MIDDLE EAST: Satellite TV and democracy
S. Abdallah Schleifer

May 31, 2005

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 - there was nothing.

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 and/or prime minister receiving newly accredited diplomats; hosting another head of state, inaugurating a new dam or some other massive facility.

In this sealed universe there were no television reporters, just a cameraman who recorded the event, for his film or tape to be played directly that evening on the news, while a presenter read wire copy from the state or semi-official news agency that had covered the same event.

Unlike radio there was no comparison effect. Terrestrial television could be relayed the length of a country but not beyond its borders. No one in the Arab world could see BBC television news, or any other broadcaster (be they American, French or Italian), unlike BBC Arabic Radio Service, which anyone could listen to.

Regional news - a coup, a civil war, a massacre - might never be broadcast 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 might be. Of course, this could be ludicrous since shortwave radio - BBC Arabic service, Voice Of America and Monte Carlo Arabic radio - would already be reporting on these events. Most notoriously in that vein was the failure of the official Saudi media to mention the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for more than 48 hours after the event.

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 buildup and eventual combat between the American-led alliance and Iraq in 1991.

Given the need to dispel outrageous Iraqi radio propaganda, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the alliance pulled down CNN coverage of the buildup and then the war, subsequently retransmitting them via terrestrial television. Suddenly, Arabs could see events in the Arab world significantly covered.

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 based in London where there was already a cadre of expatriate Arab journalists trained to international standards. 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 the London ambience, where coverage of political life could be simplified into a schematic that 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 revolutions that followed, the prevailing mode of thought and expression in Arab media reflected above all in the commentaries of the state-owned or directed printed press: every problem has its roots in a conspiracy and the contending issues were between rival or shifting conspiracy theories.

In such an environment, real news reports from the field, narrated in Arabic and available on television, were a stunning experience. 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.

Other channels followed, notably in 1996 when the newly installed Emir of Qatar provided funds and facility to launch Al Jazeera, approximating the BBC model of publicly 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 gathered together a group of Arab journalists, including the first news director at Al Jazeera and a number of Al Jazeera reporters, and launched 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 more reliable version of the same event is available on the TV screen just one click away on everybody`s remote control.

It was an amazing historic reverse: The most servile, the most state controlled, the least professional of all media in the Arab world, was 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 up-linked from Europe to a satellite that can download these reports to dishes anywhere in the Arab world, it is un-censorable.

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 US 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 elections campaign. The result was extraordinary coverage of the American democratic process starting from the time of the primaries.

In contrast to the usual confrontational talk shows, Al Jazeera`s programs, `From Washington` and `The American Presidential Face`, had a distinctly informative style. These shows were obviously designed to help viewers newly interested in American politics to better 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.

Two other elections have had a profound effect on stimulating the democratic process in the Arab world. On the one hand there were the Palestinian presidential and municipal elections. In the latter 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 the Palestinian Authority`s rule in the territories since Oslo.

And 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 highly competitive elections. And the great question that those elections pose in the consciousness of every Arab everywhere is: If free, competitive elections can be held in Iraq, despite a violent insurgency and a foreign occupation, then why not here?

S. Abdallah Schleifer is director of the Adham Center at the American University in Cairo and publisher/senior editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies. Acknowledgement to Bitterlemons-International.