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The Effects of Satellite Television on Arab Domestic Politics

This is a presentation prepared for the Arab Satellite Television Broadcasting conference in Cambridge, UK, in November 2002. It is presented in its preliminary form for the benefit of TBS readers, and not as finished research.

It was impossible to read debates in the 1990s about political change around the world and not have a sense that everything was about to change. Two main drivers of change were emerging: the end the Cold War, and the explosion of communications technology. The former held out the promise of an end to superpower competition and proxy wars around the world. Regimes could no longer play one power off the other, and great powers would walk away from repressive client states that they had supported for raison d'etat. Changes in government in Ethiopia, the Philippines, and more recently in Zaire, combined with the resolution of long-running insurgencies in Central America, suggested we were on the verge of a sea change in international politics.

Communications technology was the other driver. In the Soviet Union, authors famously relied on the samizdat press - laboriously produced carbon copies of their manuscripts - to circulate ideas. Increasingly inexpensive technology available in the 1980s and 1990s brought not only photocopiers, but also fax machines, videocassette recorders, telephones, satellite television and the Internet within the reach of an increasingly broad spectrum of the world's population.

As a consequence of these changes, in universities, think tanks, and even among governments, the idea grew that we were on the verge of a new world order in which international conflict would diminish and democratization would spread. Donald Chatfield summed up the logic chain this way:

New patterns of information dissemination follow highly decentralized networks, rather than the old hierarchical structure. As a result, communication becomes more interactive, with less opportunity for governmental or corporate intrusion. The absence of 'noise' in new communication networks permits the flow of information with fewer ideological filters and allows citizen groups to grasp a more accurate picture of political events.(1)

Just last year, David Hoffman wrote in The New York Times, "Nothing raises more fear in a repressive regime than challenges to the control of information. And nothing is more important to the development of a civil, democratic society. Free elections may be a first step in establishing rule of law, but there can be no multiparty elections without a multiplicity of news outlets."(2) Much of the enthusiasm for the political effects of a free media resembled nothing so much as the 1960s developmentalists' enthusiasm for mass media. Daniel Lerner, for example, viewed the mass media as a crucial vehicle for fostering "modernity" in the Middle East, because exposure to different perspectives would create empathy and openness to new ideas, and encourage planning. The effects of open media were not only to affect domestic politics, however. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously observed that two countries with MacDonald's have never fought a war, and in the academic world, scholars fleshed out the idea that democracies are almost invariably at peace with other democracies.

Were such deep changes to occur, the Arab world would stand to gain greatly. For decades, the region had been both locked in deep conflict and plagued by the heavy hand of authoritarianism. Many Arabic newspapers had long ago ceased to be readable by the early 1990s, and Arab television, for the most part, was a drab affair with fawning national news coverage and third-rate entertainment programming.

But as we look now at Arab politics and the regional media environment, one cannot help but be struck at how little of the bright future came to pass. Authoritarianism remains the rule in the Middle East. Freedom House, an American NGO, not only estimates the Middle East to be the least free region of the world, but that levels of freedom in the Middle East modestly declined in the 1990s while it increased almost everywhere else.(3) Not only are meaningful elections a rarity, but states continue to use arbitrary detention and torture to defend their interests. After a period of exploration and experimentation, Middle Eastern media are more predictable and in many ways less interesting than they were even five years ago. Like Western television, and perhaps even more so, it has a predilection for sensationalism and spectacle over public affairs. True investigative journalism remains a rarity, and a top journalist for a leading Arab satellite channel lamented to me recently, "Our work is judged on a political basis, not on a professional basis." Rather than pushing for accountability among rulers, talk shows increasingly turn to commentators with no responsibility, no constituency, and ultimately no positive vision with which to lead the Arab world.

In addition, the explosive growth in satellite television audiences appears to be tapering off. The shift to digital broadcasting raises costs and makes some extant equipment obsolete, and the clutter of outlets makes it increasingly difficult for any single outlet to gain substantial audience share. Television remains a losing financial proposition for almost all participants, meaning that only those who are governments or close to governments can play successfully in the television field.

Equally significantly, the rise of Arab media does not appear to have diminished conflict in the region. There was a time when the Arab media was breaking down boundaries and providing a regular forum for Arabs and Israelis to present their competing claims to historic Palestine. This phenomenon has diminished, although not entirely ended. But interestingly, polls by Zogby International indicate that regular viewers of Al Jazeera are more positively disposed toward peace with Israel, despite the frequent vehemence of talk show guests and the strong editorializing that seeps into the regular news coverage. One reason for this may be that exposure to Al Jazeera's coverage brings with it more information and a greater awareness of the nuances in the conflict.

One of the primary consequences of the rise of Arab satellite television is the rising sense of regional solidarity, or "Arabism from the ground up."(4) Arab television has brought the al-Aqsa Intifada into the living rooms of tens of millions of Arabs, in addition to hundreds of music videos and an Arabic version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Those programs, as well as others, have helped define an increasingly developed common Arab culture that has long been aspired to but never before achieved. Yet what is striking about this growing solidarity is that most treat it as an end itself, rather than a means to an end. Practical cooperation on necessary reforms in economics, trade, education, and politics all to often remains a dream.

What accounts for Arab satellite television having less of an impact than some predicted? Part of the answer is surely misplaced optimism. One can hardly blame Arab satellite television for failing to meet unrealistic goals that others had set for it. But I think it is instructive to examine the ways in which the optimistic predictions were wrong, and why. Doing so can help us understand better where current trends might take us in the future.

I'd like to make six observations about the medium of television, the Arab broadcasting environment, and the audience for Arab satellite television broadcasting.

1) Television is fundamentally an entertainment medium. The effect of increasing coverage of political matters on television appears to have been in large measure to reduce politics to entertainment. This is not a reflection on the Arab world specifically; many of the most popular formats for political debate owe their origins to Western television. But television has not emerged as a place where people create blocs advocating political change. Mobilizing people requires them to participate in some action - sending a letter, attending a protest, buying or not buying a product. Television is passive, and people seeking to create actions have not been able to mobilize political action using the airwaves. 

2) Satellite television stresses issues of regional solidarity over individual domestic issues. The regional audience for satellite television creates a need for regional messages addressing regional interests. For the most part, these messages have stressed issues that build feelings of solidarity, rather than ones that divide the community. There are many reasons for this. One is that regional broadcasters want to reach the broadest possible audience. But another has to do with the disconnect between the audience for satellite television and responsible political organs. Only a minority of the audience for a station will come from any single jurisdiction, meaning that calls for action affect a multiplicity of local authorities, each with their own politics and local conditions to consider. The effect often seems to be to reinforce authoritarian patterns of behavior among the populace. Lisa Wedeen's monograph on domestic governance in Syria discusses at some length how public professions of belief, no matter how cynical, create important appearances of solidarity, guidelines for behavior, rules for belonging, and importantly, induced complicity in the actions of the regime.(5) 

3) Ownership patterns have shifted little in the last decade. Satellite television continues to be owned by states or those close to states, meaning that the prerogatives of governments, rather than of publics, continues to dominate stations' agendas. To a degree, the fact that viewers are not subjects of the state whose programming they are watching gives them more freedom and independence. But a) programming stresses broad issues of solidarity anyway, and b) the views of those who wish to do away with the extant state system or contemporary politics have a hard time finding an outlet. 

4) The Arab public remains cynical about media messages. When I lived in Egypt, the phrase kalam gara'id [literally, "newspaper talk"] didn't mean news, it meant empty talk. Although there are places where the media have improved markedly, the media do not enjoy a high degree of trust anywhere in the Arab world.

5) Clear red lines still exist. Independent media often push boundaries, and Arab media is no exception. Satellite television stations have clearly broken new ground in important areas: political leaders are held more to account than before, social issues are aired, and opposing views are brought into the discussion. But some red lines have proven more durable than might have been expected. For example, while there is often debate between religious and secular figures, there is almost never debate between religious figures. The effect is to present an image of a single and authoritative religious viewpoint, when in fact many exist in the Arab world and in the umma more broadly.

6) Representative politics continue to get short shrift. Arab satellite television has not made media stars of Arab parliamentarians, except perhaps Azmi Bishara. While one can certainly enter into chicken-and-egg debates about parliamentarians receiving more attention when they have more influence, and their having more influence when they receive more attention, one does sense a reluctance to give too much coverage to parliamentary politics, perhaps because of the sensitivities of large and important countries in the Middle East. An unanticipated effect of this is that Arab publics have an especially difficult time understanding American parliamentary politics, and thus tend to discount the arena as one that has already been lost for Arab interests.

The observations I've just made are just that, and not criticisms. In no way do they undermine the very positive effects that Arab satellite television has had on the people of the Middle East, to wit:

1) Local broadcasting continues to improve. Satellite broadcasting raised the bar for local broadcasters, who have had to adapt in order to preserve market share. Not only have their production values improved, but their content has improved as well. The news contains more bona fide news, and the range of viewpoints expressed has expanded. Without satellite television, such an improvement would almost certainly not have taken place.

2) Censorship is no longer a viable information strategy. For many Arab governments for many years, the easiest response to unpleasant news was to squelch it. The ubiquity of communications means that bad news must be confronted, and government lines must complete with other narratives. This does not immediately create good government, or democracy, but it creates an environment of greater transparency and accountability that is very much in the interest of Arab publics.

3) More people are aware of democratic experiments throughout the region. Elections in Qatar or Bahrain make regional news, and have a regional impact. Israeli politics are followed more closely than at any time in the region's history, and Palestinian leaders and reformists have a disproportionate role on the regional stage. While such coverage may not have immediate effects on national politics, in the longer term it cannot help but shape people's understanding of possibilities for their own political future, as well as their expectations from their own governments.

4) Young leaders see the media environment differently. King Abdullah, King Muhammad, and Sheikh Hamad and President Asad all view the media very differently than their fathers. They do not seek to create a cult of personality or an aura of invincibility. Instead, they demonstrate a comfort with a more open media environment that suggests more openness will come to other countries in the coming years.

But we are now way in the end game. Satellite broadcasting is on the brink of change in the region, and several questions bear watching:

1) What effect would a war with Iraq have, if one takes place? Will public protests change government actions (either their own or the U.S.)? Dismay over Israel's Operation Defensive Shield dissipated fairly quickly, but if there is a war, it will be covered better than Defensive Shield and generate far more distressing images. Will those images be well distributed? Will they have different effects in different places? Will public opinion be decisive in the Arab world, which has not happened in recent years? Will a government fall because of media coverage? If that happens, will it affect the way states treat the Arab media?

2) What will happen in the cultural arena? The cultural wars are not nearly over in the Middle East, and one can expect pitched battles to define what is "authentic" and what is permissible on an Arab outlet. If censorship returns strongly, it is much more likely to involve social issues than political ones. There may be some resistance to "Gulf Islam," or a to a general homogenizing effect among the religious community. Also, look for creative synergies of modernity and religion that are well keyed in to public needs. The media allows constant innovation and reinvention among those putting forward ideas, and some are likely to succeed.

3) What will be the effects of satellite television on domestic politics? In the Gulf, satellite television has had very little effect on domestic politics, which are often intensely personal and rely on cooptation of political opponents. In recent years, some opposition figures have gained a foothold on the satellite channels of other states, but there still seem to be few signs yet of the development of mass politics. A Kuwaiti legislator still might reasonably be expected to know all of his constituents by sight if not by name, and even Saudi Arabia has managed to maintain deeply personal bonds between the governors and the millions of governed.

In poorer, more populous states, media could help groups articulate their opposition to governments, and propose alternative policies. Governments face increasingly difficult times mobilizing public support, and many appear to have all but given up. Some governments seem to aspire to "post-political societies." In such societies, there is broad cynicism about politics and consequently few efforts to influence them. Politics is left to politicians, who have a relatively free hand as long as they provide basic services.

One downside of this chain of events is the possibility that open media presents opportunities for demagogues to seize the public imagination. In the new media environment, there is a Darwinian competition for attention, and new voices sometimes win out not because their ideas are the most sound, but because they are most appealing to a broad audience.

In all of this discussion, it is important to be clear what our timeframe is. Media develops over time, and politics often take even longer to develop. When we talk about political and social change in the Arab world, we need to be thinking not in terms of weeks and months, but years and decades. Although television is made every day often for 24 hours, one cannot judge its impact week-to-week, or even year-to-year.

Partly because of this, trends are especially important, and the trend toward sensationalism at the expense of political and economic change is a disturbing one. When more than fifty Arab scholars cooperated in publishing the Arab Human Development Report(6) under the auspices of the UN Development Program, it made only a small ripple in Arab media circles. The report lays out in some detail the urgent challenges facing Arab - education, emancipation of women, economic change, among others. But somehow, it was perceived as "off message" by those who see their job as encouraging their viewers to remain steadfast in the face of outside challenges. The most important challenges facing the Arab world are those from within, not those from without. The international Arab media can play a significant role bringing these issues to the fore. So far, it has not.


(1) Donald Chatfield, "The Information Revolution and the Shaping of a Democratic Global Order," in Neal Reimer (ed.), New Thinking and Developments in International Politics: Opportunities and Dangers (Lanham: University Press of America, 1991, p. 159.

(2) David Hoffman, "Democracy Needs Many Voices," The New York Times, February 1, 2001.

(3) See, generally, www.freedomhouse.org, especially the tables on Freedom in the World Country Ratings, 1972-2000.

(4) For an early assessment of this trend, see Jon B. Alterman, "Transnational Broadcasting and Regionalism," tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com/Archives/Fall98/Articles1/JA1/ja1.html.

(5) See Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

(6) See www.undp.org/rbas/ahdr.

About Jon Alterman

Jon Alterman is Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is author of New Media: New Politics: From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World.

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