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

A New Order Of Information In The Arab Broadcasting System

By Tourya Guaaybess

Introduction: The Re-Structuring Of The Arab Broadcasting Space

A process of restructuring of the Arab broadcasting space began in the mid 1990s. It has given rise to a metamorphosed and completely new media scene, manifested in the expansion and the liberalisation of transnational satellite channels. The technological innovations that led to the rapid change in Arab broadcasting have affected other areas in the so-called "developing countries" along similar general lines (Sinclair 1996, Mitchell and Einsieldel 1995, David French and Michael Richards 2000); thus the Arab region may be taken as a case study. Analysis of this case shows that the present situation emerged abruptly and scholars in international communication and operators alike were prompt to forget all about the development theory paradigm and its implementations, which had prevailed until the 1990s. The current rise of Arab media far away from the ideological background of the development theory is precisely the subject of this paper.

Before the 1990s, one could not properly use the words "Arab televisual landscape." It was more accurate to talk about a juxtaposition of national broadcasting landscapes. In other words, the area of reception of the televisual flows or the "territory of reception," was compartmentalized. One country could export its programs to another, and this aspect attracted well-known studies (Varis 1974, 1984, Varis and Nordenstreng 1974, Mowlana 1985). However, the televisual flows were essentially national and corresponded to the terrestrial (i.e., Hertzian) network. The central paradigm connected to television in this previous period was related to the process of development and to a North/South vision. Within this frame, a pan-Arab experience had been tested through the launching of a common satellite, ARABSAT, but one cannot say that, before a relatively recent period, this satellite permitted the enhancement of inter-Arab exchanges. On the contrary, it revealed the inability of Arab countries to implement the idea that a regional tool was necessary to restore the balance of power in the field of information and communication and to accelerate the social development process.

Nevertheless, since the beginning of the 1990s, the ARABSAT transponders (1), which were underexploited, have become fully occupied and the broadcasting configuration has totally changed. The idea of cooperation, the claim for a fairer sharing of the means of information and communication, were replaced by a reality governed by economic rationality. One model triumphed during the Gulf crisis: CNN, the global network. It is precisely this channel that fascinated many Arab viewers and that was to become a model for many Arab operators (Weisenborn 1992).

In the first section of this paper, I will provide an historical perspective which will serve as a background to the current situation: the main theoretical analyses formerly proposed primarily analysed media as a tool to serve development (in the same way as the Internet today), in a context of ideological opposition between "the North" and "the South." In the second section, I will present the clear change that occurred at the beginning of the 1990s and some of its implications: the "developmentalist" approach was abandoned in favour of a much more "pragmatic" approach. Media, in the Arab countries as elsewhere in the world, is an essential part of today's global marketplace.

I - Considering Media In Arab Countries: The Development Theories

In order to have a better understanding of the current re-arrangements within the Arab broadcasting arena and to appreciate the dramatic and far-reaching character of the current changes in the Arab broadcasting scene, it is necessary to refer to the history of media in Arab countries. Analysing Arab media through an historical approach is very rewarding. It reveals the break which occurred in the 1990s, and the gaps existing between, on the one hand, customary discourses of Arab operators, mainly the rulers, about the role of media at the national level, and, on the other hand, what national and international Arab media have effectively become.

In the past, experts, scholars, and decision-makers held media in Arab countries responsible for social development; nowadays this aspect is almost forgotten and studies on Arab media focus on new information technologies, or on satellite channels with a synchronic perspective. Few mention the previous period, as if there was no connexion between those two eras or as if the satellite channels, for instance, emerged ex nihilo. In a way, it is true that the new broadcasting landscape in Arab countries emerged very quickly and it is difficult to find a link between the two periods, either in current studies about this issue or in the discourses of the decision makers in Arab countries.

Mass media and national development revisited

Nevertheless, until the 1980s, scholars had focused on the development theory, giving much importance to the role of the media. As early as the 1950s, social development in the so-called "new countries" inspired in experts of western countries the idea that the means of mass communication were the best tools to develop Third World countries. In The Passing of Traditional Society, Modernizing the Middle East, Daniel Lerner, a sociologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), theorized that the way of living in the Third World could change very quickly thanks to the media. According to him, mass media had the power to change the retrograde mentalities responsible for stagnation. Lerner offered a deterministic and evolutionary modernisation theory by presenting the different stages that had to articulate the process of modernisation and the sequence in which those stages had to occur. The explanatory paradigm of the impact of media on a developing society was empathy-electronic media would allow one to project himself into the program broadcast by the media in order to learn and to be more open to the world without having to move: "Many more millions of persons in the world were to be affected directly, and perhaps more profoundly, by the communication media than by the transportation agencies"(Lerner 1958, 53).

There were more and more functionalist studies which gave credit to the thesis according to which means of mass communication in the Third World would entail a break with tradition, promising a better future, and Wilbur Schramm for one, author of Mass Media and National Development (1964), republished by UNESCO, is a typical example. Programs for development were set up by governments of Third World countries; they were inspired and supported by this generation of experts and scholars coming mainly from the United States and from European countries and inspired by Lerner's and Schramm's studies (Stevenson 1988).

The concept of development has, broadly speaking, three main meanings, coming from interdependent yet distinct fields. The first one, concentrating on social aspects, deals with the well-being of the population and focuses on education, agriculture, family planning, health, etc. Thus, social development policies are above all "field policies." The second definition is more political: development is related to the establishment of a democratic and stable regime instead of the "old" authoritative political systems. The last meaning is economic and gave rise to the production of studies which were both general and more or less theoretical. It led in the 1950s to a "simplistic concept…: underdeveloped people were essentially lacking financial resources and hence saw their economic, political and cultural takeoff blocked. Let us make capital available to them in a sufficient amount and we will see, for instance, the magical emergence of a highly industrialized nation in Afghanistan" (Freund 1992, 14). In all cases, as the diffusion theory argued, media were considered capable of spreading knowledge and innovations (2), encouraging social and political participation and were able to "compress time" for the "poor people" to catch up with the "rich people" and eventually to increase the beneficial effects of development programs (3).

In the mid-1970s, Everett Rogers, one of the first followers of Lerner, examined the thesis of his predecessors, as well as diffusion theory, from a critical point of view, even though it was his own (Rogers 1976, 1978). He argued that in some cases, the changes considered as positive had actually been ill-fated. According to Lerner, urbanisation was supposed to have led to increased social welfare and to an accumulation of capital, which is a fundamental precursor to educating the populations of the South. Rogers noticed, however, that unrestrained urbanisation in South America, Africa, and Asia failed to create better living conditions; in fact, it caused peoples' living conditions to deteriorate markedly. Moreover, in 1975, at a conference held at UNESCO, Schramm declared that the absolute gains generated by "progress" had been eventually absorbed by the demographic explosion. In fact, the number of electronic media per household had increased, and is still increasing nowadays, but independently of the rate of literacy. We can find the development of this self-critical analysis in a chapter entitled "The decline of the old paradigm" in a report that Schramm wrote in 1979 (Schramm 1979, 2) and to which he gave the same title as his earlier book "Mass media and national development," as if to distance himself from his earlier analysis.

In the same way, many scholars denounced normative and ethnocentric theories of development and insisted on the fact that it is more relevant to take into account the local specificities or "realities" of each area before implementing any policy since the "model" of industrial democracies cannot be easily transposed everywhere. A new source of inspiration, a "third way," became necessary. In the international communication field, it was embodied by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which rejected both the Western model of liberalism and the socialism of the "Eastern block". After the mid-1970s, the NAM became actively involved in the debates about international communication. In the spirit of the "third way" of the NAM, the theory according to which the means of communication could reduce the industrial gap that separates the Third World and Western countries, had been rejected. Among the more radical, the dependency theory spread from Latin America (Cardosso and Faletto 1979, Franck 1967, 1969). This school presents the world through the prism of a global system where "centres"-the United States, Japan, Western Europe-controlled the flow of capital that circulated between them and the "peripheral" nations. Those dependant nations are reduced to being purveyors of cheap labour and raw materials, and consumers. According to this economic theory, the structural dependency of developing countries is pernicious since it does not permit peripheral countries to have the time to catch up with the "imperial centres" of the North. Consequently, by their structural domination of international markets, the countries of the centre instituted economical, political, and also cultural norms. Thus, transnational companies would spread symbolic and material goods and would participate in the domination by the centre through "persuasion" and the manipulation of minds. The advertising industry illustrated this subject (Mattelart 1989) and its effects were seen as being all the more harmful as they generate frustrations.

In this respect, the role of mass media is essential. Herbert Schiller denounced the "cultural imperialism" exercised mainly by the United States among other large holders of means of information and communication at the international level. The psychological dimension of this domination is considered as significant since it would explain the success of Western products by the "brain-washing" of the populations, familiarized by cultural productions, conveyors of these products (Schiller 1976). Nowadays, many are reconsidering the cultural domination thesis (Livingston 2001). When they are not denying the reality of this schema, they question the genuine effects of this discriminatory geography on the users arguing that the latter are active at least since they are giving sense to the products and the messages imported, according to their own repertories of representation (De Certeau 1993). Along the way, the cultural dependency credo was successful in echoing the claims of those who felt they were dominated in the global economic system. The history of UNESCO is full of the discourses of these discontented people.

In the 1970s, in the avatars of the early development theories and in the (fertile) wake of the dependency theory, it was decided to set up a coherent policy in the field of information. UNESCO became from that time on the place where questions relating to information and communication in Third World countries were debated. The first step was UNESCO's General Conference in 1970, where delegations were encouraged to give a preliminary approval to the setting up of a concrete policy during the following General Conference (1972). In this conference, the Soviet Union defended a resolution which was a veritable milestone, calling the General Secretary to prepare a draft on a declaration about "The fundamental principles governing the use of the mass media with a view to strengthening peace and understanding and combating war, propaganda, radicalism and apartheid." (4) Through this pacifically titled proposal, the Soviet authorities defended in fact the control that they expected to exert on the information produced or received on their territory. Western delegations were opposed to those who considered this draft through the lens of the dependency theory and who often tried to justify the authoritarianism their political regimes wanted to conceal.

The Soviet proposal was at the roots of heated controversies, with no solution in sight. The defenders of the resolution, Third World countries and the Eastern Block, defended the necessity of establishing stable political regimes, which could not support critics that might undermine national unity. Thus, the fact that the least significant activities of rulers occupied the largest place in the information was justified arguing that it exalted a national feeling that was salutary.

The political discussion between the partisans of the "preamble authorisation" and the adepts of the free flow of information, which was translated by Armand Mattelart as "the commercial freedom of speech" (Mattelart 1999, 360), seemed endless. They led, during a regional meeting of UNESCO in Costa Rica in 1976, to the creation of the World Committee for the Freedom of the Press and two years later to a UNESCO resolution, whose terms were rather vague (5).

Many positions, one arena

In addition to the debates on the free flow of information, the sessions focused on the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), promoted by the Non-Aligned-Movement, which condemned the unequal circulation of information and communication flows, the unbalanced distribution of the means of communication, and the lack of commitment to development aid that required a real transfer of technology and expertise. The NWICO echoed the New World Economic Order (NWEO) consecutive to the setting up of international economic institutions like the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), or the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As the NWEO claimed a better allocation of resources, the NWICO aimed at condemning the monopoly that the Western powers enjoyed in the international information field (Samarajiwa 1987).

The NWICO debates frequently raised the issues of international communication, associating it with the role of the United States in the media field. The ambiguous idea according to which a critical discourse in the mass media could endanger a Third World country's ascension to modernity and to a stable political participation system persists. The existence of a free press is not welcome on the basis that it can be an instrument of transnational companies, which are organising the political and economical world system.

Aware of the deadlock reached by the debates on communication in Third World countries, the General Secretary of UNESCO, Amadou Mathar M'Bow, appointed in 1977 an International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, better known as "the Mac Bride Commission". It was composed of 16 experts and headed by Sean Mac Bride, recipient of the Peace Nobel Prize and the Lenin Prize. The conclusions of the Commission, detailed in 82 recommendations, put an end to the ideological prevarications of the NWICO discussions (UNESCO 1980). The report defended the idea of rebalancing the flows of information and proposed giving poor countries the means to be independent, to produce, and to spread information. This study, called Many Voices, One World is probably the one that has most marked memories on the theme of communication and development. It is difficult to quote the Mac Bride Commission in this specific paper without mentioning one of its most active members, Mustafa Masmoudi, then Information minister in Tunisia (Masmoudi 1978).

In 1984, the persisting opposition of the Soviet Union and its followers, as well as the Western delegations' brandishing of the 19th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, led to the US leaving UNESCO, followed one year later by Great Britain (Mignot-Lefevre 1984). The United States justified its decision by the fact that the institution had politicised all the subjects that it dealt with and that it had shown hostility vis-à-vis institutions that defended freedom of the press. Moreover, UNESCO had immoderate budgetary expansions. After the departure of the United States and Great Britain, the budget of UNESCO fell by 30% (6).

One of the consequences of the debates described above, inside and outside UNESCO, was to produce a Manichean vision of the world of information with, on one side, the partisans of the free flow of information, the United States superpower in particular and the western countries in general, and on the other side, the non-aligned countries, the insurgents of the Third World, the defenders of the NWICO and of their national sovereignty. A priori, the world would be divided into two camps, that of the dominators and that of the dominated, who would be submitted to the ruthless rules of the international market and whose sole resort would be to try to defend their territory against the information coming from the North and to call for grants and technological assistance. Beyond this simplistic scheme, and the fact that the distribution of means of information and communication was indeed drastically unfair, one thing has to be kept in mind: the perpetual will of Third World countries to control the flow of information within their territory. The "struggle" is not really one that opposes Third World countries and the former Eastern Block to the Western industrialised countries. The real issue is not the struggle between partisans of democracy and those of "authority." The issue is subtler than this: it is at the same time economic (the dependency theory is in this respect eloquent) and political (the will to control information against what appears as disguised interfering).

The study of Arab television shows that Third World countries can be opportunistic. They can absorb and appropriate the liberal logic and turn it into a strength in their information policy. The terms of the debate will evolve: from a North-South international opposition, the opposition will become infra-national or public-private and it will appear that the governmental media is far from being inert or unproductive. It can resist and make concessions to keep its leadership, and it can also be more liberal if this is the price to pay to keep its ascendancy and legitimacy. Finally, an authoritative state can inject a dose of liberalism into its audiovisual policy in order to keep its audience and to maintain direct contact with its "citizens." In this respect, ARABSAT's destiny is very interesting: it appeared in the ideologically-heavy and conflict-ridden environment of a North-South relationship, and flourished in the pacified environment of a liberal market of communication. Economic competition has replaced ideological rivalry.

ARABSAT as a failed implementation of the New World Information and Communication Order principles

The NWICO claim had a considerable echo in the Arab countries, which adhered to it explicitly, particularly through the will to set up a shared resource in the audiovisual field, the most ambitious element of which was undeniably the pan-Arab system of satellites called ARABSAT. Arab countries also called for a re-balancing of communication flows and for autonomous means of communication: they had to provide the world with their own image of themselves.

In the framework of inter-Arab agreements of cooperation, Arab regimes wanted to struggle against foreign interferences and to form a coalition in order to reinforce their power of information. Were Arab countries ready to have such an experience and to cooperate in this specific field?

The will of the Arab countries to set up a common audiovisual system was born after their defeat in the Six Days War against Israel. A meeting of the Council of Arab Ministers of Information was organized the same year under the auspices of the Arab League, in an extraordinary cession (27-30 September 1967) in order to think about a common strategy in information matters. Nevertheless, if the impact of the defeat was so deep it is also due to the influence exerted by the Egyptian radio station, Sawt Al-Arab ("Voice of the Arabs"). This radio station, then the most popular throughout the Arab region, promised millions of listeners an imminent victory by the Arab troops, which were actually being defeated (Nasser 1990). The Council of Ministers evoked for the first time the possibility of using satellite technology. This technology could serve, in accordance with the discourses, as a counterweight to the information of non-Arab countries. It was intended, above all, to encourage social development. The average rate of illiteracy was at that time estimated at 70% in the Arab region. This rate was an impediment to the process of development and it became one of the bases of planning in the communication sector. Thus Hamdy Kandil, former director of the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU), said ironically: "the passionate campaign lead by utopian experts of the sixties to use the satellites for development aims gratified decision-makers of the Arab world, especially in the fields of education, of culture and television. One thought that satellites would transmit the same television and would deliver the same message to each Arab citizen (and to all of them); that it would eliminate illiteracy (…); that it would help farmers cultivate their land; and that it could harmonize the cultures, the tastes and even the dialects" (Kandil 1987, 660).

Some years later, three satellites of the ARABSAT system were conceived through the ASBU and launched by the French company Aerospatiale. In February 1985, the first satellite was launched by Ariane III. The US shuttle Discovery launched the second satellite four years later.

The satellite project cost a total of 470 million dollars, to which Saudi Arabia was the main contributor. From then on, Saudi Arabia (owning 36.66% of the capital) had a decisive influence on ARABSAT. But until the end of the 1980s, ARABSAT had been underexploited (10% of its capacity) for technical, economic, and political reasons. The former failure of ARABSAT was due to different reasons that contradict the discourses of Arab decision-makers. Adding to the technical and financial obstacles, it is important to keep in mind that governments running television in Arab countries, jealous of their hegemony on the national territory, hardly permit free transmission of exogenous programs.

Egypt, the main producer amidst the Arab countries, had been boycotted by the Arab League and dismissed from the ASBU in 1979 after the Camp David agreements. This sanction, which ended in 1989, deprived ARABSAT of the richest and most popular broadcasting product and above all it challenged the original Arab union mission of ARABSAT. Lebanon, well known for its dynamism in the field, did not participate in the project because of the conflict that froze the country from 1975 onwards. Moreover, there were technical obstacles: in 1988 half of the Arab countries still did not have earth stations to receive ARABSAT signals; they relied at the time on Intelsat or Intersputnik satellites. Nevertheless, the most problematic impediment was the inability of Arab States to exchange certain types of programs: religious programs, advertising, and programs that did not correspond to Saudi Arabian morality were prohibited. In the event, a content analysis performed in 1985 and 1986 reveals that programs devoted to development issues represented nothing in the global volume of exchanged programs whereas entertainment programs occupied almost two thirds of the global volume (Ben Mohammed 1990).

The main difference between then and now is that before the reception costs of programs broadcast by satellite, which required a huge terrestrial antenna, were borne by governments. Nowadays, due to a complete legal vacuum from the International Union of Telecommunications when it comes to satellite technology (Direct Broadcasting System), many channels can be received in each household equipped with a small satellite dish. Viewers no longer depend on the will of states for what they watch, and that changes everything. Though it is not the first time that foreign media could be received on national territory, it has never before been on this scale.

If a link is to be found between the Arab satellite channels and other media, the most relevant one is, as one observer has mentioned it, that with the press (Schleifer 1998). Since the 1970s, Arab newspapers have been published outside the Arab countries, in Paris and then in London. This press is commercial (that is to say it is dependant on advertising revenues and is governed by private law) and is directly targeting a transnational readership. The taking root of this press outside its countries of origin, or rather the de-localization of these Arab newspapers, heralded the de-localization of broadcasters and of activities related to the televisual sector.

The free flow of information became a reality de facto and to illustrate the fact, ARABSAT became one satellite among a number of others (Intelsat, Eutelsat, Nilesat, etc.). It is now over-booked by Arab and foreign operators, more to stress their presence in the broadcasting scene than to respond to social or ideological issues and more often to broadcast entertainment programs than educational ones.

ii - The End Of The Development Paradigm Centrality And The Birth Of The Arab Broadcasting System

At the beginning of the 1990s, a period which corresponds to the "second" Gulf War, a rapid and fundamental change occurred within media in the Arab countries. The role of the media in social development ceased to be the major prism through which to analyse media there; the rapid multiplication of satellite dishes allowed viewers to free themselves from the domination of the state, which completely changed the balance of power, and forced governments to react promptly. The development paradigm was swept away by the newly-and quickly-emerged liberal age of media in the Arab world.

In order to understand the dynamics of Arab transnational channels that have flourished since the beginning of this second period and the implications of the current evolution of the Arab broadcasting landscape the paradigm of system can be useful. The Arab channels, all Arab channels, private or state-operated, located within the Arab countries or outside (i.e., offshore channels) form a system. This means that they are structurally linked to each other and that they are interdependent. The main explanation of this fact is that they are targeting the same audience (or the same market). In other words, the Arab channels are paradoxically linked by their competition.

The technological factor was the major condition for the emergence of the Arab broadcasting system. Abolishing the frontiers of states or the national territories, the satellite is the instrument that made possible the opening and the enlargement of the territories of reception. The Arabic speaking audience is not national anymore in the same way that the territories of reception are not national anymore but international. Each Arab channel is targeting this linguistic community, which is not only concentrated in the Arab region, but also spread throughout the world. In Europe, for instance, the Arab audience, coming mostly from North African countries, is quite large and these publics, especially what we refer to as the "first generation" in France, view the Middle East Broadcasting Centre Channel, the Egyptian Satellite Channel, Al Jazeera, the Radio Télévision du Maroc or the Entreprise Nationale de Télévision Algérienne. The enlargement of the audience market, or rather the de-compartmentalization of the territories of reception, entailed a tough competition among a plurality of actors in the audiovisual sectors.

Social development programs are still broadcast on Arab terrestrial channels but they are mixed with commercial programs, which makes the national television program seem schizophrenic. At any rate, satellite channels broadcast hardly any development programs: it aims at an international audience that is not likely to be preoccupied by social matters, and which is not massively interested by too local concerns. Moreover, satellite channels need to catch international brand advertisers whose main concern is to target the largest audience possible. Arab satellite channels, due to their competition at a regional if not international level, rely more on attractive than on educational programs. Furthermore, since the breaking of national boundaries by external broadcasting programs, Arab states could no longer justify their control over television and especially over information by saying that it is a means of educating people and consolidating national culture and identity.

The implications of the evolution of the Arab broadcasting system

As suggested above, the Arab media landscape is far from static because of the competition in the Arab broadcasting system. We can divide recent movements into two phases: the first one could be called "sky competition" as the channels are competing through their diffusion. The second stage is "terrestrial competition," that is to say that the most successful national operators are competing to occupy a central place in the region as far as media is concerned, either in the broadcasting field or in the New Technologies of Information and Communication (NTIC), which are beyond the scope of this paper. Broadly speaking, the first phase took place in the early 1990s, and the second one-still running-started towards the end of the1990s.

1). Phase one-"sky competition"

Arab operators, public or private, started launching their satellite channels. The competition progressively led to a modification in the content of programs, above all since the arrival of Al Jazeera, and to technical improvements. New channels have been launched which target specific audiences and there is a specialisation among the channels: some are information channels (ANN, Al Jazeera), others are entertainment channels (LBC), family channels (MBC), business channels (Abu Dhabi Business Channel), etc. Egypt, among other Arab countries, launched several new channels to keep a leading position; furthermore it launched two state-of-the-art satellites, Nilesat 101 and Nilesat 102, which use digital technology.

Arab states wish to attract the largest possible audience to broaden their political and cultural influence and to reinforce their economic position given that advertising revenues are becoming more and more important in the televisual sector (Fakreddine 1999); international brands make the selection relying on the Pan Arab Research Centre, which establishes an annual top ten list of the "winning" Arab channels (PARC) (7).

2). Phase two-"terrestrial competition"

More and more, the broadcasting sector needs huge investments and the operators compete to catch the main investors. It entails a competition in the legal and regulatory systems. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) launched respectively Cairo Media City and Dubai Media City. These Media Cities (similar to Information Cities devoted to Internet activities and run in the same way) are spaces equipped with up-to-date facilities, the more sophisticated being the one in Cairo. They are tax-free zones and fully-foreign-owned companies dealing with various media activities are free to set up there. Other free zones are multiplying in Arab countries like Jordan and Lebanon. Dubai Media City, thanks to an encouraging policy (non-interventionist and liberal rules, a favorable and modern environment, installation assistance, etc.) have attracted many professionals and prestigious multinationals (Reuters, CNN), which have their regional office based there. The Arab channels Orbit and MBC are leaving Europe to set up there too (Schleifer 2000, Sullivan 2001). Egypt is less successful, according to many observers; nonetheless it was able to attract Al Jazeera, now partly based in the Egyptian Media City. These free zones are under specific regulations, not yet fixed but likely to be more flexible than the national media legislation, as this point is particularly important to professionals and investors. The competition is so intense and the need for income so important that Egypt has authorized the creation of national private channels.

What are the implications of the emergence of this Arab broadcasting system? First of all, the previous discourses on television, according to which the major role of TV is to ensure development, are forgotten. There is a complete amnesia by government operators. The role of television in safeguarding national identity and as a tool of education and social development still exists. But even in the terrestrial channels such programs are broadcast along with new, drastically different programs. As in Europe in the 1980s (Wolton 1990), Arab state-run channels are aping private channels which are aping Western channels (this mimicry is not so strong when it comes to programming). Even if, from the beginning, the conception and the realization of the programs are not totally endogenous-that is to say that the cultural context has always been open to foreign influences-we may be surprised to see the huge success of programs like Who wants to be a millionaire? whose concept was bought by MBC, followed by the Egyptian Channel and Future TV.

Thus, the programs are definitely changing and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish private channels from government ones. The more federative channels, the hegemonic channels, are quite homogenous in their style (Ayish 2001), and this is reinforced by the use of standard Arabic, a "media language" which is neither literary nor dialectal. A channel too heavily marked by a particular identity would not attract a large and international audience.

The evolution of technical facilities and of the programs' sophistication implies that the investments required are heavier in this sector of activity. This justifies the competition among the different operators, public or private, who are aware of the interest the audience holds for the advertisers. All this gives rise to concentration movements, specialization of Arab channels, the rapid rise and fall of channels, increased partnerships between channels and between Arab and international channels (e.g., the Viacom Incorporated or the News Corporation channels on Arab platforms).


One of the most striking features of the evolution of media in the Arab World is, as we saw in this paper, the breakpoint reached at the very beginning of the 1990s. This transition was very quick and led to a complete transformation of the media landscape in Arab countries: the old paradigm-media analysed through the prism of its role in social development-was rapidly swept away by the fast extension to Arab countries of economic liberalism, which made media an economic sector like banking, airlines, or oil extraction. But as we have pointed out, this mutation is far from neutral from a political point of view.

Indeed, one of the most appealing features of this new system-which structurally links media all over the Arab World and beyond-is the idea that a public sphere is emerging (Alterman 1998, Eickelman and Anderson 1999). At least, such an emergence should be easier today than before, thanks to the technological "revolution" which made it impossible for states to exert rigid control over information on their territory. Nevertheless, some Arab countries occupy a marginal position within this system and hence do not take part in this so-called public space. A new order for information is yet to be built within the Arab world. This contradicts to some extent the old will of Arab countries to pool their financial and symbolic resources to play an active part in the NWICO and to confront the so called "cultural imperialism of Western media powers."

It is true that, nowadays, the concept of cultural imperialism is harshly criticised. Such criticism is partly justified. Owners of Arab satellite channels spread and hence use themselves the dominating model they used to oppose: through programs which tend to correspond to supposedly "international" standards, through channels of large media groups that they broadcast, and also through advertising, which constitutes an increasing source of revenue. However, Arab countries have had the opportunity to achieve one goal which is a legacy of the NWICO demands, and which was used to justify the setting up of ARABSAT: to give by themselves an image of themselves.

This image on the international scene is, as far as information is concerned, less "gloomy" than it was before. The opening up of national territories of reception of television flows and the dynamics of economic competition which underlie this opening up have had unexpected consequences: as shown by the example of Al Jazeera, which is becoming a model in the Arab region, this emulation focuses on a very fruitful and fast-growing market: political liberalism. The effectiveness of the mechanism of supply and demand leads to an opening up of, and to more pluralism within, the public sphere in Arab countries. TBS

Notes | References

Tourya Guaaybess is Marie Curie Research Fellow at the European University Institute (Florence, Italy).


Copyright 2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo