No. 9,
Fall/Winter 2002
Issue 9 home page
Return to current issue
Archives main page

Transnational Broadcast Services and Their Impact on the Peace Process in the Middle East

By TBS Senior Editor Hussein Y. Amin

t the beginning of the new millennium and almost a quarter of a century after the Camp David accords that established hope for peace in the Middle East, a comprehensive peace is still a dream and Arab-Israeli relations are at a peak in terms of conflict and disagreement. Israel and Arab countries that have formed peace agreements with Israel continue to honor the provisions of their treaties; however, suspicions about the future of peace are growing daily. These suspicions have been projected and enhanced by the transnational broadcast media that have developed in the countries in the region during the last ten years (Gowida 2002).

The mainstream media in the region-and the governments that control them-have steadfastly tried to maintain the appearance of continuity, hanging on to past, tried-and-untrue formulas, even after years of momentous change that have catapulted the rest of the world into the information age. The Arab world has been largely insensible to the implications of this change, but it has not been immune to all its manifestations (Amin 1996).

Most countries in the Middle East are willing to transmit their own messages to others, to assert their social, political, and economic position. This wave of new transmission was led by the first world countries and succeeded by other developing countries wanting to join this new world of communication. International networks were established for this purpose. They cover the vital and significant issues occurring in the world around us. They have opened the door for a larger audience, expanded the resources of information, and supported cultural and social change. In periods of crisis and wars these networks emerge to transmit to the audience all over the world a true picture of events on the spot (Al Nick 1983).

Transnational broadcasting has caused some dramatic changes in the Middle East, especially in Arab economies, culture, and politics. As a component of the information revolution, it played a significant role in opening up the flow of information from a historically one-way, North-South movement to include an exchange of information from not only South to North but also West to East linking the entire region of the Middle East together (Amin 2000).

Transnational broadcasting is important in the region for four primary reasons: geographical reach, the ability of satellite television broadcasting to reach both literate and illiterate audiences, people's desire for 'home-based entertainment', especially those who live in rural areas, and, finally, the role it plays in connecting people in the Middle East who are scattered by war, migration and/or exile (Sakr 2001). Another important factor is its impact on the conflict in the Middle East and on the peace process.

Some media experts had hoped, since the introduction of transnational broadcasting in the region, that it would help to establish peace or at least have a positive impact on the Middle East peace process. It is critical now that researchers in the field of transnational broadcasting examine the performance of these services and their relation to political power and to ask questions about the applicability of media content.

Transnational broadcast media have enabled different forms of interactive dialogue that have created unique associations of human-machine assemblages-individual and collective "voices" that are the modern building blocks of political structures and groupings. The spread of satellite technology in the Arab world has generated new television media that reach the entire Middle East. Satellite dishes, including some locally produced low-tech and inexpensive versions, are readily accessible to the Arab masses enabling them to listen to and watch other opinions from different parts and groups in the region, including Israel. This sudden availability of access to information and media is having an effect on regional media. Transnational media in this case have an impact on the ability of Middle Eastern governments to directly or indirectly influence what the public sees and hears and on the sources of news and entertainment for the region's media consumers (Boyd and Amin 1995).

Transnational broadcasting is also having an impact on the presentation of news. The transfer of news values and presentation from global networks such as Cable News Network (CNN) and the British Broadcasting Corporation's World Service (BBC) to transnational broadcast media in the region is affecting broadcasting values throughout the region. Transnational Arab television news covering the Middle East conflict utilizes international standards in terms of quality programs and presentation through the Arab news networks such as the Arab News Network (ANN), Al Jazeera, and Nile News, as well as those general channels with very strong news and public affairs programming, such as Abu Dhabi and the pioneer in Arab TV field reporting, MBC. National news networks are usually state-controlled and selective in the news they present, lacking the visual content that involves graphics, illustrations, still photos, maps, charts, and video clips that are available on the transnational news networks (Labib 2001). Pictures are extremely suggestive. Audiences in the Middle East generally give more credence to what is shown and presented on transnational media, since they have the benefit of visual information as well as a reputation for relative objectivity, which does not exist in the national media. Media experts in the Middle East have argued that the broadcasting of violent images has a negative impact on the ability of their governments to work for peace. The public's access to a continuous barrage of disturbing images and uncensored news, particularly in regard to the Intifada, have raised the emotional stakes of public discourse. National news, to a large extent, still involves official lines, biased information, and censored reports that contribute to the "information warfare" in the region.

In the Middle East, oral messages are transmitted quickly, rumors are quick to arise and spread, and illiteracy is very high; this is why television has become the most powerful medium of mass communication. Traditional television coverage of the news about the Middle East conflict conveys information audio-visually, thereby bypassing the barrier of illiteracy; however, it has been used mainly as a mouthpiece of governments (Amin 2002). The power of the "free" transnational broadcast media attracting and influencing hundred of millions in the Middle East at the same time was clearly documented during the second Intifada (Ragab 2002). Visual information that was presented via transnational broadcast services and provided a wealth of information that in many cases circumvented long oral messages in the Arab news had a great impact on Arab viewers. Arab audiences are often dependent, directly or indirectly, on transnational media for their information because their own national media lack resources to access information and often present a simplified coverage of conflict that is not perceived by the public as being credible and reliable. In addition, transnational broadcast news coverage about the Middle East conflict has a tremendous appeal to Arab audiences, since, unlike print, it favors movement over stillness, simplification over complexity, specificity over abstraction, and the present over the past or the future (Amin 2002).

The Middle East has at least four competing digital television platforms battling for audience loyalty: ART/1st Net, Orbit, Star Select, and Gulf DTH/Showtime (Forrester, 1999). A few years ago, transnational television services posed little threat to monopoly state-run national television. Although they were introduced to the region when the Gulf war started at the beginning of the nineties, their fast development and pan-Arab impact is by far greater than national television in any of the Middle Eastern countries (Amin 1997). For example, the coverage of the second Intifada since October 2000 has attracted perhaps the largest uncensored audience in the history of Arab broadcasting (Labib, 2001). Television viewers from Rabat in Morocco to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia share the news experience from their living rooms or coffee shops. The Palestinian uprising was made available to the world through the many correspondents working for Arab and non-Arab transnational broadcast services, causing Israeli officials to conclude that the "media war" was not going their way (Salama 2001). Furthermore, transnational broadcast services were responsible for the creation of a strong pan-Arab public opinion, when millions of people demonstrated in the streets of Arab capitals in support of the Palestinians Intifada. The strong coverage of the event from transnational broadcast media such as Al Jazeera and other Arabic language channels created a regional pan-Arab movement out of what started as a local protest in Jerusalem (Schneider, 2000).

Since their introduction, transnational broadcast services in the Middle East have fought for greater market share. This usually means that they look for issues that appeal to their audience and differ from what is currently available from their national services (Amin 2000). In this sense, their target broadcast audiences were not individual national audiences but the general Arab audience. The Middle East conflict was and still remains the most attractive item in news broadcasts because of its relative importance to many viewers in the region. Coverage of the recent Palestinian-Israeli violence is demonstrating the power of the transnational media to cut out the government middleman by reaching viewers directly in their households. Before, news about the conflict came to the Middle East via state broadcast media with the official line, suppressed or exaggerated depending on whether a particular government supported peace with Israel, and might even be colored by the nature of the relation or position of the government in question with Israel. This time, Arab TV viewers are getting the picture, to a large extent, uncensored, direct from the scene, and sometimes taking to the streets in protest at what they see (Ragab 2002).

As Abdallah Schleifer says, speaking specifically of Al Jazeera, "Al Jazeera…encourages a new political culture more responsive to facts than conspiracy theories, more gratified and empowered by a journalism that seeks objective truth than a journalism solely of self-confirming perspective. In its commitment to free expression, it is the logical ally of any emerging civil society. If it has inflamed the Arabs by its powerful visuals of Israel's cruel repression of a Palestinian people resisting occupation, it has also interviewed Israelis when no other Arab channel, except Orbit and Abu Dhabi, would. It has provided forums for Arab-Israeli debate when no other channel would. It has created the possibility that Arabs can shift from demonizing an entire people to discriminating between what forces in Israeli society would perpetuate occupation and injustice and what forces would seek a just peace" (Newsday, October 14, 2001) (1).

Transnational broadcasting is seen by many to have the potential to act as a social engineer in the Middle East, including facilitating domestic understanding of regional conflict, providing new neutral perspectives to the general and target audiences, linking the region together and also with the rest of the world, increasing government awareness of other governments' performance in the region and shaping government effectiveness, promoting human rights, advancing formal and informal education, broadcasting news and information about the region and the people, and, finally, familiarizing the region with other cultures, values, traditions and religions, all aspects that work to enhance the culture for peace (Amin 2000). However, with respect to coverage of the Intifada, transnational broadcasting in the region has not effectively clarified the different standpoints of Arabs and Israelis. It has not recognized the gravity of the situation until demonstrations extended everywhere, broadcasting and replaying images of the shooting of Mohamed Durra, Palestinian youths throwing stones, burning tires and flags and shouting anti-Israeli slogans, and Israeli troops searching for civilians and aiming at and shooting young Palestinians. This did not enhance the culture of peace but rather magnified the march to war and significantly elevated the level of emotion in public discourse.

Many new factors are challenging the traditional setting of Arab mass media, such as new competition. These factors give unlimited options and entertainment. The more Arab media continues to present heavily controlled news and entertainment, the more likely Arab audiences will seek better content from transnational media. By directly reaching Arab viewers, transnational broadcasting bypasses Arab governments' controls, forcing them to face competition both in terms of quality and legitimacy. Despite the fact that many of the Middle Eastern countries share a common language, culture, religion and geography, Arab audiences have many social differences and diverse political ideologies. Within the Arab world media system censorship is easily tolerated, especially during time of war, and even expected as a form of civic responsibility. Some Arab leaders are very sensitive about criticism; hence, in many cases, it is prohibited to broadcast criticism of the state, officers of the state, courts, military and security officers, and religious leaders. In addition, subjecting other countries to praise, satire, or contempt is prohibited. Nonetheless, transnational broadcast media challenged this setting when Al Jazeera broadcast that the Arabs should lead the war against the state of Israel. This kind of program transmitted allegations that caused a political disturbance in several Arab countries since after the broadcast demonstrations and protests took place in the Egyptian cities and Arab capitals, verbally attacking leaders of Arab nations and calling for their removal.

On the positive side, transnational broadcasting paved the way for more a collective aspect of Arab identity. CNN helped introduce the region to the concepts of freedom of expression and freedom of the press during its coverage of the Gulf War. The Gulf crisis marked a turning point not only in establishing the genre of 24-hour satellite television news but also in bringing Middle Eastern viewers' dissatisfaction with terrestrial television news coverage. New Arabic transnational television services such as MBC, Al-Jazeera, Nile News, and the Arab News Network have been trying to imitate program formats from CNN (Sakr 2001). These new networks, particularly Orbit Networks, MBC and Al-Jazeera, have brought these values home to the Middle East. Traditional definitions of journalistic culture in the Middle East have been challenged. Many journalists as well as people living in the Middle East already have access to international television networks without any kind of control, censorship, or government approval of content (Amin 2000).

The development of regional transitional broadcasting networks has been impeded primarily because most of the Arab media systems are authoritarian press systems, where governments own and operate the electronic media creating a censorial culture that limits the participation of the masses (Amin, 1998). In today's world of instant communication and global media sources, the censorial culture has ceased to have any relevance. Middle East authoritarian regimes are coming under increasing pressure to allow media privatization and democratization as well as respect for human rights and the guarantee of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. However, some governments in the Middle East have been struggling to resist the call for privatization. Transnational broadcast media by their nature ensure more freedom in terms of ownership and control than ever before. This should eventually have an impact on transforming media systems to provide a wide variety of opinions and views that occasionally will differ from their governments. Already some media are moving slowly, but perceptibly, toward privatization (Amin and Gher 1999).

Restrictions on the freedom of the press and on the flow of news must be counted among the bitter harvests of the Middle East conflict. Coverage of activities of many of the peace movements was limited, if reported at all. The media scene has been particularly discouraging in the past few months, as transnational broadcast services in their coverage of the conflict in the Middle East has often been biased and failed to present well-rounded views. In this overheated environment of hate and revenge, unsympathetic public opinion was enhanced and boosted. Surprisingly, some people have called for Arab public opinion to remain hostage to traditional national one-sided views and to turn away from transnational media sources. These voices express the frustration the y feel at the transnational media raising issues and presenting views that are uncomfortable, both to a public used to hearing affirmations of what they already believe and to governments used to controlling news broadcasts.

Transnational media are providing the world with a tremendous opportunity for developing the foundation of peace, an unprecedented forum for the exchange of views. Arab television stations now present secularists debating Islamists, Iraqis debating Kuwaitis, and Israelis debating Palestinians. Although the Arab public never before had a chance to watch an Israeli leader speaking in Arabic, they recently watched a number of Israeli political leaders debating in Arabic on an Arab satellite television network during the Israeli election. When one station aired an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, one of its competitors went one better and aired an interview with Barak's successor, Ariel Sharon. Arabs can watch the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (Middle East) network broadcast in Arabic by the Israeli government, watch the new Hebrew service that is being broadcast by Nile TV International, an Egyptian transnational broadcasting channel, and listen to Sawa (Together), the new Arabic-language radio station broadcast to the region by the US government.

By bypassing government gatekeepers, transnational broadcast services have had the opportunity to free themselves-to some degree-from the political agenda of Middle East governments and broadcast well rounded news reports that includes Israeli views on the conflict (Gohar 2002). Orbit network was among the first transnational broadcast media to introduce Israeli officials to the Arab viewers. Emad Adib has had many Israeli officials including Benjamin Netanyahu (Schleifer, 2002) on his program 'Ala Al-Hawa. The Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) was first to have news coming from Al-Aqsa mosque in their main news bulletin and interviewed many Arab and Israelis (Gohar 2002). Al Jazeera network, which is based in Qatar, took full advantage of freedom of expression and direct delivery to Arab viewers, airing outspoken commentary that has angered several Arab governments. Jordan closed down Al Jazeera's office last month and Kuwait temporarily shut the network's offices there after it broadcast a caller's insult of its leader. Egypt threatened similar reprisals when one of its commentators accused it of not doing enough to support the Palestinians. The station is funded by the Qatari government but is editorially independent. Most recently, media experts have stated that the Saudi recall of its ambassador to Qatar was the result of Al Jazeera's broadcast of criticism of the Saudi royal family's role in the peace process. Al Jazeera delivered another striking example of the Middle East's new journalism: it broadcast interviews with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his Palestinian adversaries.

Various political Middle Eastern scientists have indicated that media performance is tied up with the political culture. They described the term "political culture" as the values, norms, beliefs, sentiments, and understanding of how power and authority operate within a particular political system. Generally it sets unrecorded ground codes and rules as to how the political process is to be performed. It is understood that a particular political culture grows as a result of historical development and that it contributes to the reproduction of the system or the processes that supports such a culture (Amin 2001). The majority of discussions on domestic political culture go back to the features of traditional heritage, religion, political history of the region. The situation conflict in the Middle East raises in the most intense way many questions of professional standards and ethics-objectivity, accuracy, independence, the need for the understanding of the subject, and public duty. Many journalists in the region have little professional training to help them deal with these issues; in many countries in the Middle East low standards pertain throughout the media for various historic and systematic reasons and in conflict situations the pressures to ignore professional standards are intense (Ragab 2002).

In today's world, whoever can effectively use transnational media to communicate their messages can have an immense impact on world opinion. No longer are we talking about city newspapers and national networks. Today, images and stories can be transmitted to hundred of millions of viewers in the blink of an eye. Those organizations and governments who refuse to acknowledge the ascendancy of this technology in forming world opinion and affecting national and international policy stand to lose a great deal.

Transnational broadcasting in the Middle East has had an impact on expanding public access, strengthening international understanding, and encouraging a free flow and a wider and better balanced dissemination of information. Nevertheless, at present, the Middle East conflict continues to involve whole societies in the region, while with increasing wealth and transnational broadcast media developments, more information, of different perspectives, reaches deeper into Middle East communities.

It is now the new millennium, the time for peace and the time for freedom and democracy, prosperity and opportunities. Media organizations and institutions in many parts of the Middle East are just beginning to understand the great possibilities that lie in the future. Transnational broadcast media are a crucial determining factor of how we perceive other continents and peoples. Transnational broadcast media also have the potential to achieve a positive impact towards peace, democracy, and tolerance. Today it is uncontested that transnational broadcast media are a vital factor for peace, democracy, and dignified human development. Transnational broadcast media in general is not ideologically driven by pan-Arabism, however; Arabs still identify-even now-with their nation states.

It is important to provide the journalists working for transnational broadcast media in the Middle East and their media institutions with information resources for reflection and debate and to stimulate a culture of high professional standards among media professionals and across the Middle East societies as a whole. Promoting ethical and professional standards in conflict reporting, working with national and regional media organizations such as Journalists Unions, and the establishment of systems to monitor and analyze media coverage of the conflict that stimulate discussion of the findings among academic/professional and civil society organizations and groups are all needed.

It is equally important for transnational broadcasting in the region to find a language and pictures suited to enhance tolerance, reconciliation, and understanding in the midst of the overflow of information about violence. It is equally important for transnational broadcast media to insist on dialogue and compromise. This is how transnational media could provide a well-rounded approach to preserve an open and unbiased exchange between the two parties.

National broadcast media plays an important role in international relations. In the age of transnational broadcast media, this role should be intensified since transnational broadcast media bypass national borders and lend themselves directly to communication with regional and/or global audiences. Although transnational broadcasting media have played an important role in bringing the Arabs and the Israelis together in debate, it has, in many ways, functioned as traditional broadcast media in the Middle East do. Middle Eastern society is slow to change and the media is a reflection of the political, cultural, and social backgrounds of the people of Middle East. This is maybe why the first generation of transnational broadcast media did not fully utilize its power to succeed in becoming a key player in the peace process. Only time will reveal if the second generation of transnational broadcast services to and within the Middle East will have a better impact on peace in the region.

The formula of mutual acceptance that president Sadat carried to Jerusalem before going to Camp David still remains the prerequisite for a lasting Middle East peace. A better understanding among peoples and cultures will result in building a better understanding between Arabs and Israelis. TBS

Notes | References


Dr. Hussein Y. Amin is Chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

Copyright 2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu