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The Impact of Arab Satellite Television on Prospects for Democracy in the Arab World

(This article is based on a presentation at the Foreign Policy Research Institute on 19 April 2005).

News in the Arab World Before the Age of Satellite TV

Little more than a decade ago there was no such thing as television journalism in the Arab world. State-owned national television channels had news bulletins, but in the sense of news value—stories covered and transmitted because of some intangible but intrinsic news value about which professionals are almost always in a rough consensus—there was no such thing as "TV journalism." News bulletins were dominated by footage covering ceremonial occasions of state and this held true whether the country was a republic or a monarchy: the ruler receiving newly accredited diplomats; the ruler hosting another head of state and more recently, with his guest addressing the press; the ruler received at the airport upon returning home; the ruler addressing parliament on a significant occasion; or the ruler inaugurating a new dam or some other massive facility. But do not imagine that state television was devoted solely to recording ceremonial activities of the ruler; there was also the prime minister—the prime minister convening a meeting of the cabinet; the prime minister or other ministers opening factories. In this sealed universe, there were no television reporters, just a cameraman who recorded the event, editing-in-camera so to speak, in order that his film or tape could be played directly that evening on the news, while a presenter read a wire copy from the state or semi-official news agency that had covered the same event.

Since the wire copy only approximated the footage being shown—the same event but with nothing written to picture, nor any picture edited to fit the copy—there was always a desultory, oddly detached quality, aside from the basic banality of the events that were covered. Unlike radio there was no comparison effect. Terrestrial television had a range of 50 miles. With boosters the signal could be relayed the length of a country but not beyond its borders. Unlike BBC Arabic Radio Service, which anyone could listen to in the Arab world, no one in the Arab world could see BBC television news, or any other broadcaster (be they American, French, or Italian) covering the news according to international standards. Global television news agencies supplied videos of major international news, which at times included regional events such as the civil war in Lebanon. But again, this was footage from the field, not a field report. The television news agencies provided pictures and a written description of the shots, the location, and names of personalities, but it did not include a script which could be translated and read.

The national television channels would again take copy from their own state news agency, or even an international news agency—the copy carefully vetted so as not to contradict the official take on the event. But again, this wasn't a news report and the copy the anchor read rarely amplified the significance of the picture shown. If it did, the result was purely accidental, since the idea of writing to picture was part of the art of a television journalism that simply wasn't practiced.

Regional news—a coup, a civil war, a massacre—might never be broadcast if deemed embarrassing to a friendly fellow Arab state. Or perhaps a report would finally appear a few days late because the channel had waited for the political leadership to decide what its response to the event in a neighboring country might be. Of course this could be ludicrous since short-wave radio—BBC Arabic service, VOA and Monte Carlo Arabic radio—already would be reporting on these events. So at the very least, the "educated classes"—a linguistic flourish I've gotten use to, living as I do in the Arab world—were aware of the event. Most notoriously in that vein was the failure of the Saudi official media to mention the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for more than 48 hours after the event.

President Sadat and Me

I must confess that once one understood the system, it had its extra-journalistic uses. Let's say our bureau (at the time, the NBC News Bureau) was in desperate need of a difficult-to-secure international telephone line. There were very few available in Cairo in the mid-'70s. I knew President Sadat was to inaugurate a new cultural center, so that morning I would show up with my camera crew. Of course NBC News wouldn't have had the slightest interest in the event and I had no intention of shipping the film we would shoot. Needless to say, my competition, CBS and ABC, weren't covering; only an Egypt TV cameraman always accompanying the President would be doing so, which was just fine.

At the right moment I would approach the President and ask him for his reaction to any seemingly relevant question or two—a rumor from Washington, a report from Tel Aviv. Needless to say, my crew would film the stand-up interview. But more importantly, Egypt TV, not having its own correspondent, would film every second of the interview. Now in those days there was no television to watch outside Egypt TV and that night 50 million Egyptians would watch the President and I chatting together about reports from Washington and Tel Aviv, just like old friends. The next morning I would rush over to the Ministry of Telecommunications where everybody would recognize me—it was the foreign correspondent friend of the President!! I would be ushered into the office of the minister and within minutes, the phone line was ours.

The CNN Effect

What changed all of this—and here is a pertinent lesson of how benign foreign intervention by force of example can be a motor for change in the Arab world—was CNN coverage of the build-up and the eventual combat between the American-led Alliance and Iraq in 1991. There were very few dishes in the Arab world at the time, but given the need to dispel outrageous Iraqi radio propaganda, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries in the American-led Alliance pulled down CNN 24/7 coverage of the build-up and then the war and subsequently re-transmitted it via terrestrial television. Suddenly, Arabs could see events in the Arab world comprehensively covered—CNN reporters out in the field coming back with finished reports.

Since the reports were in English, English speakers were suddenly in great demand in millions of Arab households and coffee shops. In Egypt, a new pay TV company, CNE, continued to retransmit CNN terrestrially after the war had ended. Saudi private interests with very close ties to the palace sensed the importance of satellite news and the potential for mischief if placed in the wrong hands. They quickly moved after the war ended to establish a satellite channel with morning and evening news bulletins transmitting real reports—footage from the field edited into meaningful news stories by Arab correspondents in the field with their cameramen.

That channel, MBC, was logically based in London where there was already a cadre of expatriate Arab journalists trained to international standards or trainable by executives brought in from the BBC and ITN. There the ambience in no way resembled that of state television channels, which were literally extensions of the ministries of information, invariably occupying the same building. Again one must acknowledge outside influence, in this case at work as ambience (the ambience of London), where the coverage of political life could be simplified into a schematic which goes, "Here is a problem; here are the contending solutions to that problem." This contrasts vividly with what had become, after the 1948 defeat in Palestine and the waves of coup d'etats and revolution that followed, the prevailing mode of thought and expression in Arab media. This mode was reflected above all in the commentaries of the state-owned or directed printed press, which were always long on commentaries and short on news. And this mode of thought and expression is that every problem has its roots in a conspiracy and the contending issues were and in some cases still are, between rival or shifting conspiracy theories—a political media environment that has been described so well by our colleague Saad Eddin Ibrahim at a media conference last year in Cambridge. (His paper, entitled "Thoughts in Arab Satellite Television, Pan Arabism, and Freedom of Expression" can be found in the Fall/Winter 2004 issue of Transnational Broadcasting Studies at tbsjournal.arabmediasociety.com)

The Rise of Al Jazeera and Other Satellite Channels

In such an environment, real news reports from the field, narrated in Arabic and available on television, were stunning experiences. MBC quickly acquired a large audience particularly in the Gulf and eastern Saudi Arabia because the satellite signal was downloaded in Bahrain and retransmitted terrestrially. In those parts of Arabia and the Gulf, MBC took major audience share. Other channels followed and after an aborted attempt at 24/7 Arab language TV news coverage produced by BBC in the service of another Saudi group, the newly installed Emir of Qatar provided funds and facilities to launch Al Jazeera in 1996, approximating the BBC model of public owned but not state controlled television.

The core staff at Al Jazeera had all been trained and served as broadcasters at BBC. By now, dishes and a number of entertainment satellite channels were proliferating across most of the Arab world. That proliferation of dishes provided Al Jazeera with a rapidly growing mass audience, now estimated at more than 50 million viewers. Because Al Jazeera is a 24/7 news operation, it quickly seized the leadership position in Arab satellite broadcasting; a position that would not be significantly challenged until just before the invasion of Iraq, when the MBC group which had first launched TV news coverage in a limited news bulletin format back in 1992, now gathered together a group of Arab journalists, including the first news director at Al Jazeera and a number of Al Jazeera reporters for the launch of Al Arabiya.

The competition has had a positive effect. Arab satellite television journalists are less likely to indulge their personal ideological takes on the news when they know a more detached and thus a more reliable version of the same event is available on the TV screen just one click away on everybody's remote control. So here we have one of those amazing historic reverses: The most servile, the most state controlled, the least professional of all media in the Arab world, is suddenly refashioned in a satellite format, providing news reports more in accord with international professional standards than any other form of media in the region. And because those reports can be uplinked from Europe to a satellite, which can download these reports to dishes anywhere in the Arab world, this becomes an un-censorable format due to the transmission technology and satellite links.

For many Arabs, however, the great joy in Al Jazeera was to watch the several "Cross-fire" types of political talk shows that would pit critics of Arab regimes against their defenders: Islamists against either liberal secularists or Arab nationalists. While debates that were unimaginable on the state national television channels flowed back and forth, the audience could join in by telephone, again expressing their own opinions and doing so in a manner also unimaginable only a decade ago. But as Ibrahim Helal, former chief editor at Al Jazeera acknowledged, at that same Cambridge conference on Arab media last winter, all too often these talk shows degenerated into unproductive shouting matches in which abuse replaced dialogue and analysis.

One senses that these talk shows are too often a vehicle for the collective venting of emotion rather than an exercise in critical thinking. I would argue that it is informed opinion that is of value—not opinion for its own sake. The Arab world has for too long suffered from the conspiracy mania and political hysteria fostered by uninformed opinion. Reporting from the field and reporting the facts as they are in the field, informs opinion. When Saad Eddin Ibrahim was finally released from prison, during which time he had been vilified by nearly the entire Egyptian press, it was Al Jazeera that interviewed Saad Eddin and allowed him again to raise the very issue—the possibility of hereditary succession to power in Egypt—which had resulted in his imprisonment in the first place. A critical issue for the democratic process had been put into play by a news report; by an interview. This novelty offered great improvement over the previously dominant confrontational talk shows, which at best function after the facts are established, but all too often are oblivious, if not indifferent to facts.

News and the Cultivation of a Democratic Consciousness

Both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya responded to widespread concern and anger in the Arab world with America's deepening involvement in the region—in particular the invasion and occupation of Iraq and what has appeared as continued U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories—by increasing coverage of American political life.

This involved providing intensive coverage of the 2004 US presidential election campaign. Even if the interest in the campaign was stimulated in part by the fact that several of the contenders for the Democratic Party nomination challenged the wisdom and conduct of the invasion of Iraq, the result was nonetheless extraordinary coverage of the democratic process starting from the time of the primaries. Indeed, Hugh Miles, the author of a recent book about Al Jazeera, observed at a recent media workshop in Doha that Al Jazeera has done more to educate Arabs about democracy than any other broadcaster.

He was alluding to Al Jazeera's regular weekly program, From Washington, with guests from both the administration and the opposition, as well as the special weekly show, "US Presidential Race," which started in January 2004. The latter program took great pains to educate Arab viewers on the American political and electoral process, how delegates to the conventions are chosen, how the modern primary system evolved and how the Electoral College functions. This show was supplemented by special reports, documentaries and live coverage of many of the highlights in the primary campaigns, the conventions (with four reporters covering both conventions) and then the election campaign itself. In contrast to the usual confrontational talk shows, Al Jazeera's programs, From Washington and The American Presidential Race, produced by the Washington bureau and hosted by Al Jazeera's veteran correspondent, Hafez Al Mirazi, had a distinctly informative style. These shows and in particular the latter one, were obviously designed to help viewers newly interested in American politics to easily understand what was happening during the campaign and to grasp the basic workings of the American democratic system. The coverage deepened the Arab world's factual, rather than imaginatively preconceived, understanding of America. As an additional side effect, it provided a familiarization course in the operations of a functioning democracy.

A similar effect has been underway in the intense reporting on political life in England by the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya bureaus in London. Again, the stimulus may be issues of particular interest to an Arab audience, such as the debates in parliament related to the Iraqi invasion, but the side-effect has been a protracted education in the democratic process. The importance of this development cannot be exaggerated. Until a few years ago, there was not a single Center for American studies at any Arab university. Now there are two: one at Cairo University and the other has just begun at the American University in Cairo, funded, interestingly enough, by the Saudi Prince and global investor, Alwalid bin Talal (who is deeply involved in Arab satellite television). Additionally, the RAND Corporation has launched a regional research center in Qatar, the host country for Al Jazeera.

Two other elections have had a profound effect on stimulating the democratic process in the Arab world. I am referring to the Palestinian election for President (which was a contested election) and also the local elections in which Hamas entered the political process and did quite well, suggesting to Fatah's leadership that there is a price to be paid for the sort of casual corruption that characterized Palestinian Authority's rule in the territories since Oslo. But the election with the greatest impact of all was the one in Iraq, in which millions of Arabs watched millions of Iraqis braving terrorist threats to vote in a highly competitive election. And the great question those elections pose in the consciousness of every Arab, in every Arab country, is: If free, competitive elections can be held in Iraq, despite a violent insurgency and a foreign occupation, then why not here? 

About Abdallah Schleifer

S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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