work out political programmes, it can help a society open up a dialogue on democratic reform. The most important function of the mass media is to uphold the agenda of democratic change by being the people's voice and letting the “repressed” express themselves in the media. In taking over the role of mediators between state and society, the media's democratic agenda could eventually lead to mobilization and a democratic system change.

Shibley Telhami rightly argued that mass media are most effective where people have no first hand experience with the issue at stake and therefore must rely on the media.(16) But is “democracy” a primary or a secondary issue in the Middle East? It certainly is both. It is primary because many people in the Arab world feel that regime corruption and other problems need to be resolved. And it is at the same time secondary, because most people who have lived in autocratic systems throughout their lives have no direct experience of democracy. Consequently, media could be effective in providing information on democratic developments elsewhere and in the Arab world. Therefore mass media must be considered to have a high potential for shaping public opinion on matters related to democratic reform.

What sounds illusionary at first is a consequence of contemporary politics and society. In the West we are debating the impact of the so-called “media democracy” on traditional institutions like political parties.(17) We consider ourselves to live in the era of “mass democracy” and of “mass communication.” While such talk is subject to much hyperbole, why should it not be possible that the character and composition of institutions relevant to democratization change over time? If social classes are less relevant to the information society due to the decline of the so-called “Fordist” (heavy industry) mode of production and the growing importance of professionals, or even of "the masses," why should the media not take the lead rather than follow political parties?

One can argue that the decline of political institutions corresponds to the rise of the authoritarian Arab state in the 20th century and, most recently, with the rise of the mass media as mediators between state and society. But before one can proclaim such a change in paradigm there are more hurdles to overcome. First, the news media cannot be the sole mirror of people or the peoples' “party,” but must at the same time value their primary function of information out their old and new functions—objective information and democratic partisanship. Second, mobilization and change can only occur when political parties and institutions start to develop.

The news media must not only mirror the people, but should inform them, correct them and also “educate” them. If they do not, there is an inherent danger that a political culture that has never experienced democracy will merely reproduce itself, and that the old populism of the regime will merely be replaced by a “techno-populism.” The kind of democratic partisanship of the media that is needed for democratic change does not compromise objectivity as long as it seeks to compensate for the lack of articulation people suffer under authoritarian rule. But it conflicts with objectivity if it does not reflect all or, at least, a significantly broad spectrum of the important voices of the opposition as much as the government.

At this point, conflicts are inherent between the role of the media as “political parties for democracy” and as “informers.” What do you do if the political culture of those whom you are trying to articulate is not in itself pluralist? How can you be attractive to people if you tell them unpopular truths?

However, from the viewpoint of systems theory of the media it is absolutely clear that one function of the news media—the conveying of objective information—cannot be replaced by another function, namely popular partisanship. Both must coexist in domestic as well as in international news. According to functionalist systems theory, news broadcasting must be considered a sub-system of society that is both autonomous and open to interaction with and pressure from other parts of the society (politics, economy, audiences etc.). News broadcasts seek to balance the indigenous functions that make them indispensable—primarily to generate unbiased information and to set a society's social agenda—with the needs of the various other sub-systems that compete for access to the news media. It is a competition which, under authoritarian circumstances, clearly is dominated by the state and within which societal forces must be better represented if there is to be some kind of democratic transition.(18)

If news and analytical broadcasts lose their ability to counterbalance pressure exerted by the state, the society, audiences, the political culture or any other outside forces, there is no basis left for the conveying of political information and political opinion necessary for any electoral democracy or political mobilization. Being a party for democratization means accepting that democracy is first and foremost based on the principle of non-violent competition of all legitimate interests. That is the intrinsic informational and educational function news media have and must not lose. On the premise that in any society a range of world views exists, the dissemination of those views is a functionalist necessity in the context of a democratic theory of the news media. Therefore non-democratic forces, opinions and issues can be part of the public media discourse, but they must not dominate it.

If news media are mobilizing people without applying professional standards of objective reporting then they might actually be a party for the wrong case—not for democracy, but against it. But in the event of a mobilization based on the right agenda and on professional standards, the news media still can work against democracy rather than for it because it can never lead alone. News media might potentially assume a portion of the political parties' functions, but they only are effective if the link between the media and social and political movements, which is weak in the beginning, becomes stronger over time. “Television democracy” never can fully replace the function of political parties because societies need viable political institutions. In contrast to the classical division of three powers, the media are not parliamentarian sphere and executive at the same time, but are at most a “virtual parliament.” Arab satellite news broadcasting will remain ineffective as an agent of democratic reform if movements, organizations and institutions of a democratic body politic do not develop in conjuction with it.

2. A Real Democratic Agenda?

The first question to be answered is whether Arab satellite news and analysis broadcasting fulfils the specific tasks of the media-plus-political-party symbiosis laid out in this paper. The international perception of Al Jazeera in particular passed through two very distinct phases that are marked by the attacks of 11 September 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.(19) Before that date, Al Jazeera was almost unanimously applauded outside the Arab world for its ability to criticize governments and discuss matters in the public sphere that were previously taboo (sex, religion, politics).(20) After the attack, however, Al Jazeera was confronted with increasingly harsh criticism of its perceived anti-Israeli and anti-American coverage and its showing video tapes by Usama Bin Ladin's Al Qaida network, which was interpreted by critics as support of Arab-Islamist terrorism. Despite this very contradictory image, hardly any solid content analysis has been pursued thus far on any of the Arab satellite networks.(21) Arab satellite broadcasting requires interdisciplinary research between, for example, media studies and Oriental studies. This has proved difficult to achieve.

When examining the democratic agenda of Al Jazeera that dominated Al Jazeera's international image between its foundation in 1996 and 2001, it becomes clear that the lack of existing in-depth-research is flagrant. Very few contemporaries have followed the coverage of the democracy issue. Therefore it is legitimate to ask how Al Jazeera, as the most prominent Arab news and political events analysis network, shapes a democratic agenda and if it serves the function of democratic partisanship that would be needed to call the network an “avant-garde” of democratization.

The capacity of Al Jazeera TV to serve as an alternative to the information and mobilization role that usually is fulfilled by political parties is hard to discern, and it seems to change over time. There are many talk shows on Al Jazeera TV in which Arab governments are criticized, and this seems to be the specific contribution of the network to Arab political culture. However, when analysts consider the content of Al Jazeera’s programmes in relation to the issue of democracy, three sometimes conflicting types of perception are at hand.

Firstly, a number of observers have pointed to a positive impact of Al Jazeera’s talk shows and open style of debating on Arab civil society.(22) Breaking taboos in various fields—from women’s issues like female circumcision to previously un-debated foreign policy topics such as the West-Sahara conflicts—was widely interpreted as a breach with authoritarian broadcasting practices and gave Al Jazeera the reputation of being the first pluralist television network in the Arab world.

It was around the turn of the millennium and especially after September 11, that critics, not only in the West but also among Arab scholars, journalists and experts bemoaned the limits of Al Jazeera’s approach to political affairs. The analytical capacity of the network has been criticized time and again. The critics perceive a preference for controversy and sensationalism over in-depth political analysis. Critics also point to some of Al Jazeera’s shows that promote “empty controversies” (Steven Wu) in which Islamists, nationalists and others debate each other, but get caught in a “monotony” of political scenarios.(23) Layla Al Zubaidi goes further when she argues that democratic exchange "represents not much more than a shimmer" on Al Jazeera, which is "almost completely detached from the socio-political realities of most, if not all, Arab countries."(24)

But how substantial are complaints that Arab satellite broadcasting is too sensationalist in style?(25) One could argue with Matthew A. Baum that soft-news or entertaining forms of news journalism are, in fact, needed for television to be an advocate of democratic change and the mobilization of people for opinion-making and political action.(26) Fatima Mernissi may be right when she argues that Arab satellite broadcasting has widened the public sphere for critical journalism and Arab dialogue.(27)

However, she ignored all the literature on the agenda-setting effect of political reporting when she declared the “television agenda” to be irrelevant and, at best, secondary in importance to the revolution in the style of Arab television news and political reporting that occurred with the new networks. In one of the very rare content and effect analyses that exist, Erik C. Nisbet, Matthew C. Nisbet, Dietram A. Scheufele and James E. Shannahan revealed that the choice between various Arab satellite networks can contribute to anti-Americanism among the consumers.(28) For the networks to be effective, opinion formation must precede news consumption. It is only in these cases that the way the media cover relevant issues can tone down or fuel such attitudes. Audience values related to participation and democracy could therefore only be manifested within a relevant media agenda.

If agenda is relevant, and if it is true, as the critics say, that Al Jazeera has no consistent agenda on democratic reform however one can applaud its pioneering work for free speech, how does that affect Arab transformation? Does Al Jazeera remain a model in style rather than in substance? Does the network offer pluralist debating instead of taking over a responsible role in democratic transformation? Is it too much to assign Al Jazeera this role that we have, however vaguely, defined as “aggregating” and “articulating” the political will of the people, “mobilizing” for non-parlamentarian political action, and helping a society open up a dialogue on democratic reform? In the words of Marc Lynch: “Talk shows will not be enough.”(29)

In fact, in recent times, a third trend of content observation came to the fore. In the course of 2005, Al Jazeera has reacted to oppositional movements in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. It acts as a mouthpiece for Arabs' critique of their governments. Al Jazeera reported extensively on ongoing political protests in countries like Lebanon, broadcasting live images of the “Cedar Revolution,” or Egypt, where the anti-regime Kifaya(Enough) movement was taking to the streets. Many people uttered hopes that Al Jazeera would be the information hub for a spill-over effect triggering similar protests throughout Arab countries. Lynch argued that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the events was a “demonstration effect” for Arab democracy.(30)

Without in-depth content analyses of the television programmes on Al Jazeera, however, we can only elaborate provisional trends of the coverage. Al Jazeera’s democratic agenda seems reactive rather than proactive, although Al Jazeera, with all its elements of “politainment” and political information, never considered itself to be merely a network disseminating event-centred news. The network has a liberating appeal because it is willing to cover news events openly and offer free debate, an important element of pluralist societies. But is not necessarily willing “to lead” political reform since it seems hardly capable of continuous journalistic advocacy for the fragments of political movements existing in all Arab countries. Without such advocacy, the network cannot give Arab people a political vision of how to act and which way to move politically.

3. Professionalism or Pan-Arabism?

The second question that needs to be considered is whether Arab satellite news broadcasting can merge, as theoretically required, a democratic partisanship with the function of professional neutrality and objective reporting. Not just the American, British and Israeli administrations but also many Arab journalists criticize the network’s reporting on regional conflicts. There is no doubt that transnational Arab television provides the world with images of Palestinian or Iraqi victims that previously went unnoticed by Western media.(31) It is equally obvious that Al Jazeera, out of all the Arab news networks, has been most willing to integrate “the other opinion.” The network airs Israeli, American and many other voices. In contrast, the leading American television network Fox News showed no original interviews with Arab politicians during the Iraq War of 2003.(32)

However, critics often bemoan that there is a clear Pan-Arab bias with regard to the selection and interpretaion of news on transnational Arab satellite networks. Injustices against Arabs are dealt with much more critically and extensively than injustices done to Israelis, whose victims are hardly present on screen. The supremacy of a Pan-Arab agenda evident in programmes broadcast by Al Jazeera becomes clear when the network—justifiably—criticizes, time and again, injustices arising from Israeli or American policy and their militaries, while often downplaying the responsibility of Arab states, regimes and the role of “privatized forms of violence” (terrorism). Extensive reporting on the burial of Shaykh Yasin, the radical leader of Hamas, for example, or the playing of video massages by Usama Bin Laden, echoed and amplified terrorists’ messages.

While it is true that most Western media show the same commercial interest in the phenomenon of terrorism, Arab satellite channels operate in an environment that lends itself easily to violent mobilization. Al Jazeera's reporting on Israel is biased, but less so than other transnational Arab networks, which regularly feature strong and even anti-Semitic criticism of Israel as in the case of the radical network Al Manar. This station, operating from Lebanon, is the self-declared weapon of "psychological warfare"(33) for the Islamist Shi'i group Hizbullah. One of its goals is to spread clearly anti-Zionist ideology. But it often pursues this goal in ways that tip over into anti-Semitism. The group's stance toward Zionism ultimately is directed against existence of the state of Israel, and derived from the group's past struggle against Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. The showing of an openly anti-Semitic television series (Al Shatat/The Diaspora) triggered the French government's ban of the channel from EUTELSAT satellite in December 2004 and the US's decision to list the Lebanese television station as a terrorist organisation.

Unlike Al Manar, which is a party organ, mainstream Arab television news networks like Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya are not “hate media” supporting terrorism against the United States or Israel, as some critics of Arab media argue. Most of the reporting is neither anti-American nor pro-terrorist, but rather a regular mix of news and entertainment. The US administration's resentment of Al Jazeera or its closing down of Al Jazeera's office in Iraq is therefore unwarranted, and rightly has been criticized by human rights organizations.

While a clear distinction must be drawn between transnational Arab news networks and Al Manar's party-line approach to Israel and the Jews, most experts on Arab television agree that even the mainstream channels generally reveal a pro-Arab, anti-Israeli and anti-American bias, even though they draw very different conclusions from this point of departure. However, the very narrow existing empirical base on the content of Arab television concentrates almost completely on this point. Therefore, a full-text analysis of the international dimension of Arab broadcasting coverage is not as urgently needed as as is a means for uncovering democratic agendas. Analysis of international news coverage on satellite television would necessarily help us to understand the subtleties of the Arab broadcasters' framing of the Palestinian or Iraqi conflicts.

The French Panos study undertaken after the attacks of 11 September 2001 argued that Al Jazeera is more critical of the United States than many other Arab news media.(34) Political scientist Mamoun Fandy maintained as early as 2000 that, with the exception of regular news programmes, Al Jazeera represented a new kind of alliance between nationalists and Islamists(35) —a view that, until today, is shared by some critical Arab journalists.(36) Muhammad Ayish argues that in the field of Arab regional conflicts Al Jazeera lacks professional standards of objectivity.(37) Mohammed El-Nawawy elaborated on the emotionality and anti-Americanism of Al Jazeera's reporters when covering the battle of Fallujah between American troops and Iraqi resistance in 2004.(38) Abdel Karim Samara obeserved that Arab television generally was not able to report the full variety of political views on the war in Iraq in 2003 and oppositional perspectives against Saddam Hussein were not given sufficient attention.(39)

Nawawy and Iskandar describe very accurately the fascinated reactions Al Jazeera has evoked in the Arab world when it identifies with the Arabs' struggle against Israel and the United States intervention in Iraq. For the first time in history, an Arab medium was capable of counterbalancing the Western world's news hegemony based on the big news agencies such as Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Press, and opinion leaders like the television and radio services of CNN and the BBC. Salameh Nematt of the prominent Arab newspaper Al Hayat argues that Arab television's one-sided representation of images of victims of American and Israeli violence continues in the guise of Pan-Arab political positions that had suffered a decline in concert with the diminishing role of the Arab League in regional politics.(40) However, the new Pan-Arab media movement is more than a mere continuation of Pan-Arab political institutions. While the traditional Nasserite Pan-Arab policy was based on single-state national interests, whereby the national interests of states like Egypt, Syria and Jordan often prevailed over solidarity with the Palestinians,(41) Arab broadcasting provides an unfiltered platform for public emotions, pro-Palestinian sentiments and other national identities. The Egyptian-Israeli peace accord of Camp David (1979) left the Palestinian problem unresolved with the result that popular Arab perceptions of Israel remained at least partly hostile.(42) The pro-Arab framing of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by Al Jazeera and the other transnational Arab news networks is a straightforward expression of popular sentiments. For example, Al Jazeera calls dead Palestinians “martyrs”—a label reserved for Palestinians and not applied to dead Iraqis or other nationalities. It therefore is absolutely correct for the Panos study to state that Arab television is a “platform for the collective identity and imagination” of the pro-Palestinian Arab mainstream.(43)

While national Arab television continues to offer a combination of Pan-Arab and single-nationalist perspectives that often conflict with each other, modern transnational Arab television provides its audience with a clear Pan-Arab world view that Shibley Telhami described as a common denominator of most Arabs: "[T]he logic is no longer catering to the Egyptians or Saudis and for the Qataris, but to the Arab. In that sense, they [Arab media] are trying to find out what most Arabs want and what is the common denominator among most Arabs."(44) A “common denominator” means that transnational Arab news networks rarely interfere with issues that are sensitive to the Arab nation states or that touch inner-Arab conflicts. They focus instead on issues like the liberation of Palenstine and Iraq from foreign occupation.

The bottom line of Al Jazeera's and other Arab television networks' content is to combine factual (“objective”) information with culturally adapted (but also occasionally transcended) world views. Such a newsline might sound rational and legitimate, but it is not exactly what democratic transformation theory expects from television because it confuses the desperately needed “democratic partisanship” with “national partisanship.” In other words, it is not sufficient to allow for objectivity in some fields that are not sensitive to Arab cultural sentiments. Objectivity is needed in all topics and surely it is needed where vital questions of war and interstate conflict are concerned. The real test, it seems, is not the role of “governments” because they stepped back and let Arab satellite networks articulate the peoples' feelings and thoughts on issues like Palestine or Iraq. The real test is now Arab political culture.

Hazem Saghieh from Al Hayat argues that Arab television compensates for the decline of the big Arab institutions like the Arab League and trade unions, etc., of the Nasserite era. It serves as a mediator between state and society in the feld of Pan-Arab nationalist aspirations.(45) Like the French Panos study, Ayish, Nematt and others, he argues that Al Jazeera and other transnational satellite networks have given up objectivity in the central fields of reporting. Media populism, Saghieh says, has politicized many people, but at the same time it has lent itself to a new stagnation of political thought in the Arab world.

One must disagree with Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar's definition of the obvious deficits of Arab networks like Al Jazeera as “contextual objectivity.” While they share the basic observation of Al Jazeera's biases, they justify it because they say Arab media must compensate for opposite biases in the Western and world media.(46) Such a view, however, is very problematic since the main audience of Arab television still is made up of Arabs and the Arab world, which means that distorted views on regional conflicts will first and foremost misinform the Arab public. Moreover, the one-sided perspective of Arab networks probably also partly discredited Al Jazeera in the West and in the rest of the world, particularly after 11 September 2001. Even in the absence of serious research data on the Arab channels' image in the world, it is entirely possible that the Arab networks' ability to counterbalance world public opinion could be limited due to professional inadequacies.

The lack of objectivity in the field of regional conflict reporting qualifies Arab satellite news broadcasting as a mediator and mouthpiece of many Arabs, but it disqualifies it as a source of political information and as a creator of an agenda for building democratic international relations. In spite of efforts to integrate American and Israeli voices, most Arab television reporting on regional conflicts represents a techno-compatible, globalized form of populism, rather than a contribution to international dialogue. In search for a balance between professional, pluralist journalism and the will to pose an alternative to political parties, Arab satellite networks conflate nationalist with democractic partisanship.

4. Entering a 'Third Stage'? Structural Paradoxes and Reform Requirements of Transnational Arab Television

The present paper has posed the question whether transnational Arab satellite television fulfils the theoretical requirements for playing an avant-garde role in the democratization of the Arab world. As stated, the aim would be to combine classical and primary functions of the news media (objective information) with secondary and context-specific tasks, for example, its ability to act as an alternative to political parties in articulating the peoples' critique of governments and a desire for democratization.

Since more empirical content analysis and audience research will be needed in the future, only tentative conclusions can be drawn:

°Al Jazeera and other transnational Arab news networks have freed themselves from state interference and gained autonomy, but tend to give way to cultural biases existing among their audiences, especially concerning regional conflicts in Iraq and Palestine. The previous regime-centered mobilizing function of national Arab television has been replaced by a kind of “enlightened techno-populism” that includes “the other opinion” but only at the cost of deconstructing it in a stream of Arab-centric perspectives.

°The Arab news networks’ ability to act as partisans for democratization has been demonstrated in numerous instances when they have criticized Arab regimes and pointed to political issues that were hitherto excluded from public debate. However, the democracy agenda remains discontinuous and reactive.

The remainder of the paper will point to various structural problems and potential changes that would support Arab news networks’ role in democratic change. Structural problems, and sometimes paradoxes, can be located on various levels:

1. The relationship between media organization, ownership and media system orientations on the one hand, and news policies, content decisions, objectivity, as well as the democracy agenda on the other hand;
2. The link between Pan-Arab regionalism, regional differentiation and the democratic agenda;
3. The interaction between the “global public sphere” and Arab television culture.

4.1 The Double Curse: Arab News Networks between State Protectionism and Market Orientation

Gregory Mendel Selber and Salma I. Ghanem rightly pointed to the fact that the growth of Arab satellite television since the 1990s introduced a market model into the Arab world. Nowadays, private television stations coexist with state television channels, and this is the main reason why the era of totalitarian media systems in the Arab world and of the “mobilization press,” as William A. Rugh called them,(47) has passed. Selber and Ghanem maintain that the days are over when events like the Syrian government's massacre of Islamist rebels in Hama in 1980, where about 10.000 people died, can happen without the Arab mass media even taking notice of it.(48) However, when the authors suggest that Arab media should continue following the market model because its benefits outweigh its disadvantages,(49) they enter difficult territory. There is a very problematic and unstable relationship between the market model of the media and the potential avant-garde role of television in democratic transition.

The main problem is that the market orientation reinforces the existing populist trend in Arab television. In many European countries, strong public television stations like BBC receive budgets that, although often tax-based, are granted to provide the financial basis for societal institutions that are formally independent of both governments and audiences and based on the idea of “public broadcasting.” The market orientation of Arab television, in contrast, reinforces the trend of perpetuating audiences’ cultural preferences (and biases) in order to receive large transmission ratings and advertising.

The reality of Arab transnational television is even worse because Arab news networks desire privatization, but remain highly subsidized by benevolent governments like Qatar's Emir al-Thani. Other television stations in the Arab world, in particular, the Saudi media empire, often are linked covertly with governments through personal and family relationships.(50) The establishment of new transnational networks by the goverments of Qatar (Al Jazeera), the UAE (Abu Dhabi TV) or Aaudi Arabia (Al Arabiya) has been applauded by many observers as a generous act. But it also implies that present-day Arab news networks are based on a structural paradox, or even a “double curse”: They are allowed to be populist and market-oriented as long as they do not go too far and become a real danger for existing regimes. A channel like Al Jazeera, which is at the center of many debates about Arab democracy, can still be closed-down at the whim of its patron government. The Arab news networks' market orientation is a problem that interferes with objectivity about culturally resonant issues such as the Palestine problem. And state subsidies could prevent Arab networks from acting as even more outspoken advocates of democratic change.

To become an effective contributor to democratic culture, today's transnational Arab television needs to transcend its organizational underpinnings and develop models that are as independent as possible from governments or other forces of society. Democratic institutions, by definition, are liable to controlling mechanisms and parliamentary checks and balances, although they are autonomous in generating their own specific programmes and agendas. Necessary structural changes may include the configuration of new financial networks and the establishment of extra-territorial media on Cyprus, in London or in any of the “media free zones” in Egypt, Jordan or in the Gulf States, assuming that those places can offer enough protection from outside interference.

A public television model is not necessarily an equivalent to traditional “educational television.” Entertainment and “politainment,” as in Al Jazeera's talk shows, have long entered the debates on modern development communication.(51) The idea of reconsidering the organizational and financial base of Arab satellite broadcasting, however, is designed to attain independence and programme control in order gradually to transform cultural biases and advocate for democratic change. The two-page long “code of ethics” Al Jazeera adopted in July 2004, in which the channel manifested its desire to be objective and accurate in reporting, is not sufficient for a reform.(52) By contrast, the BBCs “Producers' Guidelines” run hundreds of pages and are much more effective as ethical guides.(53) But even ethical codes are no substitute for the deep structural changes that seem necessary to initiate a programme of reform.

4.2 An Antinomy between Publicity and Sustainability? Pan-Arabism, Sub-Regionalism and the Democratic Agenda

From the structural point of view, it seems that in order for Arab satellite news broadcasting to contribute to democratic culture, more “Al Jazeeras” will be needed. Such networks should operate from a safe transborder distance to escape national regime control. It is positive for democracy when Al Jazeera covers the West-Sahara conflict, for example. But continuous, quality reporting on 22 Arab countries completely overburdens a handful of transnational satellite channels like Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV.

Theoretically speaking, the idea is that Arab satellite broadcasting could compensate for some of the inability of Arab political parties to mobilize links with civil society. A media-civil-society-alliance could then pave the road to democracy. However, after 10 years of Arab transnational news journalism, there has been no significant development for democracy in the Arab world. Although critical elites and NGOs are heard on television, their real political impact remains weak. While these conclusions remain tentative, because media effects can be "latent" (Saad Eddin Ibrahim)(54) and might make themselves felt only in the long run, there is a link between the lack of national differentiation and the continuity of reporting on problems related to democracy in single Arab countries on the one hand, and weak mobilizing effects in terms of political action on the other hand.

Coverage of transnational Arab news networks might lead to an upgrading or downgrading of existing anti-Israeli or anti-American opinions,(55) but it is not sufficient to mobilize political action, which in the Arab world, like anywhere else, is based on decentralized activity within single nation-states. The argument that the success of Al Jazeera and other transnational Arab broadcasting is based on Pan-Arab outreach is valuable. However, there is no antinomy between regional differentiation and sustainability on the one hand, and the publicity of political television news in the Arab world on the other. After all, national television remains more popular in most Arab countries than transnational Arab networks because people are more interested in news related to their immediate reality.(56) Therefore, a sub-regional differentiation, for example, in channels concentrating on the Maghreb, the Nile states, the Mashreq and the Arab peninsula, seems viable and necessary as a prerequisite for the establishment of a democratic agenda that could enable political mobilization.

4.3. Missing Competition: A Global Democratic Agenda for the Arab World

In many ways, global media conditions act against the Arab media’s acquiring of a democratic function. Hopes for more objectivity in Arab reporting on regional conflicts are not supported by the flow of international news. The problem is not only that American television often covers the Middle East in a very one-sided manner.(57) In broader terms, the opening up of Western media spaces is, in many regards, limited to a transference of images rather than text and context. Arab positions on Western and especially American neo-imperialism seldom reach Western mainstream media.(58) Images of dead Palestinians, which can be seen on a daily basis on Al Jazeera, hardly are present in Western television. Television-based democratic advocacy in the Arab world needs a global partner that provides Western and especially American viewers with more balanced news coverage, and thereby reduces pressure on networks like Al Jazeera to act as a representative of the “Arab point of view.”

The establishment of an American television channel in the Arabic language, Alhurra (The Free One), is not supportive of the Arab media's democratic endeavours. Although the name "The Free One" implies that the channel acts on behalf of democracy, it has shown no interest in the problems of internal Arab political reform. It is unwilling to confront the allied authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Morrocco. However, as long as there is no real competition for the “better democratic agenda” between the global level of foreign broadcasting and regional level of Arab news networks, the interaction between those layers is inefficient.

5. Conclusion

It is debateable whether the classical notion of transformation theory that news media follow rather than lead in the process of democratization is obsolete in our days. Surely, the mass media are no substitute for pro-active elites, oppositional parties and movements. On the contrary, Arab transnational news networks often seem to be preoccupied with organizational goals like market income or pure political survival. However, transnational Arab news networks operate in a regional Arab environment, and the transborder reach of such networks makes them intriguingly more immune to many of the influences that classical transformation theory emphasized. Seeing the tremendous change in Arab media culture in the last 10 years and the resultant new public sphere on political issues which made Al Jazeera, in particular, a prime topic worldwide, it may be reasonable to speculate that transnational television could take on an intermediary and catalyzing role for articulating the Arab peoples’ desire for democracy that hitherto was restricted to political movements and parties. If that premise is accepted, a consequent reform of Arab satellite broadcasting seems inevitable.

First, content reform: For Arab Sattelite Broadcasting to face the challenge of becoming an avant-garde of democratization and to take over some of the functions of political parties in the field or in the articulation and mobilization of the populace, certain trends in the current broadcasting culture must be revised. The democratic agenda must be elaborated, objectivity in regional conflict affairs readjusted, and the link between the media and extra-media elites, organizations and movements improved.

Second, organizational and systemic reform: For the agenda of democracy to be relevant and effective, there must be not only a change in the news policies of the existing Arab news networks and other Arab satellite broadcasters, but also an organizational reform and an extension of the Arab broadcasting system. Reconsideration of the implications of the private capital market model is needed, particularly with regards to existing populist trends of crisis reporting. More than anything else, a re-evaluation of the democracy issue can only be achieved if the political reporting of Arab news networks, separated in many ways from grass-roots problems in most countries, is differentiated regionally. Ultimately, the success of Arab broadcasting also depends on the global media situation, which currently forces Arab broadcasters into false, nationalist, defensive competition—with American broadcasting for example—instead of supporting a democratic public agenda.


1. Tumber/Palmer 2004; Schechter 2003; Hafez 2004; Thussu/Freedman 2003; Zelizer/Allan 2002; Hess/Kalb 2003.
2. See, for example: Merkel/Sandschneider 1997; Schubert et al. 1994.
3. Potter 1997, pp. 13-18.
4. See , for example: McNair 1995, pp. 16-27.
5. Sreberny-Mohammadi/Mohammadi 1994; Jones 2002.
6. McConnell/Becker 2002. With the same basic conclusions for the Arab press’ “weakness” see also: Garon 1995. With a slightly more optimistic view on the mass media’s ability to work for democracy also in the pre-transitional phase see: Rozumilowicz 2002.
7. Hafez 2001a.
8. McConnell/Becker 2002.
9. Siebert et al. 1956.
10. Sinclair et al. 1996.
11. See, for example: Hegasy 2000. 
12. Harik 1997, p. 350.
13. See Salwa Ismail’s chapter “Contemporary Islamism as a Popular Movement: Socio-Spatial Determinants in the Cairo Urban Setting” in: Ismail 2003. 
14. Burgat 2003.
15. Kepel 2000.
16. Statement made by Prof. Shibley Telhami of University of Maryland during the Conference on “The Media and Political Change in the Arab World”, Cambridge Arab Media Project, Churchill College, Cambridge University, 29-30, September 2004.
17. See, for example, Manuel Castells’ deliberations on the „crisis of democracy” in: Castells 1997. 
18. For an introduction to media systems theory see: Kunczik/Zipfel 2001, pp. 66 ff. 
19. Interview with Aktham Suleiman, correspondent of Al Jazeera in Germany and Iraq, Berlin, 6 January 2005. 
20. For general literature on Al Jazeera and other Arab satellite television see: Sakr 2001; el-Nawawy/Iskandar 2003; Ayish 2003.
21. For very limited qualitative and or quantitative content analysis on Al Jazeera see, for example: Ayish 2002; One Year After (Panos Institute) (2002); Knudsen n.y.; el-Nawawy 2004; Jasperson/Kikhia 2003.
22. See for example: el-Nawawy/Iskandar 2003.
23. For both quotations see: Mohamed Zayani, Introduction – Al Jazeera and the Vicissitudes of the New Arab Mediascape, in: Mohamed Zayani (ed.), The Al Jazeera Phenomenon. Critical Perspectives on New Arab Media, London 2005, 20, 33.
24. al-Zubaidi 2004, p. 20.
25. Ayish 2002.
26. Baum 2003.
27. Statement made by Fatima Mernissi on the International Conference “New Means of Communication Change in the Arab World”, House of World Cultures, Berlin, 24-26 June 2004
28. Nisbet et al. 2004.
29. Marc Lynch, “Assessing the Democratizing Power of Satellite TV” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies 14 (Spring/Summer) 2005.
30. Ibid.
31. For Western coverage of the Middle East see: Hafez 2000. 
32. Contrasting War Coverage (2003).
33. This term was long present on the first page of the homepage of Al-Manar (http://web.manartv.org/) and only eradicated after France had banned the channel.
34. One Year After (Panos Institute) (2002), p. 17.
35. Fandy 2000, p. 388.
36. Chimelli 2004.
37. Ayish 2002, p. 150.
38. el-Nawawy 2004, p. 7.
39. Samara 2003.
40. Woznicki 2004.
41. Seale 1987; Seale 1988.
42. Wolfsfeld et al. 2002; Shipler 1986.
43. One Year After (Panos Institute) (2002), p. 24. 
44. Telhami 2002.
45. Deutsch-arabischer Mediendialog 2004.
46. El-Nawawy/Iskandar 2003, p. 54.
47. Rugh 2004, pp. 29-41.
48. Selber/Ghanem 2004, p. 2.
49. Ibid., p. 9.
50. Hafez 2001b, p. 8 f. 
51. Mody 2003, pp. 1, 21, 137, 177, 180, 214 –15, 247, 269. 
52. Aljazeera Code of Ethics (http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/07256105-B2FC-439A-B255-D830BB238EA1.htm).
53. BBC Producers’ Guidelines (http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/).
54. Statement made by Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the American University in Cairo during the Conference on “The Media and Political Change in the Arab World”, Cambridge Arab Media Project, Churchill College, Cambridge University, 29-30, September 2004.
55. See Nisbet et al. 2004.
56. Rhodes/Chapelier 2004, pp. 82-84.
57. See Tumber/Palmer 2004; Schechter 2003; Hafez 2004 ; Thussu/Freedman 2003; Zelizer/Allan 2002; Hess/Kalb 2003.
See for example the analysis on German press news coverage of the Afghanistan war in 2001: Hafez 2002.


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About Kai Hafez

Dr. Kai Hafez is a Professor of International and Comparative Media and Communication Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

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