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Satellite Broadcasting in the Middle East and North Africa: Regulations, Access and Impact

An International Seminar of Article 19, The International Centre Against Censorship

The International Centre Against Censorship (Article 19) organized an international seminar on broadcasting in the Middle East and North Africa held February 20-21, 1999 in Cairo. Article 19's name comes from Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." The Cairo locale is significant because, as Dr. Hussein Amin, TBS senior editor and professor of mass communication at the American University in Cairo, said in his opening speech, the city can be considered "the information capital of the Middle East."

The conference set out to address some specific points:

  • the development of satellite broadcasting in the region within global and regional political and technological contexts, and the actors who own and influence satellite broadcasting
  • the international regulations of satellite broadcasting as defined by international law, and how these are interpreted in the region
  • the constraints faced by Arab and international satellite broadcasters regarding political, religious, or culturally sensitive subjects, and how this is affected by a growing atmosphere of competition among Arab satellite channels
  • the challenge that satellite television presents to terrestrial broadcasting, and their impact on governmental media policies
  • the socio-cultural impact of satellite television

Development of Satellite Broadcasting in the Region
The sudden birth and growth of satellite broadcasting in the region has brought about many concerns such as regulation, public access, ownership and the social and cultural impacts this new industry might deliver. The opening session set the stage with a discussion of the development of satellite broadcasting in the region. Naomi Sakr, co-director of the Centre for Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, traced the industry from the first Arabsat satellite launch in 1985 to the present day. She noted that although it is customary to begin a narrative of satellite development in the region with CNN broadcasts during the Gulf War, the late-1980s reorganization of French media and France Telecom's satellite transmissions to francophone North Africa was also a key beginning. Although Arabsat was launched in 1985, and used during that period used to send live coverage of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca to countries across the region, Sakr says the satellite was "heavily underutilized" until the 1990s and notes that it is not surprising that during this 1985-1990 period Egypt, a key player, was excluded from Arabsat. From this point, Sakr traces the development of today's key satellite players, like ART, MBC, al-Jazeera, LBC, and Future.

"The majority of viewers in the region had not previously experienced the novelty of choosing from a diverse range of channels," Sakr notes. The "futile" attempts of Saudi Arabia and Iran to ban dishes showed "the degree to which satellite channels had transferred power to viewers." And "when wealthy audiences vote with their remotes, it makes sense for advertisers to take notice." The new atmosphere of competition for viewers and advertising dollars, plus more satellite capacity with the new launches expected in the near future, will "restrain entry costs and keep down other barriers for would-be broadcasters."

Jon Alterman of the United States Institute of Peace also examined some of the changes brought about in the region by new technologies. One major effect, he said, is the declining role of the government and state information ministries and more prominence of "the exchange of information outside of state apparatuses." Government control is increasingly more informal and indirect. The amount of information ordinary people are receiving has increased, largely due to a "diversity of outlets": satellite broadcasting and the internet, certainly, but Alterman also noted the importance of media as simple as the fax machine. Because of this diversity, and because of the growing number of players on the international media scene, competing for viewers is more important, and each player has developed a particular strategy for winning audiences. Another change is the relationship between the Arab world and the West, and Alterman noted that "changes affecting the Arab world are brought on by changes from outside the Arab world." Transnational media in the region also means changing relationships among Arab states, Alterman said; traditional state-run media solidified national identities, but transnational media undermine this in favor of a new pan-Arabism. [Alterman discusses these points in more detail in this issue's article "Transnational Media and Social Change in the Arab World."]

International Regulations of Satellite Broadcasting and Their Implementation in the Region
Dr. Phillipe Achilleas from the University of Paris presented a brief history of rules and regulations related to satellite broadcasting. "International broadcasting law is based on an outdated classification," he notes, because the 1970s terminology doesn't take into account direct-broadcast technology. DBS regulation is therefore problematic, "dominated by a conflict between the freedom of information principle and the prior consent principle." This makes two categories of regulations necessary: rules that guarantee free flow of information by satellite and rules that protect national sovereignty. A 1977 International Telecommunications Union conference introduced the national service principle, designed to protect national sovereignty by requiring that broadcasters minimize their transmission into other states' territory unless prior consent has been reached. A non-binding 1982 UN General Assembly resolution sets similar provisions. Achilleas also discussed the Outer Space Treaty as it applies to satellites, and looked at various international freedom of information texts and treaties, noting that freedom of information with regard to satellite broadcasting is a two-sided coin, involving both rights of transmission and rights of reception. He notes several current practices contrary to free reception, such as India's 1997 decree forbidding direct transmission by foreign broadcasters in an attempt to protect national culture; refusal of many states to retransmit foreign channels; or excessive taxation of reception material. Finally, Achilleas made a case for regional regulation, citing the pan-European regulations confirming free flow of information, protection of national sovereignty, and content regulation.

This in-depth look at concrete laws was complemented by a more theoretical focus by Toby Mendel, head of Article 19's Law Program. The debate between international human rights and cultural rights, he believes, has often been "cast in terms of extremes," and he presented glimpses of a few of the philosophical stances that make up a complex debate: cultural absolutists, cultural sequentialists, and cultural relativists; and universalists. Absolutists believe that there are no universal cultural standards that can be applied to all and that human rights can only be applied within a certain cultural context. Sequentialists see the implementation of rights as a two-step process, with respect for economic, social and cultural rights necessarily preceding civil and political rights. Relativists, although believing that culture must be taken into account, do not claim for it an overriding role. Universalists argue that international human rights law "establishes a set of norms which are, by-and-large, universally applicable," Mendel said, with these norms derived from basic human dignity, common to all cultures and religions, and thus globally relevant. He argues that the one extreme of cultural absolutism is "both unpopular and untenable," while the other extreme, rigid universalism, is much more open to cultural difference than its adherents usually claim, because although standards may be universal, implementation is necessarily specific to a given context. Mendel concluded that "there is a wide swath of middle ground which many, perhaps most, reasonable people occupy."

Dr. Douglas Boyd of the University of Kentucky discussed the impact of satellite television broadcasting on electronic media policy in the Arab world. He noted how western the concept of governmental electronic media policy is: a media policy is created through a governmental regulatory body that collects the data, input and advice from the telecommunication industry and academicians. This is something, Boyd said, that is not seen in the Arab world, where "media policy tends primarily to be a reaction to some new technology that a government believes to be a threat to its existence or potential destabilizing force in society." Even countries that are attempting to embrace democracy have tried to limit and control the information received by their citizens. This attempt to create a government monopoly on information, he said, "is no longer a realistic policy." Boyd believes that the introduction of DBS to the Arab world has been a motivation for the region to start organizing and planning for a media policy, but that so far this reaction has been slow. He stresses on the importance of having a media policy as part of the standard government function and not as a means of self-defense. Today, with the internet, a media policy is becoming recognized but it has to become "an integral part of government planning." Boyd urges the Arab world to start planning for future media changes rather than waiting to react.

Daoud Kuttab, director of the Institute of Modern Media at al-Quds University in Palestine, presented the programming problems and challenges that face the region's satellite broadcasting. With the initial aim of giving Arab and international prominence to the individual countries, these Arab satellite channels have become more involved in the technical issues rather than content; Kuttab said that the logo at the edge of the screen has become more important than what fills the screen. The disproportion in the money spent by these stations is evident. "The hardware of getting the signal out in a professional way becomes the goal instead of the means," he said. Too much focus, Kuttab argued, is given to covering the rulers of the Arab countries rather than providing quality entertainment, documentaries and current affairs programming. But Kuttab gives credit to stations like al-Jazeera, which, with its success with extensive and sometimes controversial news coverage, has shown that the playing field is wide open. "Any station that applies simple professional policies and takes the Arab viewers seriously can quickly capture a young and vibrant market that is looking for quality programming and not quality broadcasting."

Specific area studies complemented these holistic and theoretical viewpoints; speakers discussed particular implementation strategies of various Arab countries. The regulation of satellite television in the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was addressed by Dr. Muhammad I. Ayish from the Department of Mass Communication and Public Relations at Ajman University, United Arab Emirates. The challenges that face GCC states with the ongoing development of satellite television include developing the ability to compete on a global scale and accepting the fact that they will be targeted by transmissions from other countries. Attempts by governments of the region to control television signals by are becoming more and more impossible. MMDS might have been a solution for a while, but with recent technological developments, Ayish said "satellite broadcasting and reception will make it impossible to censor program material." It is a duty for the GCC governments to offer "moral as well as legal guidance," he said, and to encourage quality programming, rather than attempting to ban dishes or censor programs.

Dr. Nabil H. Dajani, professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at the American University of Beirut, presented a history of television in Lebanon from its beginnings in 1954. All attempts made by the government to regulate television broadcasting in Lebanon, he believes, were far from being for the good of the public. These regulation attempts were merely made by ruling officials and political figures in order to "exploit this medium for their own political goals." Although Dajani discussed governmental restrictions, specifically regarding LBC, he said that the main problem facing satellite broadcasting in Lebanon today is not government interference but "giving predominate attention to commercialism at the expense of professionalism and social responsibility." News programs focus on politicians rather than public issues, and television "is a melange of various inconsistent programs, policies and structures, predominantly foreign in orientation and barely relevant to the needs of Lebanese society or the Arab world." Both government and broadcasters need to be involved to rectify this situation: the government by providing "the climate of freedom that is conducive to the broadcasting medium" and broadcasters by being "committed to professionalism and their social responsibility."

The Socio-Cultural Impact of Satellite Television
Restrictions and censorship, especially in a context of political and cultural sensitivities, was an especially important topic of discussion, and TBS's two senior editors took on two angles of this debate. Abdallah Schleifer argued in favor of restrictions on broadcasting and the need for programming that takes into account the "conservative but mainstream" morals and values of the Muslim societies of the region. The Western media, he said, is permissive in precisely those areas most likely to offend Muslim sensibilities—nudity and sex, positive portrayal of homosexuals, and positive spins on violence and outlaws—but deals in quite the opposite manner with anything offensive to Western, liberal sensibilities. It is a crime in France, he said, to publish anything diminishing the extent of the Holocaust, for example, and material that can be demonstrated to incite racial or ethnic hatred is frequently banned. Schleifer also argued against the prevailing notion that censorship is an impediment to good art, using the "golden days" of Hollywood as an example. Schleifer warned that the soft "pornographic" content of much of the satellite television beamed at the Arab world by Western program providers like Showtime, or to a lesser extent by LBC—like "bikini babes" or simulated sex—is addictive. But the same addicted viewers may hate, out of pious values, the very materials they are addicted to. Citing the trashing of Iran TV in the first hours of the revolution, he noted that permissive program content can produce a fundamentalist backlash.

Fellow TBS Senior Editor Dr. Hussein Amin argued the need for free media combined with social responsibility. Arabs along with the rest of the world are witnessing a cultural, economic and political openness unlike any other in history, he said, and this openness means an increased need for responsibility on the part of the media. Dr. Amin believes this new age of technology will aid in establishing world justice, peace, universal understanding and promoting democracy, diversity and human rights, and thus building an information society in the Arab world is crucial. Satellite services and the internet, said Dr. Amin, are the two main factors that will aid Arabs in this transition.

Dr. Annabelle Sreberny of the University of Leiscester's Center for Mass Communications Research provided a theoretical basis for this debate, arguing that "simplistic models of media theory don't work any more, with production coming out of, not just into, areas like the Middle East." What she termed the "Cinema Paradiso" model of film editing, in which offending scenes are simply clipped out, is ineffective, because it leaves in place the "underlying impact of culture," with distinct messages about lifestyles, values, freedom of thought, roles of women, and so on still creeping in. She argued that the private sphere, not the public, is the main arena for changes brought about by satellite broadcasting, meaning a changing role for women, changing patterns of visiting and home entertainment, and changing of private "who controls the remote" politics.

In a specific example of cultural influence of satellite television, Rasha Abdalla looked at the impact of MTV on Egypt and the Middle East. MTV was first introduced into Egypt in 1993, offered as a package with CNN through Cable News Egypt. This package deal, Abdalla said, doubled the subscription rates for CNN within six months, demonstrating MTV's popularity. Arab broadcasters began offering their own music channels, such as ART Music and Orbit's Music Now; Abdallah argued the need for these and similar channels to examine the factors in MTV's success if they want to be able to compete internationally. Her uses and gratifications study found that Egyptian viewers watch MTV for mood enhancement or for information, rather than for enjoyment of sexually explicit or violent scenes, and that creativity and high-quality visual production are important to audiences.

Susannah Kennedy of St. Antony's College, Oxford, examined the impact of satellite television on a different demographic: Arab expatriates in Europe. Satellite television offers them "immediate and collective access" to their home countries, and is replacing photos, phone calls and letters as a primary means of keeping in touch. Indeed, Kennedy found social and psychological factors to be more important in determining viewership than generalizations about age, gender or viewing habits done in traditional market research. In her work among German/Arab families, she found that the older generation, with more of a psychological ties to the Arab world, used Arab satellite TV as a "daily prop," whereas for the younger generations it had begun to take on a foreign feel, and they were more comfortable with German television.

The final session was an open discussion on research priorities, with participants emphasizing the need for more discussion between governments and regulators, audiences, broadcasters and other actors if meaningful change is to be brought about. 

About Dana Zureikat

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