No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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Optical Illusions: Television and Censorship in the Arab World

by Naomi Sakr

This article first appeared in the May 2000 bulletin of the Société Suisse Moyen Orient et Civilisation Islamique and is republished with the Society's kind permission.
Dr. Naomi Sakr is a Research Associate of the University of Westminster in the UK. She specializes in aspects of media development in the Middle East as a consultant to several non-governmental organizations.

Should people believe
a government that promises to surrender control over terrestrial television? In the Arab world, the precedents for such a promise being made, let alone kept, are extremely rare. King Abdullah's plans to shake up the broadcast media in Jordan, revealed late last year, include releasing the country's sole broadcaster from the clutches of the Ministry of Information and introducing joint private-public ownership.

It is tempting, after nearly ten years of Arab satellite television, to interpret talk of ending a government broadcasting monopoly as an acknowledgement that tight control in this sector no longer works. In fact a veritable kaleidoscope of Arabic-language programming is now available, via satellite, on Middle Eastern television screens. This diversity has had some impact on the content of terrestrial television. But a mountain of legislation still weighs down on both satellite and terrestrial channels, perpetuating television censorship.

Like any set of institutions rooted in a political system, the broadcast media of a country or region reflect the existing distribution of power. To see how this structural relationship can result in censorship, it is instructive to start by looking at broadcasting arrangements in Lebanon, since these are potentially the most liberal in the Arab world. In the Lebanese confessional system, political positions are assigned on the basis of sectarian affiliation, while unified state institutions take a back seat. In Lebanon today, the state broadcaster, Tele-Liban, is obliged to compete in its own territory with locally based private stations. Each private station is linked to a prominent politician or religious group.

The official ending of Tele-Liban's monopoly under Lebanon's 1994 Audiovisual Media Law occurred at a time when the spread of Arab satellite channels was in full swing. Indeed, it gave the country's private broadcasters—led by LBCI and Future TV—a timely opportunity to enter (and galvanize) the satellite race. But its primary purpose was to regulate the chaotic proliferation of small broadcasting stations that had mushroomed during the Lebanese civil war. When, for political rather than technical reasons, only six Lebanese television stations were awarded licences under the law, those denied access to the airwaves denounced this as an act of censorship. There was little surprise that Rafic Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister at the time, became a beneficiary of the licensing system through his shareholding in Future TV.

In 2000, while Mr. Hariri was out of office, licences were granted to some of those excluded the first time around. Even so, multiple layers of censorship persist. In addition to the control that Syria exercises over Lebanese affairs, and the limitations on free speech carried over from the Penal Code and Press Law to the Audiovisual Media Law, (1) individual stations impose unwritten restrictions of their own. Maguy Farah, a presenter with Future TV, told a Lebanese magazine during Selim al-Hoss's premiership that she had "absolute freedom" in her position. Yet she conceded that the link between Future TV and Mr. Hariri meant she would be unlikely to host Mr. Hoss on her show.(2)

Meanwhile, Mr. Hoss's cabinet, fearful of partial election coverage by private stations, evoked a storm of protest in early 2000 by introducing a bill to forbid all such stations from reporting on parliamentary election campaigns. This attempt at blanket censorship provided yet another reminder that the scope for political commentary by both terrestrial and satellite broadcasters based in Lebanon remains subject to local regulation.

Thus the survival instincts of Middle East regimes continue to preempt any liberalizing impact of satellite television. Indeed it was these very survival instincts that encouraged the Egyptian government and Saudi ruling family to initiate the first Arab satellite stations—Egyptian Space Channel (ESC) and Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC)—to meet the challenge created by alternative sources of news and propaganda about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War. The ESC is based in Cairo as part of the state-owned Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). MBC, based in London, is owned by a brother-in-law of King Fahd.

The common ground between ESC, MBC, and the other pan-Arab television channels should not be exaggerated, even though members of the Al-Saud family are also behind the two leading pay-TV channels, ART and Orbit, and have business and personal links to Lebanon's LBCI and Future TV. Nevertheless, as members of the Satellite Channels Coordinating Committee within the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU), these channels have shown they can take a collective stand. They did so against Qatar's Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel after Al-Jazeera's controversial political programs attracted attention across the Arab world during 1998. It soon emerged that the committee had isolated Al-Jazeera as the only satellite channel ready to break with censorship taboos. Committee members insisted that Al-Jazeera should abide by the "code of honor of the Arab media" before it would be accepted into the ASBU club.(4) continued

Next page: "Free Zones" maintain censorship status quo

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo