TBS 11, Fall-
Winter 2003

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The Arab Satellites-Some Necessary Observations!

By Abdel Moneim Saeed

Slowly and inexorably the Arab television channels have developed into a major factor in Arab political and intellectual life. It is scarcely possible to think of a single Arab issue that the various programs do not deal with and examine from every conceivable angle, to the extent that they have on many occasions wrested the limelight from those principal actors who normally have been considered the deciders and definers of the nation's future, such as leaders of the national and regional political parties, ministers, and other such wielders of power and influence, and even from the money-makers and businessmen, and handed it over to any artists and writers who happen to have written a novel or some poetry. The new Arab stars at the beginning of the 21st century are the leading lights of the satellite channels and the talk shows, reportages, and news round-ups they present, none of which have any equivalent in either the developed or the under-developed world. In the developed world, for instance, the role of such channels is to investigate, analyze, and present a variety of points of view, while in the under-developed world they offer a limited number of hours in defense of the latest person to take hold of the reins of power. In neither case, however, do they aspire to manage the political process in its entirety or to take political and economic decisions in isolation from the country's citizens, institutions, and public authority.

In short, these channels generate what they have come to believe is public opinion, assuming the right, as a consequence, to speak in the name of the masses; and since they have the right to speak in the name of the masses and the nations, they also have the right to take decisions, manage crises, mobilize "the street," and lead the Arab armies in the liberation of the Holy Places—and all of this on air!

It all began in the 'nineties, when the Arabs discovered satellite technology as a new means of realizing the dream Arab unity and through which it would be possible to link the nations of the Arab World, with its eternal mission and common language, by means of live transmission in Arabic on a stage stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf. However, after a decade of such dreams and even from the moment of the launching of the first Arab satellite, the "Arabsat," it became obvious that each country had its own objective, its own channel, and its own values that it intended to disseminate and in which it would accept neither partnership nor sharing, with the result that the satellite turned into yet another launching pad for a diverse bundle of propagandas for the policies of the various states and countries. However that may be, the satellite was the same as the printing press, the telegraph, radio, and television—and even the computer and the Internet and the other means of communication that the nation has come to know over the past two centuries—all of which were inventions that sprang up in other environments and then were sown in Arab soil, where they produced special, and strange-tasting, fruit.

Arabsat, however, and the dreams surrounding it, were short-lived, and by the 'nineties it was no longer capable of absorbing the Arab capacity for talk. As new generations of satellites came into being, other regional satellites were launched whose role was not, as in other countries, distance-sensing or research on weather issues or the fertility of land, but whose basic mission, instead, was the 24-hour transmission of whatever would satisfy a voracious appetite for news and policies that could find no outlet in its own countries but discovered in the satellites something to fill the gap and cut the Gordian knot.

In fact, in practical terms, the beginning of the Arab satellite channels came from abroad, and from Britain specifically, with MBC's initiation of its broadcasts from London. These were followed by those of Orbit and ART, all of which depended on launching pads in London and Rome until some of their programs made the move for production purposes to Cairo or Beirut. At the same time, however, they retained their bases in the West, where there was the freedom and democracy which these channels later were to criticize so fiercely in order to plead the special Arab case for the necessity of not having them, given the existence on the Arab stage of more important issues touching on the destiny of the Arab nation. The launching process was soon transferred, however, from Western bases to the Arab World itself. This transfer took place at the professional level when Qatar imported a complete team that the BBC had employed with Saudi financial support in its Arabic-language channel. This team came in its entirety to set up the Al Jazeera channel. By any standard, the new channel constituted a revolution both against its own origins, which are familiar with neutrality, objectivity, and a genuine awareness of the difference between journalism and politics in terms of function, technique, style, and the means that it is legitimate to use, and against the environment to which it had been transplanted, which was familiar only with primitive and dispiriting media, press, and television tools.

To tell the truth, Al Jazeera caused a major shake-up, whose effects extended to all forms of governmental and traditional media—which had long since ceded their place first to BBC radio, the American radio stations, and Radio Monte Carlo, and, since the 'nineties, to BBC World, CNN, and the various European television stations, leaving the ordinary Arab to sift through them for the truth. In one way or another, all governmental and non-governmental channels found themselves out of the running if they could not keep pace with the new channel and mimic its methods and programs, which were, at base, a distorted image of the major Western programs. Given that the freedom permitted in each country had its limits and taboos, and given the recognized power and potency of the technical capacity, varying degrees of distortion accumulated, resulting in the end in a shrill and wearisome situation of political and intellectual one-upmanship.

It is true that the Arab satellite channels have greatly widened the free space available to the ordinary Arab and that it is now possible for those whose mouths have been gagged and pens broken to interact by telephone, fax, or the Internet with a broad segment of the Arab World. On the other side, however, a number of problems and issues have been generated thereby that have yet to receive serious attention. On the one hand, it appears that talk on the Arab satellites is a substitute for the creation of the institutions through which policy research and design take place and through which the representation of peoples by means of legitimate methods of selection occurs. In short, satellite democracy is a substitute for the genuine democracy that mankind has developed over many ages and with numerous sacrifices and revolutions. It appears that the Arab rulers have found in the subject a new playground for their peoples, benefiting therefrom by the delay of what cannot any longer be delayed in the modern world, and thus have started to compete with one another in the creation of satellite channels that follow the Al Jazeera model. Thus modern technology has given the kiss of life to political regimes the like of which are unknown anywhere else.

This has not taken place in a vacuum. The Arab satellites, Al Jazeera at their head, have called back into service the traditions of the old Radio Sawt al-Arab ("Voice of the Arabs") of the 'sixties, when it was led by Ahmad Said, and developed these using the methods of the 21st century—in full color this time—and taken to setting the whole Arab World in an uproar, not by discriminating between reactionary and other, progressive, countries, or between two countries, one revolutionary and the other conservative, or between monarchies and republics, as was the case in the past, but between each Arab country and its sister, and between each Arab citizen and his brother; and, having once set imaginary criteria for what is good and what is evil, for what is correct and what is wrong, for prophets and traitors, and further criteria for what it calls "higher Arab interests" and what Arab public opinion and the Arab masses want and do not want, they have tortured everyone with the feelings of unbounded frustration and grim fury that they have created. On this road there is no place for enlightenment and progress, and no place or model for democracy and the transfer of power. Such things might make us lose our distinctive national characteristics of totalitarianism and human rights abuse, and, who knows, might bring with them a Western or global model that the people and their rulers might be unable to stomach.

However, whatever the methods, the content has been the same in the 'sixties of the last century and the beginnings of the current one. The purpose has not been to lead the Arab World to a new era, nor the goal to discover the causes of its technological, industrial, political, and social under-development; rather the purpose and the goal have been to create a state of mobilization in which the agitated, troubled, and frustrated Arab citizen would be incapable of deciding what to revolt against and what possible and potential movements and actions to seize on. Without exception, the satellite channels have provided the ordinary Arab with podia from which to speak but not to listen and on which he may answer but not ask the questions. For the first time in the world history of news programming, the word "intervention" has appeared, meaning a comment, extended over a long period of time, on the topic or off it, the important thing about it being that it contain imprecations and information of which no-one can say precisely where it was obtained by the individual and why he believes in it as he does in the scriptures, and conspiracy theories that cast the responsibility for everything on the rest of the world and its inhabitants. Such "interventions" or comments might be beneficial and an opportunity to turn the programs into seminars resembling the traditional Arab salons and diwans, but the problem is that many are set ups and have their stars and artists, who are amazingly skilled at shouting at one another and going one better than one another, and whenever the many-sided disagreements, screaming, and shouting reach fever pitch, the presenter's face manifests the greatest pleasure and he exchanges congratulations with his assistants, for the episode has been "hot" and the drama has reached its climax.

Despite these strictures, Al Jazeera has succeeded in attracting Western interest, for the first time, in Arab public opinion. Thus, on the eve of the war on Afghanistan in October 2001, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, held a press conference to answer the questions of Arab correspondents living in London. And in the days after that press conference, Colin Powel, US foreign minister, Condoleeza Rice, the US president's advisor on national security, Donald Rumsfeld, minister of defense, and others had, like Blair, allowed themselves to be interviewed by Al Jazeera, its correspondents, and presenters, thus acknowledging that the Arab World has finally joined the contemporary communications revolution and that the road to Arab public opinion will never be via the shabby government channels, but via the private channels with their high degree of freedom and, more importantly, their high degree of professionalism.

This new development in the life of Al Jazeera put it to a difficult test, given the world fame that it acquired as a result of its monopoly of the news coming out of Afghanistan, about which the whole world was seeking to be informed. The CNN network made its reputation during the second Gulf war when it obtained rights to coverage from Baghdad that no one else was able to get and, above all, when its correspondent undertook an interview with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in which the latter said that the chances of his being defeated in the war were less than one in a million. Now, Al Jazeera—an Arab channel this time—was repeating the story through its privileged position inside Kabul and the relations that it had built up with Afghan and Pakistani officials, as a result of which they granted them exclusive coverage and news access. There can be no doubt that this represented a major success for the channel which other Arab channels—sometimes shackled by the chains of government, sometimes by the handicap of ignorance, and almost always by the legacy of mediocrity—ought to have acknowledged and learned from.

However, the success of the channel on the professional level, must not lead us to overlook its deficiencies, all of which relate to insight. Thus, despite the channel's stark desire to retain its monopoly, we found almost nothing on the Afghan reality and what had been happening to the country over the last 20 years. It was astonishing that we found innumerable references to the role of the United States and its intelligence services in the liberation of Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion but that this was treated as though it had been intended to sabotage the lives of the freedom fighters and warriors of jihad. At the same time we scarcely heard anything from these last about what they did in Afghanistan during the preceding decade and in particular following the end of the Soviet occupation and the way in which the United States distanced itself politically and strategically from Afghanistan (even though, as the major nation donating relief materials to the Afghan people, it did not distance itself completely). More importantly, we hardly learned anything, on Al Jazeera, about the terrorist operations that Al Qa'ida undertook in the Arab World before turning its attention to the West. Here it would seem that Al Jazeera's archives were limited to the present and incapable of turning up anything that would have placed what we see on the screen in its true historical context, or indeed, that the present itself was non-existent. Thus from the multiplicity of guests and questions designed to cast doubt and dig up contradictions, the viewer who turned on Al Jazeera might immediately have formed the opinion that the bombing of the World Trade Towers had never happened, or that the United States itself had done it and carried out the crime because it could not find anything else in the world to destroy, and that it had then instructed the investigative and judiciary organs to look for an Arab and Muslim enemy to "pin" the case on.

The amazing thing was that even after Al Jazeera had broadcast the statements of Bin Ladin and his men, in which they threatened with great frankness to carry out further murderous operations that would embrace Jews, Christians, and those Muslims who were their clients (which is to say those who live, trade, or have any dealings with them), Sami Haddad was still saying on his program "More Than One Opinion" that the evidence pointing to the implication of Al Qa'ida's involvement in what happened in the United States was no more than circumstantial. And, at the same time, Al Jazeera did not shrink from setting out reasons and excuses to justify what happened in New York, starting with the injustices committed by the United States against the Arab and Islamic worlds, passing through Palestine, and ending up with East Timor and the spread of world poverty, all of which, taken together, would make the commission of the crime by Arabs and Muslims a kind of legitimate resistance.

It may be that Al Jazeera did not grasp this contradiction, which strives, sincerely or not, to prove the innocence of the Arabs of the crime, on the one hand, while attempting, on the other, to justify the crime if they carried it out—for consistency in logic is not a trait for which the Arabs have always been famed, especially if this logic casts the blame on outsiders and on those imperialist forces that, on a daily basis, generate the misery of the Arab World. Here the channel became a truly Arab channel, for this attitude makes the whole world guilty and criminal and the cause of our backwardness and reactionism. As for ourselves, we are as innocent as the driven snow. If anyone among us is guilty, it is a new group, invented by Al Jazeera and adopted by the rest of the Arab media, called "the Arabs" or "the Arab leaders," who have neither names nor locations and resemble most closely that medieval straw figure that was subjected to repeated stabbing to train soldiers in killing.

However, Al Jazeera, with its highly competent editors and presenters, did at least do all this with a high degree of professionalism. Many may see in this an additional danger to the Arab mind, especially after the adoption by the channel of its most ignorant and backwards elements, including those who attack television and modern media. However, the issue may have another, more hopeful, side, which is that professionalism usually leads eventually to the right path. In the end, there is nothing more destructive to a society than mediocrity and ignorance, just as riding the nationalist and religious tide at its peak does not prevent the emergence of reasonable and moderate voices that call for enlightenment, for catching up with the age, and for bearing the historical responsibility for progress and development. This is so even despite the paucity of such voices, for they find an opportunity that is not made available to them through the governmental media, which are incapable of anything but drum beating and if they diverge from the text, do so only take the worst of Al Jazeera, riding the tide from behind. Additionally, Al Jazeera's leap forward has pulled along in its wake other channels that are trying to catch up and compete. TBS


Abdel Moneim Saeed is director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. The article above is based on two articles that originally appeared under the titles "The Arab Satellites-some Necessary Observations" (Al-Ahram Al-Iqtisadi, October 30, 2000) and "The Al Jazeera Case" (Majallat al-Ahram Al-Arabi, No.240, October 27, 2001).
Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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