about Arab Satellite Broadcasting (ASB), I soon realized that
there is no theoretical base for it. Hannah Arendt, the great
German political thinker, argued that theory is for weak brains-but
I have Max Weber the even more famous sociologist on my side
who said that without theory and without clear-cut criteria
there can be no scientific explanation.
This lack of theoretical orientation can be felt in the current
debate on Al Jazeera and ASB Proponents applaud these media
for opening up the public discourse; but critics argue that
they are doing quite the opposite because they resonate and
perpetuate intrinsic biases of Arab political culture.
Whether you are with the critics or with the sympathizers depends
much on your theoretical point of view. It is absolutely naive
to measure the performance of Arab broadcasting according to
Western mainstream standards because they operate in an environment
that is in many regards different from that of developed democratic
systems. Their function, to say this in advance, is not just
objective and balanced reporting but also, at least partly,
to take over tasks that are usually fulfilled by political parties.
To articulate the people's will and be able to mobilize for
political activism and change is part of the fascination of
ASB. The reason why we are here at this conference is that we
feel that ASB is-in fact-much more than simply a mass medium:
it can be an agent of change, and its role is in many ways not
comparable to Western media.
But saying that it can be does not answer the question if it
really is! And I have my doubts at this point.
Let me say a few words about theory before we measure if ASB
are up to it.
The state of political affairs and role of media in Arab societies
is contrary to many lessons of history and ridicules mainstream
That theory holds that political parties were created as a reaction
to modernization processes, mostly as class parties like the
German Social Democrats or English Labour. The more middle-class
Western societies became, the more the political parties reflected
the interests of ever larger parts of the populace-they developed
from class parties to popular parties integrating broad underlying
values of societies, for example conservatism versus social
equality ideals. Parties aggregate and articulate the political
will of large fragments of a society, they design political
programmes, and in the end they create governments and recruit
political personnel for leadership. To put it in a nutshell:
non-revolutionary political reform and democratization has always
been the privilege of political counter-elites and oppositional
parties-but not of mass media.
On the contrary, although many general social scientists consider
the media important for political change, the theoretical debate
in political science about democratic transition has never done
so! The small media like the Internet might be considered important
- but the big mass media have always been considered to fo11ow
rather than lead democratic change. The struggle for media freedom
is considered important for democratization-but TV is not, mainly
for two reasons:
1. Transformation theoreticians believe that the media are acting
according to a primacy of organizational goals; politics or
market forces seem to dominate the media, and the organisation
of the media constantly fights for its own survival; and, especially,
TV is an industrial process that can be easily controlled by
2. The media were never considered primary social actors, but
rather they seemed determined by actors like the government,
lobbies-or political parties
For all these reasons mainstream transformation theory has never
considered the big mass media a vanguard of democratization.
It is only after system changes to democracy occur and electoral
democracy is established that TV is considered important for
a democratic society to formulate the public agenda and represent
civil society. Theoreticians say that the mass media, TV, and
the big press are not as crucial in the authoritarian phase
as certain dissidents, artists, and other freedom fighters might
be, and that it is only in the phase of consolidation that the
media are effective.
However, this theory was written for nation-based media but
not for the new situation of satellite TV that crosses national
borders. In this situation state control over TV is regressing
and big media are gaining a lot of freedom-a freedom they can
use to play a role in early democratization processes. It is
not so much globalization and Western media, but regionalization
and the geo-linguistic unity of regions like the Arab world
that create new challenges at the crossroads of regionalization
and democratization. Interesting enough, at the same moment
that Arab TV has gained more freedom, it has created a pan-Arab
dialogue on democracy and reform; we will come back to that
The new situation of TV in the Arab world is from a theoretical
point of view one of growing freedom, but also of new problems.
If you think of the two reasons why TV was never considered
a democratic vanguard, only one-state control-is less important
now. The other-the reactive character of the media vis-à-vis
primary social actors-is still effective. In the Arab world,
the media are operating in a vacuum of political mobilization
because political parties, if they exist at all, are hardly
ever relevant or representative. Many political institutions
of society are weak, and the reason is that while political
parties in, for instance, England or Germany were created on
a class basis in the process of modernization and social change,
that socio-economic push is non-existent in the Arab world.
Social change heads, if at all, in a different direction of
ethical and religious groups that captured non-state areas like
Imbaba and Ain Shams in Cairo. Like it or not, the Islamists
are the most effective opposition in the Arab world-but they
are not necessarily democracy-minded.
In this situation we have two intellectual alternatives:
One is that we consider the media revolution dead before it
has been effective in helping to create new democracies, because
there is no effective link between media and political parties;
Or two, we accept that media take over the leading function
in democratization themselves and substitute for at least some
of the tasks political parties do not fulfill.
In principle, TV can take over at least some of the functions
of political parties. It can integrate, aggregate and articulate
the political will of the people; it can mobilize people for
non-parliamentarian political action; and while it might not
be able to work out political programmes, it can help a society
to open a dialogue on democratic reform. The most important
function of the mass media is to uphold the agenda of democratic
change by being the people's voice and letting the "repressed"
express themselves in the media. In taking over the role of
mediators between state and society, the media's democratic
agenda could eventually lead to mobilization and a democratic
Prof. Telhami rightly argued at this conference that mass media
are mostly effective where people have no first hand experience
and therefore must rely on the media. But is "democracy"
a primary or a secondary issue? It is certainly both. It is
primary because many people in the Arab world feel that regime
corruption and others problems need to be changed. And it is
also secondary, because most people who have lived in autocratic
systems all through their lives have no direct experience with
democracy and therefore the media are effective in providing
information on democratic developments elsewhere and in the
Arab world. The media have a high potential of shaping public
opinion on matters related to democratic reform.
What sounds a bit of an illusion at first is a natural consequence
of the nature of politics and society in our days. In the West
we are already debating the impact of the so-called media democracy
on traditional institutions like political parties. We are in
the era of "mass democracy," of "mass communication,"
and of "media democracy." Although there is certainly
too much hype about that: why should it be impossible that the
character and composition of institutions that are relevant
for democratization change over time? If social classes are
less relevant, due to the change from the traditional model
of the industrial society, characterized by manufacturing, to
the information society, and due to the growing importance of
professionals or even of "the masses," why should
not the media take over the lead rather than follow political
I argue that the decline of political institutions corresponds
with the rise of the authoritarian Arab state in the 20th century
and-most recently-with the rise of the mass media as mediators
between state and society.
But before we can announce such a change in paradigm there are
more hurdles to surmount:
1. Media cannot solely be the mirror of the people or the people's
"party," but must at the same time value their primary
function of information objectivity and balance old and new
functions in the context of democratic theory.
2. Mobilization and change can only occur when political parties
and institutions that do not exist start to develop.
Media must not only mirror the people but must inform them,
correct them, educate them. If they don't, the danger is inherent
that a political culture that has never experienced democracy
will merely reproduce itself and that the old populism of the
regime merely be replaced by some kind of "techno-populism."
The kind of democratic partisanship of the media that is needed
for democratic change is not in contradiction to objectivity
as long as it seeks to compensate for the lack of articulation
people suffering under authoritarian rule. But it conflicts
with objectivity if it does not reflect all of the important
voices from the opposition as well as the government.
At this point conflicts between the role of the media as "political
parties" and as "informers" and "educators"
are inherent. What do you do if the political culture of those
whom you are trying to articulate is not in itself pluralist,
is not balanced? How can you be attractive to people if you
tell them unpopular truths? But from the viewpoint of systems
theory it is absolutely clear that one function of the media-partisanship-cannot
replace another function-objective information-and that both
must coincide, in domestic as well as in international news.
Otherwise they will lack the basis for political information
and political opinion that is needed for any electoral democracy
or political mobilization, because being a party for democratization
means accepting that democracy is first and foremost based on
the principle of the non-violent competition of all legitimate
interests - and that is the intrinsic educational function media
have and must not lose.
If, as media without professional standards of objective reporting,
you are mobilizing people, the media might actually be a party
to the wrong cause, not for democracy.
But unfortunately, if you are mobilizing with the right agenda
and based on professional standards, the same thing can happen
to the media.
Why? Because the media can never lead alone. They can take over
a part of the political parties' functions but they are only
effective on condition that the link between the media and social
and political movement, which is weak in the beginning, becomes
stronger. "TV democracy" can never fully replace the
function of political parties because societies need acting
institutions. In contrast to the classical three powers, the
media are not at the same time in the parliamentarian and the
executive spheres, but they are merely a "virtual parliament."
TV talk is useless if the agenda is not conveyed into action.
ASB will remain ineffective if the movements, organizations,
and institutions of a democratic body politic do not develop.
If they do not, it will be absolutely possible that the current
mobilization of Arabs by ASB might not lead in the direction
of democracy but to more confrontation between Arab regimes
and non-democratic parts of the opposition-a situation which
would perpetuate authoritarian rule in one or the other form.
Therefore the question is not whether ASB fulfill general theoretical
needs but if they can face the specific tasks of the media-plus-political-party-symbiosis
that I have laid out.
ASB - a weakened democratic agenda?
Let us first see if there is a democratic agenda. Although ASB
have been applauded many times for their ability to criticize
governments and give people the chance to discuss matters that
were previously taboo-sex, religion, politics-it is remarkable
that almost no solid content analyses exist.
I did a very limited analysis of Aljazeera.net, which is not
the same as Al Jazeera TV, but gives an indication of the way
ASB acts as a party of democratization. Honestly, I was a bit
disappointed because for the year 2004 I could only find about
ten articles dealing with democracy in the Arab world, most
of them polemics against American plans to democratize the area.
The rest echoed the Arab League's opinions or even the Qatari
foreign ministry's point of view on democracy.
I then changed my strategy and looked for an "Arab reform"
debate, because I thought Aljazeera.net was merely avoiding
the term "democracy," and indeed I found a Special
Report on Arab Reform, but again I was disappointed. Of the
twelve articles I found, about 60 percent dealt with US plans
for the Middle East. There was an interview with the US government,
and the moderate Islamist viewpoint was well represented. But
there were only two articles left that deserved to be called
"advocative" of democratic change.
My impression is that democracy at Aljazeera.net currently tends
to be pushed aside by international political problems with
American and Israeli policy. There is only a very tiny number
of articles that deal with democracy at all. "Reform,"
a vague concept that is very flexible and easily adopted by
Arab regimes, is more central, but remains without any concrete
references to specific Arab countries. It is not so much that
Aljazeera.net reveals an ideological bias, because different
voices can be heard but that the democracy agenda is very limited
in scope and differentiation. Even in the central field of human
rights, Aljazeera.net tends to focus on American, British, or
Israeli rather than Arab torture, even though one occasionally
one finds critical articles about countries like Morocco, Tunisia
or Bahrain. In the current form, Aljazeera.net can surely not
claim to be an alternative to Arab political parties.
Of course, there are many talk shows on Al Jazeera TV in which
Arab governments are criticized and this seems to be the specific
contribution of the network to the Arab political culture. It
acts as a mouth piece for the Arabs' critique of their governments.
But without a much more concrete democratic agenda that give
people a vision of how to act and where to go on politically
that criticism is in danger of leaving no real impact on the
political development. Since 9/11 the democratic agenda seems
to be increasingly absorbed by the occupation and resistance
agenda- domestic political debates seem hampered by regional
crises in Iraq and Palestine.
Other ASB like Al Arabiya or Abu Dhabi TV are even worse since
because they are owned by Saudis or Emiratis and they do not
allow for critique of Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. The question
whether ASB could be a vanguard for democratization has always
focused on Al Jazeera, and it is all the more problematic if
that debate starts to fade away. In such a situation, Arab regimes
might be criticizing Al Jazeera. The network is, in fact, an
element in the new, controversial, style in Arab countries.
But we need more in-depth studies of Al Jazeera's agenda for
democracy or "reform" to judge whether it will successfully
contribute to democratization.
I am not arguing with Muhammad Ayish that ASB are too sensationalist
in style, because I think that the style of "politainment"
is in fact needed for Arab TV to be an advocate of democratic
change and mobilization of people. Fatima Mernissi is right
when she argues that ASB have opened up the door for critical
journalism and Arab dialogue. But she is also wrong when she
declared the "TV agenda" to be irrelevant, because
for mass media to be effective agents of democratization, the
media must prepare people not only on the form, but also on
the substance of democracy. Agenda matters!
And for the agenda on democracy to be effective in terms of
political change, it seems that ASB should go the next step
and create more and at certain points even better "Al Jazeeras"
that operate from a safe distance and escape national control.
It is certainly positive for democracy when Al Jazeera covers
the Western Sahara conflict as they did on one prominent occasion.
But they are doing it once a year, and that is certainly not
enough. Ultimately, the network is completely overburdened when
shouldering the job alone. For the agenda of democracy to be
relevant and effective, regional differentiation and continuity
in the coverage of relevant issues is needed and this is something
that no network alone can provide for the whole Arab world.
What about ASB's ability to merge, as theoretically required,
democratic partisanship with the function of professional neutrality
and objective reporting? It is remarkable that when it comes
to Al Jazeera's reporting on regional conflicts, not only the
United States and the British government but also many Arab
journalists criticize Al Jazeera and other ASB. There is no
doubt that ASB offer to the world images of Arab victims that
were unnoticed and ignored by Western media. It is equally obvious
that especially Al Jazeera is able to integrate "the other
opinion"-Israeli, American and many other different voices
are to be heard, something you cannot find on the leading US
news network, Fox.
However, critics bemoaned again and again that there is a clear
pan-Arab bias in the selection and interpretation of news on
ASB. Injustices against Arabs are dealt with much more critically
and intensively than injustices done to Israelis whose victims
are hardly present on screen. The role of Arab regimes and even
sometimes of Arab terrorists is underestimated because it disturbs
Arab emotional mobilization that is intended by ASB. The French
Panos Study, Muhammad Ayish from Sharjah University, or Mamoun
Fandy from Georgetown University and many others agree that
objectivity is absent from ASB when they report about the big
regional conflicts in which US and Israeli are involved.
Is that the way ASB interpret their role as a party or mouth
piece of the people? ASB seem to compensate for the decline
of Arab national institutions, of the Arab League, and of nationalist
aspirations. But ASB are more than a mere continuation of pan-Arab
institutions. While traditional Nasserist pan-Arab policy was
based on single-state national interests, ASB lend themselves
as platforms for public emotions and pro-Palestinian and other
national identities. The lack of objectivity in the field of
regional conflict reporting qualifies ASB as mediators and mouth
pieces for many Arabs, but it disqualifies ASB as a source of
political information and an agenda heading for democratic international
relations. In spite of the ability to integrate American and
Israeli voices I consider most ASB's reporting on regional conflicts
to represent a techno-compatible and globalized form of populism
rather than a contribution to international dialogue. In search
of a balance between professional journalism and the will to
pose an alternative to political parties, ASB has got completely
off track. I totally disagree with Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel
Iskandar who defined this obvious deficit as "contextual
objectivity," because they say Arab media must compensate
for opposite biases in the Western media.
ASB - mobilizing for democracy or radicalism?
Theoretically the aim is that ASB compensate for some of the
deficits of Arab political parties in helping to mobilize for
a newly developing link with civil society. This media-civil
society-alliance could then pave the road to democracy. Honestly,
however, we must say that after 10 years of ASB there has been
no significant development for democracy in the Arab world.
Although critical elites and NGOs are heard on TV, their real
political impact remains rather weak. However, conclusions are
rather tentative at this point because there probably are, as
Saad Eddin Ibrahim rightly mentioned at this conference, latent
effects on public opinion that might turn out to be important
On the other hand, Erik C. Nisbet, Matthew C. Nisbet, Dietram
A. Scheufele, and James E. Shannahan revealed in an article
in the Harvard International Journal that ASB can contribute
to anti-Americanism among the consumers. Whether such views
are toned down or fueled is dependent on how ASB covers regional
conflicts. Extensive reporting on the burial of Shaykh Yasin,
the radical leader of Hamas, or the playing of video massages
by Usama Bin Ladin, echo terrorist messages. While it is true
that most Western media show the same commercial interest in
the phenomenon of terrorism, ASB operate in an environment that
lends itself easily to violent mobilization.
However unethical their treatment of the phenomenon of terrorism
might be, the mainstream ASB are not "hate media"
supporting terrorism against the US or Israel, as some critics
of Arab media have argued. Most of the reporting is neither
anti-American nor pro-terrorist and a quite regular mix of news
and entertainment. US resentment or the closing down of Al Jazeera's
office in Iraq is therefore inappropriate and rightly criticized
by human rights organizations. ASB, in a lot of regards, are
a mere reflection of US networks, in style as well as in the
biases they reveal.
For ASB to face the challenge of becoming vanguard of democratization
and to take over the functions of political parties in the fields
of articulation and mobilization of the populace would take
a revision of certain trends in the current broadcasting culture.
The democratic agenda, it seems, should be elaborated, objectivity
in regional conflict affairs reintroduced and the link between
the media and extra media elites, organizations, and movements
should be improved.
is chair of International and Comparative Communication Studies
at the Department of Media and Communication of the University
of Erfurt, Germany.