Arab news network Al Jazeera has been considered one of the
most important de facto “Arab political parties.”
Since most Arab countries have not yet established functioning
democracies, relevant institutions, such as political parties
and a parliamentarian opposition, are still rudimentary. To
many observers, Arab satellite television seems to have the
potential to take over part of their designated role. As a mouthpiece
of Arab peoples and "the common man," Arab satellite
broadcasting seems able to mediate between the state and society.
In the international context, the transnational Arab news networks
in particular have made tremendous inroads into the Western-dominated
flow of news. Perhaps for the first time ever in history, Arabs
have an effective and up-to-globalization tool of information
at their disposal to inform the world about their own views
on regional conflicts, whether in Palestine or Iraq.
to what extent can Arab satellite broadcasting really play a
proactive and avant-garde role for Arab democracy?
The international debate on Al Jazeera and other Arab satellites
in recent years has been characterized by tremendous controversy
and insecurity. While Al Jazeera, in particular, was considered
by some to be the herald of Arab democracy and civil society,
its critics highlighted the networks’ anti-Israeli or
Anti-American biases and their sensationalist tendency towards
“politainment.” Proponents applaud Arab transnational
television for opening up the public discourse, but opponents
argue that they are doing quite the opposite because they resonate
and perpetuate intrinsic biases of Arab political culture. That
Al Jazeera has been labelled “The Arab CNN” is not
really helpful in assessing the network's political effect since
American networks and other mass media also showed many (pro-American)
biases especially after 11 September 2001 and during the Iraq
War in 2003.(1)
of the debate that is entrenched firmly in the above-mentioned
bipolar views results not only from empirical and research deficits,
but also from the fact that there is no clear theoretical basis
for considering the role of satellite television in the process
of political transformation. Media in authoritarian countries
operate under completely different conditions when compared
to Western consolidated democracies. While in the West the identification
of mass media with or as "political parties" is believed
to discredit their legitimacy as objective information hubs,
media in authoritarian countries face a double challenge that
plays no role in the operations of their Western counterparts.
While their basic aim is still to disseminate “objective”
and “neutral” information, the extraterritorial
location of satellite television enables satellite broadcasters
to take over some of the functions of political parties and
political movements. The idea that Arab satellite broadcasting
might be capable of articulating and mobilizing civil society
and thereby encouraging democratic transformation surely is
part of the fascination about this medium.
one sides with the critics or with the sympathizers of Arab
satellite broadcasters depends much on one's premises. It seems
naïve to measure the performance of Arab broadcasting according
to Western mainstream standards because the political systems
and political cultures they operate in are in many regards different
from those of developed democratic systems. As a consequence,
the functional dualism of Arab satallite broadcasting creates
new problems. What is the role of Arab broadcasting when the
political culture that the media represent is not sufficiently
"democratic" in nature and direction—as might
be the case with Arab-Muslim societies that have no experience
of full-fledged democracy? To what degree can broadcasting networks
and journalists compensate for the weaknesses of Arab democratic
political movements, organizations, institutions and sometimes
intellectuals—a new and complex role that journalists
have neither been mandated nor educated for? To what degree
can one realistically and legitimately ask Arab satellite broadcasters
to take the lead in the move towards democracy? And when do
they need to be protected themselves by the democratic constitution
of the political systems governing the societies to which they
seeks to elaborate on the theoretical role Arab transnational
news networks can play in the process of political transformation
and to interpret the often insufficient empirical evidence for
the feasibility of such a role. I attempt to analyze the ways
in which contemporary networks already fulfil a democractic
political role. I suggest that Arab television has achieved
a great deal, but that, particularly after the attacks of 11
September 2001 and the Iraq war in 2003, structural changes
will be required in the newsrooms and in the Arab satellite
broadcasting system to consolidate and advance a role supportive
of democracy. Otherwise the danger is inherent that instead
of succeeding, perhaps for the first time in history, in making
mass-mediated journalism an avant-garde for a globally
and regionally inspired democratization, Arab networks could
lose their critical function.
1. Theoretical Perspectives: Media as an Alternative
to Political Parties
of political affairs and the role of the media in Arab societies
contradict many lessons of history and ridicule mainstream transformation
theory, which holds that political parties were created as a
reaction to modernization processes, mostly as class-based parties
like the German Social Democrats or British Labour.(2) In this
view, the more middle-class Western societies became, the more
political parties reflected the interest of ever-larger parts
of the populace. They developed from class parties to popular
parties by integrating broad underlying values of societies,
such as, for example, conservatism versus social equality ideals.
Parties are at the same time a reflection of underlying social
structures and self-conscious elites who aggregate the political
will of large fragments of a society, articulate it and thus
develop the democratic project. Transformation theory emphasizes
the role of elites(3) who, in the case of political parties,
design political programmes and finally create governments and
recruit political personnel for leadership. In summary, according
to democratic transformation theory (non-revolutionary) political
reform and democratization always has been the privilege of
political counter-elites and oppositional parties. Mass media
has played no role in the process.
media and communication scientists do consider the media important
for democracy.(4) But the theoretical debate in political science
about democratic transition never has done so. The so-called
“small media” like the Internet or even the underground
press might be considered important(5) —but the big mass
media always have been thought to follow rather than lead democratic
change.(6) Authoritarian regimes, however, fear neither the
Internet nor the underground press, since in widely illiterate
societies such as Asia, Africa and Latin America, the usage
and the effects of these media are limited to small elite groups.
they hardly are suitable for broader societal mobilization.
Many Arab and other Middle Eastern political regimes have, for
example, liberalized parts of their media systems, like the
Internet in Morocco, Egypt, or Jordan or the press, especially
weekly or monthly journals, in countries like Jordan or Iran.(7)
But none of the Middle Eastern states ever has opened up the
TV sector with the partial exception of the Gulf states, which
host the new regional Arab news networks like Al Jazeera, Al
Arabiya or Abu Dhabi TV.
the regimes' fear of television and the fact that it might be
the only medium reaching "the masses," transformation
theorists consider only the struggle for media freedom important
for democratization, but not television itself, largely for
two reasons. First, transformation theoreticians believe that
television, in particular, but also other large mass media,
act according to the primacy of organizational goals. Politics
or market forces seem to dominate the media, and the organization
of the media constantly struggles for its own survival. Television
in particular is an industrial process that easily can becontrolled
by the state.(8) Second, the mass media have never been considered
primary social actors. Rather they seem determined by actors
like the government, lobbies, or political parties.
these reasons mainstream transformation theory has never considered
big mass media as an “avant-garde” of democratization.
On the contrary: The classical and influential book Four
Theories of the Press by Friederick S. Siebert, Wilbur
Schramm and Theodore Peterson claimed that the media always
been shaped by their respective social and political structures,
be they authoritarian or democratic in nature.(9) It is only
after systemic changes to democracy occur and electoral democracy
is established that television is considered important for formulating
the public agenda and representing civil society in a functioning
democracy. Transformation theoreticians stipulate that the mass
media, television and the big press, is 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 of democratic institutions that the media are
this theory was written for nation-based media, not for the
new reality of satellite television that crosses national borders.
In this situation state control over television regresses and
big media gain more freedom—a freedom they can use to
play a role in early democratization processes. These processes
take place on a transnational, but limited, plane. It is not
so much globalization and Western media that are crucial here,
but regionalization and the geo-lingustic unity of regions like
the Arab world that creates new challenges at the crossroads
of regionalization and democratization.(10) It is telling that
at the same moment Arab television gained more freedom, it created
a Pan-Arab dialogue on democracy and reform (see below).
From a theoretical
point of view, the new situation of television in the Arab world
is one of growing freedom, but also new problems. Of the two
reasons that television never was considered a democratic avant-garde
(state control and the prominence of primary social actors in
media production) the former, state control, is diminishing
in importance. The reactive character of the media vis-à-vis
primary social actors still is a salient feature of the Arab
media system. In the Arab world, the media operate in a vacuum
of political mobilization because political parties, if they
exist at all, are hardly ever relevant or representative.(11)
Many Arab political institutions are weak, and the reason is
that a socio-economic imperative for creating political parties
based on class, as was the case in Europe during its modernization
process, is non-existent in the Arab world. Moreover, many organizations
and intellectual elites of Arab civil society show a certain
degree of ambivalence about democracy.(12)
function at all, social movements and opposition parties head
in different directions than the ethical and religious groups
that captured non-state areas like Imbaba and Ain Shams in Cairo.(13)
Islamists are not necessarily democracy-minded, but they are
the most effective opposition with an established constituency
in the Arab world. However, even their impact on society is
disputed among scholars as either growing(14) or slowly eroding.(15)
situation, there are two intellectual alternatives to consider.
One is that the media revolution already was “dead”
before it became effective in helping to create new democracies
because there is no sustainable link between media and political
parties. Alternatively, one can accept that media take a leading
role in democratization themselves and substitute at least some
of the tasks political parties do not fulfil.
television can take over some functions of political parties.
It can integrate, aggregate and articulate the political will
of the people; it can mobilize people for non-parlamentarian
political action; and while it might not be able to work out
political programmes, it can help a society open up 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 system change.
Telhami rightly argued that mass media are most effective where
people have no first hand experience with the issue at stake
and therefore must rely on the media.(16) But is “democracy”
a primary or a secondary issue in the Middle East? It certainly
is both. It is primary because many people in the Arab world
feel that regime corruption and other problems need to be resolved.
And it is at the same time secondary, because most people who
have lived in autocratic systems throughout their lives have
no direct experience of democracy. Consequently, media could
be effective in providing information on democratic developments
elsewhere and in the Arab world. Therefore mass media must be
considered to have a high potential for shaping public opinion
on matters related to democratic reform.
illusionary at first is a consequence of contemporary politics
and society. In the West we are debating the impact of the so-called
“media democracy” on traditional institutions like
political parties.(17) We consider ourselves to live in the
era of “mass democracy” and of “mass communication.”
While such talk is subject to much hyperbole, why should it
not be possible that the character and composition of institutions
relevant to democratization change over time? If social classes
are less relevant to the information society due to the decline
of the so-called “Fordist” (heavy industry) mode
of production and the growing importance of professionals, or
even of "the masses," why should the media not take
the lead rather than follow political parties?
argue that the decline of political institutions corresponds
to 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 one can proclaim such
a change in paradigm there are more hurdles to overcome. First,
the news media cannot be the sole mirror of people or the peoples'
“party,” but must at the same time value their primary
function of information out their old and new functions—objective
information and democratic partisanship. Second, mobilization
and change can only occur when political parties and institutions
start to develop.
media must not only mirror the people, but should inform them,
correct them and also “educate” them. If they do
not, there is an inherent danger that a political culture that
has never experienced democracy will merely reproduce itself,
and that the old populism of the regime will merely be replaced
by a “techno-populism.” The kind of democratic partisanship
of the media that is needed for democratic change does not compromise
objectivity as long as it seeks to compensate for the lack of
articulation people suffer under authoritarian rule. But it
conflicts with objectivity if it does not reflect all or, at
least, a significantly broad spectrum of the important voices
of the opposition as much as the government.
point, conflicts are inherent between the role of the media
as “political parties for democracy” and as “informers.”
What do you do if the political culture of those whom you are
trying to articulate is not in itself pluralist? How can you
be attractive to people if you tell them unpopular truths?
from the viewpoint of systems theory of the media it is absolutely
clear that one function of the news media—the conveying
of objective information—cannot be replaced by another
function, namely popular partisanship. Both must coexist in
domestic as well as in international news. According to functionalist
systems theory, news broadcasting must be considered a sub-system
of society that is both autonomous and open to interaction with
and pressure from other parts of the society (politics, economy,
audiences etc.). News broadcasts seek to balance the indigenous
functions that make them indispensable—primarily to generate
unbiased information and to set a society's social agenda—with
the needs of the various other sub-systems that compete for
access to the news media. It is a competition which, under authoritarian
circumstances, clearly is dominated by the state and within
which societal forces must be better represented if there is
to be some kind of democratic transition.(18)
and analytical broadcasts lose their ability to counterbalance
pressure exerted by the state, the society, audiences, the political
culture or any other outside forces, there is no basis left
for the conveying of political information and political opinion
necessary for any electoral democracy or political mobilization.
Being a party for democratization means accepting that democracy
is first and foremost based on the principle of non-violent
competition of all legitimate interests. That is the intrinsic
informational and educational function news media have and must
not lose. On the premise that in any society a range of world
views exists, the dissemination of those views is a functionalist
necessity in the context of a democratic theory of the news
media. Therefore non-democratic forces, opinions and issues
can be part of the public media discourse, but they must not
media are mobilizing people without applying professional standards
of objective reporting then they might actually be a party for
the wrong case—not for democracy, but against it. But
in the event of a mobilization based on the right agenda and
on professional standards, the news media still can work against
democracy rather than for it because it can never lead alone.
News media might potentially assume a portion of the political
parties' functions, but they only are effective if the link
between the media and social and political movements, which
is weak in the beginning, becomes stronger over time. “Television
democracy” never can fully replace the function of political
parties because societies need viable political institutions.
In contrast to the classical division of three powers, the media
are not parliamentarian sphere and executive at the same time,
but are at most a “virtual parliament.” Arab satellite
news broadcasting will remain ineffective as an agent of democratic
reform if movements, organizations and institutions of a democratic
body politic do not develop in conjuction with it.
2. A Real Democratic Agenda?
question to be answered is whether Arab satellite news and analysis
broadcasting fulfils the specific tasks of the media-plus-political-party
symbiosis laid out in this paper. The international perception
of Al Jazeera in particular passed through two very distinct
phases that are marked by the attacks of 11 September 2001 on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.(19) Before that date,
Al Jazeera was almost unanimously applauded outside the Arab
world for its ability to criticize governments and discuss matters
in the public sphere that were previously taboo (sex, religion,
politics).(20) After the attack, however, Al Jazeera was confronted
with increasingly harsh criticism of its perceived anti-Israeli
and anti-American coverage and its showing video tapes by Usama
Bin Ladin's Al Qaida network, which was interpreted by critics
as support of Arab-Islamist terrorism. Despite this very contradictory
image, hardly any solid content analysis has been pursued thus
far on any of the Arab satellite networks.(21) Arab satellite
broadcasting requires interdisciplinary research between, for
example, media studies and Oriental studies. This has proved
difficult to achieve.
the democratic agenda of Al Jazeera that dominated Al Jazeera's
international image between its foundation in 1996 and 2001,
it becomes clear that the lack of existing in-depth-research
is flagrant. Very few contemporaries have followed the coverage
of the democracy issue. Therefore it is legitimate to ask how
Al Jazeera, as the most prominent Arab news and political events
analysis network, shapes a democratic agenda and if it serves
the function of democratic partisanship that would be needed
to call the network an “avant-garde” of democratization.
of Al Jazeera TV to serve as an alternative to the information
and mobilization role that usually is fulfilled by political
parties is hard to discern, and it seems to change over time.
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 Arab political culture. However, when analysts
consider the content of Al Jazeera’s programmes in relation
to the issue of democracy, three sometimes conflicting types
of perception are at hand.
a number of observers have pointed to a positive impact of Al
Jazeera’s talk shows and open style of debating on Arab
civil society.(22) Breaking taboos in various fields—from
women’s issues like female circumcision to previously
un-debated foreign policy topics such as the West-Sahara conflicts—was
widely interpreted as a breach with authoritarian broadcasting
practices and gave Al Jazeera the reputation of being the first
pluralist television network in the Arab world.
It was around
the turn of the millennium and especially after September 11,
that critics, not only in the West but also among Arab scholars,
journalists and experts bemoaned the limits of Al Jazeera’s
approach to political affairs. The analytical capacity of the
network has been criticized time and again. The critics perceive
a preference for controversy and sensationalism over in-depth
political analysis. Critics also point to some of Al Jazeera’s
shows that promote “empty controversies” (Steven
Wu) in which Islamists, nationalists and others debate each
other, but get caught in a “monotony” of political
scenarios.(23) Layla Al Zubaidi goes further when she argues
that democratic exchange "represents not much more than
a shimmer" on Al Jazeera, which is "almost completely
detached from the socio-political realities of most, if not
all, Arab countries."(24)
substantial are complaints that Arab satellite broadcasting
is too sensationalist in style?(25) One could argue with Matthew
A. Baum that soft-news or entertaining forms of news journalism
are, in fact, needed for television to be an advocate
of democratic change and the mobilization of people for opinion-making
and political action.(26) Fatima Mernissi may be right when
she argues that Arab satellite broadcasting has widened the
public sphere for critical journalism and Arab dialogue.(27)
she ignored all the literature on the agenda-setting effect
of political reporting when she declared the “television
agenda” to be irrelevant and, at best, secondary in importance
to the revolution in the style of Arab television news and political
reporting that occurred with the new networks. In one of the
very rare content and effect analyses that exist, Erik C. Nisbet,
Matthew C. Nisbet, Dietram A. Scheufele and James E. Shannahan
revealed that the choice between various Arab satellite networks
can contribute to anti-Americanism among the consumers.(28)
For the networks to be effective, opinion formation must precede
news consumption. It is only in these cases that the way the
media cover relevant issues can tone down or fuel such attitudes.
Audience values related to participation and democracy could
therefore only be manifested within a relevant media agenda.
is relevant, and if it is true, as the critics say, that Al
Jazeera has no consistent agenda on democratic reform however
one can applaud its pioneering work for free speech, how does
that affect Arab transformation? Does Al Jazeera remain a model
in style rather than in substance? Does the network offer pluralist
debating instead of taking over a responsible role in democratic
transformation? Is it too much to assign Al Jazeera this role
that we have, however vaguely, defined as “aggregating”
and “articulating” the political will of the people,
“mobilizing” for non-parlamentarian political action,
and helping a society open up a dialogue on democratic reform?
In the words of Marc Lynch: “Talk shows will not be enough.”(29)
in recent times, a third trend of content observation came to
the fore. In the course of 2005, Al Jazeera has reacted to oppositional
movements in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. It acts
as a mouthpiece for Arabs' critique of their governments. Al
Jazeera reported extensively on ongoing political protests in
countries like Lebanon, broadcasting live images of the “Cedar
Revolution,” or Egypt, where the anti-regime Kifaya
(Enough) movement was taking to the streets. Many people uttered
hopes that Al Jazeera would be the information hub for a spill-over
effect triggering similar protests throughout Arab countries.
Lynch argued that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the events
was a “demonstration effect” for Arab democracy.(30)
in-depth content analyses of the television programmes on Al
Jazeera, however, we can only elaborate provisional trends of
the coverage. Al Jazeera’s democratic agenda seems reactive
rather than proactive, although Al Jazeera, with all its elements
of “politainment” and political information, never
considered itself to be merely a network disseminating event-centred
news. The network has a liberating appeal because it is willing
to cover news events openly and offer free debate, an important
element of pluralist societies. But is not necessarily willing
“to lead” political reform since it seems hardly
capable of continuous journalistic advocacy for the fragments
of political movements existing in all Arab countries. Without
such advocacy, the network cannot give Arab people a political
vision of how to act and which way to move politically.
3. Professionalism or Pan-Arabism?
question that needs to be considered is whether Arab satellite
news broadcasting can merge, as theoretically required, a democratic
partisanship with the function of professional neutrality and
objective reporting. Not just the American, British and Israeli
administrations but also many Arab journalists criticize the
network’s reporting on regional conflicts. There is no
doubt that transnational Arab television provides the world
with images of Palestinian or Iraqi victims that previously
went unnoticed by Western media.(31) It is equally obvious that
Al Jazeera, out of all the Arab news networks, has been most
willing to integrate “the other opinion.” The network
airs Israeli, American and many other voices. In contrast, the
leading American television network Fox News showed no original
interviews with Arab politicians during the Iraq War of 2003.(32)
critics often bemoan that there is a clear Pan-Arab bias with
regard to the selection and interpretaion of news on transnational
Arab satellite networks. Injustices against Arabs are dealt
with much more critically and extensively than injustices done
to Israelis, whose victims are hardly present on screen. The
supremacy of a Pan-Arab agenda evident in programmes broadcast
by Al Jazeera becomes clear when the network—justifiably—criticizes,
time and again, injustices arising from Israeli or American
policy and their militaries, while often downplaying the responsibility
of Arab states, regimes and the role of “privatized forms
of violence” (terrorism). Extensive reporting on the burial
of Shaykh Yasin, the radical leader of Hamas, for example, or
the playing of video massages by Usama Bin Laden, echoed and
amplified terrorists’ messages.
is true that most Western media show the same commercial interest
in the phenomenon of terrorism, Arab satellite channels operate
in an environment that lends itself easily to violent mobilization.
Al Jazeera's reporting on Israel is biased, but less so than
other transnational Arab networks, which regularly feature strong
and even anti-Semitic criticism of Israel as in the case of
the radical network Al Manar. This station, operating from Lebanon,
is the self-declared weapon of "psychological warfare"(33)
for the Islamist Shi'i group Hizbullah. One of its goals is
to spread clearly anti-Zionist ideology. But it often pursues
this goal in ways that tip over into anti-Semitism. The group's
stance toward Zionism ultimately is directed against existence
of the state of Israel, and derived from the group's past struggle
against Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. The showing of
an openly anti-Semitic television series (Al Shatat/The
Diaspora) triggered the French government's ban of the channel
from EUTELSAT satellite in December 2004 and the US's decision
to list the Lebanese television station as a terrorist organisation.
Manar, which is a party organ, mainstream Arab television news
networks like Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya are not “hate media”
supporting terrorism against the United States or Israel, as
some critics of Arab media argue. Most of the reporting is neither
anti-American nor pro-terrorist, but rather a regular mix of
news and entertainment. The US administration's resentment of
Al Jazeera or its closing down of Al Jazeera's office in Iraq
is therefore unwarranted, and rightly has been criticized by
human rights organizations.
clear distinction must be drawn between transnational Arab news
networks and Al Manar's party-line approach to Israel and the
Jews, most experts on Arab television agree that even the mainstream
channels generally reveal a pro-Arab, anti-Israeli and anti-American
bias, even though they draw very different conclusions from
this point of departure. However, the very narrow existing empirical
base on the content of Arab television concentrates almost completely
on this point. Therefore, a full-text analysis of the international
dimension of Arab broadcasting coverage is not as urgently needed
as as is a means for uncovering democratic agendas. Analysis
of international news coverage on satellite television would
necessarily help us to understand the subtleties of the Arab
broadcasters' framing of the Palestinian or Iraqi conflicts.
Panos study undertaken after the attacks of 11 September 2001
argued that Al Jazeera is more critical of the United States
than many other Arab news media.(34) Political scientist Mamoun
Fandy maintained as early as 2000 that, with the exception of
regular news programmes, Al Jazeera represented a new kind of
alliance between nationalists and Islamists(35) —a view
that, until today, is shared by some critical Arab journalists.(36)
Muhammad Ayish argues that in the field of Arab regional conflicts
Al Jazeera lacks professional standards of objectivity.(37)
Mohammed El-Nawawy elaborated on the emotionality and anti-Americanism
of Al Jazeera's reporters when covering the battle of Fallujah
between American troops and Iraqi resistance in 2004.(38) Abdel
Karim Samara obeserved that Arab television generally was not
able to report the full variety of political views on the war
in Iraq in 2003 and oppositional perspectives against Saddam
Hussein were not given sufficient attention.(39)
Iskandar describe very accurately the fascinated reactions Al
Jazeera has evoked in the Arab world when it identifies with
the Arabs' struggle against Israel and the United States intervention
in Iraq. For the first time in history, an Arab medium was capable
of counterbalancing the Western world's news hegemony based
on the big news agencies such as Associated Press, Reuters and
Agence France Press, and opinion leaders like the television
and radio services of CNN and the BBC. Salameh Nematt of the
prominent Arab newspaper Al Hayat argues that Arab
television's one-sided representation of images of victims of
American and Israeli violence continues in the guise of Pan-Arab
political positions that had suffered a decline in concert with
the diminishing role of the Arab League in regional politics.(40)
However, the new Pan-Arab media movement is more than a mere
continuation of Pan-Arab political institutions. While the traditional
Nasserite Pan-Arab policy was based on single-state national
interests, whereby the national interests of states like Egypt,
Syria and Jordan often prevailed over solidarity with the Palestinians,(41)
Arab broadcasting provides an unfiltered platform for public
emotions, pro-Palestinian sentiments and other national identities.
The Egyptian-Israeli peace accord of Camp David (1979) left
the Palestinian problem unresolved with the result that popular
Arab perceptions of Israel remained at least partly hostile.(42)
The pro-Arab framing of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by
Al Jazeera and the other transnational Arab news networks is
a straightforward expression of popular sentiments. For example,
Al Jazeera calls dead Palestinians “martyrs”—a
label reserved for Palestinians and not applied to dead Iraqis
or other nationalities. It therefore is absolutely correct for
the Panos study to state that Arab television is a “platform
for the collective identity and imagination” of the pro-Palestinian
Arab television continues to offer a combination of Pan-Arab
and single-nationalist perspectives that often conflict with
each other, modern transnational Arab television provides its
audience with a clear Pan-Arab world view that Shibley Telhami
described as a common denominator of most Arabs: "[T]he
logic is no longer catering to the Egyptians or Saudis and for
the Qataris, but to the Arab. In that sense, they [Arab media]
are trying to find out what most Arabs want and what is the
common denominator among most Arabs."(44) A “common
denominator” means that transnational Arab news networks
rarely interfere with issues that are sensitive to the Arab
nation states or that touch inner-Arab conflicts. They focus
instead on issues like the liberation of Palenstine and Iraq
from foreign occupation.
line of Al Jazeera's and other Arab television networks' content
is to combine factual (“objective”) information
with culturally adapted (but also occasionally transcended)
world views. Such a newsline might sound rational and legitimate,
but it is not exactly what democratic transformation theory
expects from television because it confuses the desperately
needed “democratic partisanship” with “national
partisanship.” In other words, it is not sufficient to
allow for objectivity in some fields that are not sensitive
to Arab cultural sentiments. Objectivity is needed in all topics
and surely it is needed where vital questions of war and interstate
conflict are concerned. The real test, it seems, is not the
role of “governments” because they stepped back
and let Arab satellite networks articulate the peoples' feelings
and thoughts on issues like Palestine or Iraq. The real test
is now Arab political culture.
from Al Hayat argues that Arab television compensates
for the decline of the big Arab institutions like the Arab League
and trade unions, etc., of the Nasserite era. It serves as a
mediator between state and society in the feld of Pan-Arab nationalist
aspirations.(45) Like the French Panos study, Ayish, Nematt
and others, he argues that Al Jazeera and other transnational
satellite networks have given up objectivity in the central
fields of reporting. Media populism, Saghieh says, has politicized
many people, but at the same time it has lent itself to a new
stagnation of political thought in the Arab world.
disagree with Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar's definition
of the obvious deficits of Arab networks like Al Jazeera as
“contextual objectivity.” While they share the basic
observation of Al Jazeera's biases, they justify it because
they say Arab media must compensate for opposite biases in the
Western and world media.(46) Such a view, however, is very problematic
since the main audience of Arab television still is made up
of Arabs and the Arab world, which means that distorted views
on regional conflicts will first and foremost misinform the
Arab public. Moreover, the one-sided perspective of Arab networks
probably also partly discredited Al Jazeera in the West and
in the rest of the world, particularly after 11 September 2001.
Even in the absence of serious research data on the Arab channels'
image in the world, it is entirely possible that the Arab networks'
ability to counterbalance world public opinion could be limited
due to professional inadequacies.
of objectivity in the field of regional conflict reporting qualifies
Arab satellite news broadcasting as a mediator and mouthpiece
of many Arabs, but it disqualifies it as a source of political
information and as a creator of an agenda for building democratic
international relations. In spite of efforts to integrate American
and Israeli voices, most Arab television reporting on regional
conflicts represents a techno-compatible, globalized form of
populism, rather than a contribution to international dialogue.
In search for a balance between professional, pluralist journalism
and the will to pose an alternative to political parties, Arab
satellite networks conflate nationalist with democractic partisanship.
4. Entering a 'Third Stage'? Structural Paradoxes and
Reform Requirements of Transnational Arab Television
paper has posed the question whether transnational Arab satellite
television fulfils the theoretical requirements for playing
an avant-garde role in the democratization of the Arab
world. As stated, the aim would be to combine classical and
primary functions of the news media (objective information)
with secondary and context-specific tasks, for example, its
ability to act as an alternative to political parties in articulating
the peoples' critique of governments and a desire for democratization.
empirical content analysis and audience research will be needed
in the future, only tentative conclusions can be drawn:
°Al Jazeera and other transnational Arab news networks have
freed themselves from state interference and gained autonomy,
but tend to give way to cultural biases existing among their
audiences, especially concerning regional conflicts in Iraq
and Palestine. The previous regime-centered mobilizing function
of national Arab television has been replaced by a kind of “enlightened
techno-populism” that includes “the other opinion”
but only at the cost of deconstructing it in a stream of Arab-centric
Arab news networks’ ability to act as partisans for democratization
has been demonstrated in numerous instances when they have criticized
Arab regimes and pointed to political issues that were hitherto
excluded from public debate. However, the democracy agenda remains
discontinuous and reactive.
of the paper will point to various structural problems and potential
changes that would support Arab news networks’ role in
democratic change. Structural problems, and sometimes paradoxes,
can be located on various levels:
1. The relationship
between media organization, ownership and media system orientations
on the one hand, and news policies, content decisions, objectivity,
as well as the democracy agenda on the other hand;
2. The link between Pan-Arab regionalism, regional differentiation
and the democratic agenda;
3. The interaction between the “global public sphere”
and Arab television culture.
4.1 The Double Curse: Arab News Networks between State
Protectionism and Market Orientation
Mendel Selber and Salma I. Ghanem rightly pointed to the fact
that the growth of Arab satellite television since the 1990s
introduced a market model into the Arab world. Nowadays, private
television stations coexist with state television channels,
and this is the main reason why the era of totalitarian media
systems in the Arab world and of the “mobilization press,”
as William A. Rugh called them,(47) has passed. Selber and Ghanem
maintain that the days are over when events like the Syrian
government's massacre of Islamist rebels in Hama in 1980, where
about 10.000 people died, can happen without the Arab mass media
even taking notice of it.(48) However, when the authors suggest
that Arab media should continue following the market model because
its benefits outweigh its disadvantages,(49) they enter difficult
territory. There is a very problematic and unstable relationship
between the market model of the media and the potential avant-garde
role of television in democratic transition.
problem is that the market orientation reinforces the existing
populist trend in Arab television. In many European countries,
strong public television stations like BBC receive budgets that,
although often tax-based, are granted to provide the financial
basis for societal institutions that are formally independent
of both governments and audiences and based on the idea of “public
broadcasting.” The market orientation of Arab television,
in contrast, reinforces the trend of perpetuating audiences’
cultural preferences (and biases) in order to receive large
transmission ratings and advertising.
of Arab transnational television is even worse because Arab
news networks desire privatization, but remain highly subsidized
by benevolent governments like Qatar's Emir al-Thani. Other
television stations in the Arab world, in particular, the Saudi
media empire, often are linked covertly with governments through
personal and family relationships.(50) The establishment of
new transnational networks by the goverments of Qatar (Al Jazeera),
the UAE (Abu Dhabi TV) or Aaudi Arabia (Al Arabiya) has been
applauded by many observers as a generous act. But it also implies
that present-day Arab news networks are based on a structural
paradox, or even a “double curse”: They are allowed
to be populist and market-oriented as long as they do not go
too far and become a real danger for existing regimes. A channel
like Al Jazeera, which is at the center of many debates about
Arab democracy, can still be closed-down at the whim of its
patron government. The Arab news networks' market orientation
is a problem that interferes with objectivity about culturally
resonant issues such as the Palestine problem. And state subsidies
could prevent Arab networks from acting as even more outspoken
advocates of democratic change.
an effective contributor to democratic culture, today's transnational
Arab television needs to transcend its organizational underpinnings
and develop models that are as independent as possible from
governments or other forces of society. Democratic institutions,
by definition, are liable to controlling mechanisms and parliamentary
checks and balances, although they are autonomous in generating
their own specific programmes and agendas. Necessary structural
changes may include the configuration of new financial networks
and the establishment of extra-territorial media on Cyprus,
in London or in any of the “media free zones” in
Egypt, Jordan or in the Gulf States, assuming that those places
can offer enough protection from outside interference.
television model is not necessarily an equivalent to traditional
“educational television.” Entertainment and “politainment,”
as in Al Jazeera's talk shows, have long entered the debates
on modern development communication.(51) The idea of reconsidering
the organizational and financial base of Arab satellite broadcasting,
however, is designed to attain independence and programme control
in order gradually to transform cultural biases and advocate
for democratic change. The two-page long “code of ethics”
Al Jazeera adopted in July 2004, in which the channel manifested
its desire to be objective and accurate in reporting, is not
sufficient for a reform.(52) By contrast, the BBCs “Producers'
Guidelines” run hundreds of pages and are much more effective
as ethical guides.(53) But even ethical codes are no substitute
for the deep structural changes that seem necessary to initiate
a programme of reform.
4.2 An Antinomy between Publicity and Sustainability?
Pan-Arabism, Sub-Regionalism and the Democratic Agenda
structural point of view, it seems that in order for Arab satellite
news broadcasting to contribute to democratic culture, more
“Al Jazeeras” will be needed. Such networks should
operate from a safe transborder distance to escape national
regime control. It is positive for democracy when Al Jazeera
covers the West-Sahara conflict, for example. But continuous,
quality reporting on 22 Arab countries completely overburdens
a handful of transnational satellite channels like Al Arabiya,
Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV.
speaking, the idea is that Arab satellite broadcasting could
compensate for some of the inability of Arab political parties
to mobilize links with civil society. A media-civil-society-alliance
could then pave the road to democracy. However, after 10 years
of Arab transnational news journalism, there has been no significant
development for democracy in the Arab world. Although critical
elites and NGOs are heard on television, their real political
impact remains weak. While these conclusions remain tentative,
because media effects can be "latent" (Saad Eddin
Ibrahim)(54) and might make themselves felt only in the long
run, there is a link between the lack of national differentiation
and the continuity of reporting on problems related to democracy
in single Arab countries on the one hand, and weak mobilizing
effects in terms of political action on the other hand.
of transnational Arab news networks might lead to an upgrading
or downgrading of existing anti-Israeli or anti-American opinions,(55)
but it is not sufficient to mobilize political action, which
in the Arab world, like anywhere else, is based on decentralized
activity within single nation-states. The argument that the
success of Al Jazeera and other transnational Arab broadcasting
is based on Pan-Arab outreach is valuable. However, there is
no antinomy between regional differentiation and sustainability
on the one hand, and the publicity of political television news
in the Arab world on the other. After all, national television
remains more popular in most Arab countries than transnational
Arab networks because people are more interested in news related
to their immediate reality.(56) Therefore, a sub-regional differentiation,
for example, in channels concentrating on the Maghreb, the Nile
states, the Mashreq and the Arab peninsula, seems viable and
necessary as a prerequisite for the establishment of a democratic
agenda that could enable political mobilization.
4.3. Missing Competition: A Global Democratic Agenda
for the Arab World
ways, global media conditions act against the Arab media’s
acquiring of a democratic function. Hopes for more objectivity
in Arab reporting on regional conflicts are not supported by
the flow of international news. The problem is not only that
American television often covers the Middle East in a very one-sided
manner.(57) In broader terms, the opening up of Western media
spaces is, in many regards, limited to a transference of images
rather than text and context. Arab positions on Western and
especially American neo-imperialism seldom reach Western mainstream
media.(58) Images of dead Palestinians, which can be seen on
a daily basis on Al Jazeera, hardly are present in Western television.
Television-based democratic advocacy in the Arab world needs
a global partner that provides Western and especially American
viewers with more balanced news coverage, and thereby reduces
pressure on networks like Al Jazeera to act as a representative
of the “Arab point of view.”
of an American television channel in the Arabic language, Alhurra
(The Free One), is not supportive of the Arab media's democratic
endeavours. Although the name "The Free One" implies
that the channel acts on behalf of democracy, it has shown no
interest in the problems of internal Arab political reform.
It is unwilling to confront the allied authoritarian regimes
in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Morrocco. However,
as long as there is no real competition for the “better
democratic agenda” between the global level of foreign
broadcasting and regional level of Arab news networks, the interaction
between those layers is inefficient.
It is debateable
whether the classical notion of transformation theory that news
media follow rather than lead in the process of democratization
is obsolete in our days. Surely, the mass media are no substitute
for pro-active elites, oppositional parties and movements. On
the contrary, Arab transnational news networks often seem to
be preoccupied with organizational goals like market income
or pure political survival. However, transnational Arab news
networks operate in a regional Arab environment, and the transborder
reach of such networks makes them intriguingly more immune to
many of the influences that classical transformation theory
emphasized. Seeing the tremendous change in Arab media culture
in the last 10 years and the resultant new public sphere on
political issues which made Al Jazeera, in particular, a prime
topic worldwide, it may be reasonable to speculate that transnational
television could take on an intermediary and catalyzing role
for articulating the Arab peoples’ desire for democracy
that hitherto was restricted to political movements and parties.
If that premise is accepted, a consequent reform of Arab satellite
broadcasting seems inevitable.
reform: For Arab Sattelite Broadcasting to face the challenge
of becoming an avant-garde of democratization and to
take over some of the functions of political parties in the
field or in the articulation and mobilization of the populace,
certain trends in the current broadcasting culture must be revised.
The democratic agenda must be elaborated, objectivity in regional
conflict affairs readjusted, and the link between the media
and extra-media elites, organizations and movements improved.
organizational and systemic reform: For the agenda of democracy
to be relevant and effective, there must be not only a change
in the news policies of the existing Arab news networks and
other Arab satellite broadcasters, but also an organizational
reform and an extension of the Arab broadcasting system. Reconsideration
of the implications of the private capital market model is needed,
particularly with regards to existing populist trends of crisis
reporting. More than anything else, a re-evaluation of the democracy
issue can only be achieved if the political reporting of Arab
news networks, separated in many ways from grass-roots problems
in most countries, is differentiated regionally. Ultimately,
the success of Arab broadcasting also depends on the global
media situation, which currently forces Arab broadcasters into
false, nationalist, defensive competition—with American
broadcasting for example—instead of supporting a democratic
Hafez serves as chair of International Communication,
University of Erfurt, Germany, and a senior associate fellow
of Saint Antony's College, Oxford. He is a member of the TBS
1. Tumber/Palmer 2004; Schechter 2003; Hafez 2004; Thussu/Freedman
2003; Zelizer/Allan 2002; Hess/Kalb 2003.
2. See, for example: Merkel/Sandschneider 1997; Schubert et
3. Potter 1997, pp. 13-18.
4. See , for example: McNair 1995, pp. 16-27.
5. Sreberny-Mohammadi/Mohammadi 1994; Jones 2002.
6. McConnell/Becker 2002. With the same basic conclusions for
the Arab press' "weakness" see also: Garon 1995. With
a slightly more optimistic view on the mass media's ability
to work for democracy also in the pre-transitional phase see:
7. Hafez 2001a.
8. McConnell/Becker 2002.
9. Siebert et al. 1956.
10. Sinclair et al. 1996.
11. See, for example: Hegasy 2000.
12. Harik 1997, p. 350.
13. See Salwa Ismail's chapter "Contemporary Islamism as
a Popular Movement: Socio-Spatial Determinants in the Cairo
Urban Setting" in: Ismail 2003.
14. Burgat 2003.
15. Kepel 2000.
16. Statement made by Prof. Shibley Telhami of University of
Maryland during the Conference on "The Media and Political
Change in the Arab World", Cambridge Arab Media Project,
Churchill College, Cambridge University, 29-30, September 2004.
17. See, for example, Manuel Castells' deliberations on the
„crisis of democracy" in: Castells 1997.
18. For an introduction to media systems theory see: Kunczik/Zipfel
2001, pp. 66 ff.
19. Interview with Aktham Suleiman, correspondent of Al Jazeera
in Germany and Iraq, Berlin, 6 January 2005.
20. For general literature on Al Jazeera and other Arab satellite
television see: Sakr 2001; el-Nawawy/Iskandar 2003; Ayish 2003.
21. For very limited qualitative and or quantitative content
analysis on Al Jazeera see, for example: Ayish 2002; One
Year After (Panos Institute) (2002); Knudsen n.y.; el-Nawawy
2004; Jasperson/Kikhia 2003.
22. See for example: el-Nawawy/Iskandar 2003.
23. For both quotations see: Mohamed Zayani, Introduction –
Al Jazeera and the Vicissitudes of the New Arab Mediascape,
in: Mohamed Zayani (ed.), The Al Jazeera Phenomenon. Critical
Perspectives on New Arab Media, London 2005, 20, 33.
24. al-Zubaidi 2004, p. 20.
25. Ayish 2002.
26. Baum 2003.
27. Statement made by Fatima Mernissi on the International Conference
"New Means of Communication Change in the Arab World",
House of World Cultures, Berlin, 24-26 June 2004
28. Nisbet et al. 2004.
29. Marc Lynch, “Assessing the Democratizing Power of
Satellite TV” in Transnational Broadcasting Studies
14 (Spring/Summer) 2005.
31. For Western coverage of the Middle East see: Hafez 2000.
32. Contrasting War Coverage (2003).
33. This term was long present on the first page of the homepage
of Al-Manar (http://web.manartv.org/) and only eradicated after
France had banned the channel.
34. One Year After (Panos Institute) (2002), p. 17.
35. Fandy 2000, p. 388.
36. Chimelli 2004.
37. Ayish 2002, p. 150.
38. el-Nawawy 2004, p. 7.
39. Samara 2003.
40. Woznicki 2004.
41. Seale 1987; Seale 1988.
42. Wolfsfeld et al. 2002; Shipler 1986.
43. One Year After (Panos Institute) (2002), p. 24.
44. Telhami 2002.
45. Deutsch-arabischer Mediendialog 2004.
46. El-Nawawy/Iskandar 2003, p. 54.
47. Rugh 2004, pp. 29-41.
48. Selber/Ghanem 2004, p. 2.
49. Ibid., p. 9.
50. Hafez 2001b, p. 8 f.
51. Mody 2003, pp. 1, 21, 137, 177, 180, 214 –15, 247,
52. Aljazeera Code of Ethics (http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/07256105-B2FC-439A-B255-D830BB238EA1.htm).
53. BBC Producers' Guidelines (http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/).
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University in Cairo during the Conference on "The Media
and Political Change in the Arab World", Cambridge Arab
Media Project, Churchill College, Cambridge University, 29-30,
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56. Rhodes/Chapelier 2004, pp. 82-84.
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