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Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East

Sakr, Naomi. Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd., 2001. 266 pages. Soft cover ISBN: 1-86064-689-1. US$22.50 soft cover, US$69 hardbound.

Reviewed by Dr. Ralph D. Berenger, the American University in Cairo.

If Satellite Realms merely documented transnational broadcasting in the Middle East, and the government policies-running fast to catch up with dizzying technological changes-this would be an invaluable addition to any personal library. But Naomi Sakr goes further. She weaves a tapestry that includes regional cultural differences, current sociology, at times quirky personalities while gently needling regional governments to reconsider policies that not only limit broadcasting potentials but human rights as well.

However, timing in life-and publishing-is everything as, sadly, Sakr has discovered.

While Satellite Realms takes readers through the labyrinth of political intrigues, petty differences, colorful characters and erratic transnational broadcasting policies, its strength-a static view of Middle East broadcasting in early 2001-is also its weakness. Alas, the book hit the shelves roughly the same time those three airliners hit the World Center and Pentagon, changing public perception in the West of Middle East broadcasting and spawning a spate of articles and books on the relevance and irreverence of Al-Jazeera TV. The Qatar-based channel (which broadcasts over Egypt's Nilesat) was catapulted into the West's public consciousness in the wake of 9/11, erroneously tagged "the voice of Usama bin Laden" because its reporters for several months were the only ones talking to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Yet you read none of this in the book, which was printed several months before the attacks on America, the ultimate "propaganda of the deed." The reader is slightly misdirected by the cover art, which shows a partial televised picture of bin Laden, who merits a single, brief paragraph in the book. Al-Qaeda is not mentioned at all.

Though stories about Al-Jazeera, which started in 1996, is a thread woven throughout the tapestry. However, the most important stories occurred after the book went to press, and this will be fascinating stuff for a refreshed version of Satellite Realms.

This timing gap-publication shortly before 9/11 would explain the paucity of reviews of this significant book, which should appeal to most students of transnational broadcasting, political communications, Middle East social development policies, and Middle East broadcasting in general, and general readers wanting to "get a handle" on Middle East broadcasting organizations and programming goals.

We must await the second edition to see whether Arab broadcasting has permanently changed, as she hinted might happen later rather than sooner. Since September 2001, timetables seem to have kicked into high gear.

Even without the update, which is necessary given the events of the second intifada, the "war on terrorism," as well as rumors of war and regime change in Iraq, this work is necessary and significant as a primer on transnational broadcasting in the Middle East, and should be required supplemental reading for any college course studying transnational broadcasting.

In her chapter, "Global Civil Society? NGO Influences on Transnational Broadcasting," Sakr devotes considerable space reviewing the case of jailed AUC sociology professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim in the context of a clash of wills between authoritarian governments and non-governmental organizations concerned with modernity and democracy. The ailing Ibrahim is a cause in the U.S. and Europe, whose union has nominated him for the Sakharov Prize despite his seven-year sentence for embezzling euros, which European Union auditors have refuted.

Sakr obviously feels strongly that development of transnational broadcasting must contain elements of democratic civil society, which she calls "offshore democracy."

In a chapter titled "Missing Links," the author details the struggle of nations in the Middle East and North Africa region to privatize their clumsy, heavy-handed, dull and uninspiring broadcasting corporations. She echoes the common complaint of broadcasters about erratic government policies regarding content, and the dearth of transparent and authoritative market research on such important information as the number of television and satellite dishes in the region and which transnational programs are being watched by whom-the kind of information that would attract lucrative transnational advertising accounts. Though she quotes experts as saying Egypt has "no clue" about the number of satellite dishes in the country, some semi-official sources have put the number at 1.4 million and growing-but that speculation has just come out.

Sakr, like most scholars in the MENA region, struggles with the lack of good data throughout, relying on United Nations Development Programme reports, outdated government documents, and her own interviews with cognoscenti in the region. Even though the data might be outdated, it is the best she-or other academics-can find. She does the best with what she has, and as a result the reader is not crushed under the weight of charts, tables and graphs that often muddy understanding.

She touches only briefly on the "free zone fad" that allows publishers and broadcasters to trade censorship for a tax-free status, a giant loophole most media in Egypt, for example, willingly jump through. These are called collectively the "Cyprus Press," though most publishers have never set foot on that island and might even be chartered in the Bahamas, Panama, or any number of tax havens around the world.

In "Text and Context: Satellite Channels in a Changing Environment," the author writes wonderfully about the social problems facing the region: a growing under-18 population, gender inequalities, economic disparities between elites and a huge, under-educated population that lives on less than US$2 a day.

In other chapters she tackles ownership issues, including global media players and consolidations; international and regional regulations of broadcasting satellites; and the potential of transnational broadcasting in the Middle East, an intriguing offering that suggests Arab broadcasting might be developing independent of global media and could well be a distinct type.

A visiting lecturer at the School of Communication and Creative Industries at the University of Westminster in London, Sakr writes in a style that is decidedly unacademic-which means you can read and understand what she is trying to say the first time through, which makes this tome not only valuable but an enjoyable read. 

About Ralph D. Berenger

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