very much. I am actually very proud to talk after Dr. Saad Eddin
Ibrahim, who is one of those people who inspired our thoughts
when we were students--political science students at Cairo University.
As a professor of political sociology, I salute Dr. Ibrahim
for his analysis because what he presented was an idea about
Arab society since we started talking about media actually more
than half a century ago.
Now as a
media person, I am trying to take you through the jigsaw of
the Arab broadcasting industry. I am an eye-witness to what
Dr. Ibrahim described as the "revolution of the Arab satellite
industry" because I was one of those who was taken from
London to Doha to establish Al Jazeera more than seven years
first to talk about why we are talking about satellite channels
in the first place. I totally agree with Dr. Ibrahim. Yes, satellite
channels helped us to become more aware. Yes, satellite channels
raised the level of awareness, raised the level of freedom of
speech. But I am quoting one of the security guys I met in Cairo
during the arrest of Dr. Ibrahim and who mentioned to me, "We
couldn't arrest Dr. Ibrahim because you would know it was a
political reason--because it would be a scandal. We had to wait
until we caught something. We needed to fabricate something
against him to catch him without having any scandal."
thanks to satellite channels, thanks to the media, Dr. Ibrahim
was not arrested because of his opinions, but at the end of
the day he was arrested. That is the core of my response.
the change? We are trying to catch the change. There is change
in behaviours but there is no change in the political scene.
My argument is that if you start looking--especially after September
11--at the Arab regimes from Morocco and Mauritania to Bahrain
and even Qatar, what happened after September 11 is a deterioration
of political reform, not a moving ahead. And if we were looking
even before, since the rise of Al Jazeera we need to differentiate
between the reasons and the results.
of the satellite channels is the result of a move started after
the first Gulf war. In my analysis, Arab leaders-including the
Qatari government-realized the importance of freeing the media.
. . . . And because of the dispute Dr. Ibrahim mentioned between
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Qatari government chose the name
"Al Jazeera"--The Peninsula--which for four decades
was monopolized by the Saudis. If you were talking of "Al
Jazeera" before 1996, for sure you were referring to something
in Saudi Arabia.
make any change, political change? Political reform means change.
Change in dealing with oppositional figures such as Sa'ad Eddin
Ibrahim, dealing with public opinion. Yes, there is some transparency,
more transparency in the information process. With the appearance
of satellite channels, we are witnessing some transparency.
But as a person who was very involved in the satellite industry
in Abu Dhabi, in Al Jazeera, and now in the BBC, transparency
of information doesn't necessarily mean lead to rational and
political decisions at the end of the day.
regimes avoid scandals by telling truth rather than waiting
for the truth to be announced by satellite channels. But at
the same time they are telling the truth. It is now a tool of
propaganda. They are using the satellite channels as a tool
of propaganda. Politicians--if we widen the expression and the
definition of a politician, we had politicians ruling our societies
and we had politician opposing the governments and we had politicians
like Osama bin Laden opposing the international regime--but
all of them are using and sometimes misusing the satellite channels.
We are proud of our channels. These channels need to be aware
that there is a difference between raising awareness and making
distinction we need to make is to differentiate between the
policies of these satellite channels and the attitude of people
who are working in these satellite channels. We have some in
attendance at this conference who are programme makers, producers,
and announcers, and they can correct me if I am wrong.
of the satellite channels are not as precise and obvious as
you may think as academics. The policies are not written; they
are very flexible. Most of them depend on the policy of the
country funding the channel. And even the country which is funding
the channel does not want to make it very clear and obvious.
They like to be flexible.
when President Mubarak had this health problem in parliament
and I was editor-in-chief of Al Jazeera. I covered it thoroughly.
I had to bring somebody to comment on why the political regime
in Egypt is so fragile that people were so worried about the
future of Egypt because one man had these problems.
And of course
these comments didn't please the authorities in Egypt. They
started talking to everybody in our channel, including the chairman
of the board. We had to balance it by bringing in somebody--I
don't want to mention his name--but at the end of the day, balancing
the view; this was not necessarily needed because the view itself
is imposed by the Egyptian government that they did not have
an alternative. People in the streets were worried for the future
of their society and to balance that we needed to discuss the
future of constitutional reform in Egypt. At the end of the
day, if we needed to "balance" by bringing in someone
to defend the regime 100 percent, these channels at the end
of the day are misused and the reason for this is that the policies
of the owners are not clear. But the behaviour of the producers
you think: Al Jazeera, or Al Arabiya or Abu Dhabi, they have
a plan, they have a conspiracy theory. They have an attitude
towards the Palestinian cause or towards the Israeli occupation
of Palestine or towards the Iraqi problem. There is no such
clear plan or policy. It totally depends on the producer who
is making the program; sometimes a person can change the whole
policy of the channel--just by chance!
. . . .
to differentiate between some other things too. We need to differentiate
between competition and professionalism. Dr. Ibrahim rightly
talked about raising the level of professionalism in the Arab
satellite channels. Yes. Why? Again why?
to differentiate between result and cause. The cause in most
cases, even in some established channels like Al Arabiya, was
competition. And I witnessed another thing. I witnessed the
rise of news channels in Abu Dhabi. My colleague Jasim al-Azzawi
witnessed it too, and he can correct me if I am wrong. When
we started putting in more news about Abu Dhabi it was because
of competition. It was not because of political awareness of
the founders and the founders saying, "We need to change,
we need to inspire change!" No! It was because of the competition.
started its transmission because of competition. We need to
look carefully at why the satellite channels rushed to interview
Dr. Ibrahim after he was released. It was not because they believed
he should be interviewed, it was because mainly because of competition.
People are trying to compete with each other by raising the
level of professionalism. . . . . But we need to be aware of
whether the competition is driving us or we are driving the
competition? We need to look thoroughly at whether the financial
side drives us as media or we are driving it? Are we using competition,
technology, money, or are we used by technology, competition,
a very crucial question because I don't believe a lot in objectivity
on the Arab satellites. Sometimes as editor-in-chief of Al Jazeera,
I had to go live because Al Arabiya went live and if I didn't
I would be blamed. I have some cases when I did it intentionally.
I remember the "Gulf Summit" in Kuwait just before
I resigned. I did it intentionally, I did not go for "live"
and I didn't transmit it live because I didn't believe there
was something important to be broadcasted in the opening session
of the Gulf Summit, but everybody transmitted live, just because
of competition, not because of anything else.
So we need
to look thoroughly at the difference between professionalism
like to give a funny example. Do you remember this play? It
was by a Tunisian actress. The story was a funny one: they believed
in the freedom of speech invoked by Al Jazeera, and in the story
some Tunisians--young Arab men--went to Qatar to express their
opinions because Qatar is an open country. I am not here to
criticise Qatar. I criticize all Arab society. In the story,
they were prevented from entering Qatar because they didn't
have visas and they started shouting in the Qatari airport:
"Here is Al Jazeera! Why are you preventing us? We believe
in freedom and you believe in freedom. You should allow us
we are Arabs!' but at the end of the day Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya
and this rise of satellite channels and freedom of speech didn't
change the situation on the ground. The political situation
is still as it was fifteen years ago. The only difference--and
I salute the conference because it touched on this from the
beginning--the only difference is that anger is now being vented
through the satellite channels, and this is a very risky phenomenon.
We need to be aware of it. Thank you very much.
Helal, former editor-in-chief, Al Jazeera TV, is project
director, MENA Dialogue Programme, BBC World Service Trust.