Issue No. 1
Fall 1998
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Transnational Broadcasting in the Arab World

Transcript from a discussion held in Cairo, June 1998, with Douglas Boyd, Roger Gafke, Suzan el Kalliny, Daniela Khalaf, Saad Labib, John Merrill, Mounir Nasser, and TBS senior editors S. Abdallah Schleifer and Hussein Amin
about the participants

S.A. Schleifer: Transnational broadcasting in the Arab world raises questions on the use of the media to deliver political messages across borders. Does this cause communication wars between different Arab states, as in the days of Nasser, when radio was used as a propaganda arm? How do politics and the new satellite channels relate?

Douglas Boyd: Whenever there is crossnational broadcasting in the Middle East, specifically in Arabic, there is a political message, and because Arabic is such a beautiful and somewhat vague language thereís room for interpretation. So within the Middle East transnational broadcasting is always going to be politically sensitive and carry political messages, because most of the broadcasters are themselves the governments, and therefore they have their own, to use the American term, spin on things.

Mounir Nasser: The satellite channels are a new phenomenon in the sense that they have dominated every household in the Arab world—everyone is watching. MBC, al-Jazeera, ART. This is having two effects: one, it is killing the local stations and their influence—nobody is watching Jordanian television or Palestinian television, or for that matter Egyptian television because they are spending their time with the Arab satellite stations. The most popular is the open forum debate shows, where everyone calls in with questions, especially with sensitive topics—freedom, democracy, free press. People call in for the first time. These stations are providing a forum for people to call in and ask things they couldnít on their own local TV. So this is becoming a new phenomenon and making many Arab countries and Arab governments very nervous.

Schleifer: I noticed that with Emad el-Deebís show on Orbit. That was probably as much the source of its popularity as anything, the ability of people to call in and directly challenge or question the speakers.

Boyd: Some of these discussions are quite lively, and probably are almost shocking—not the language or the discussion but the fact that they happened at all. These programs are getting peopleís attention. But that does not mean, in my view, that people are turning away from local news. Saudis, for example, are watching satellite television, but also watching the local news because thatís part of the idea of surveying oneís environment. You need to know what is happening locally, even if the government is saying it.

Nasser: I read an article by Amin Huwaidi in al-Sharq al-Awsat [newspaper] saying that Um Khulthum, when she used to sing on the last day of every month, she used to unify the Arab world--people would drop everything they were doing to sit and listen. Now the satellite stations are taking over; theyíre doing the same thing, which is unifying the Arab world. For example, maybe Iíve never seen somebody from the North African countries, like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia. Now I watch them, they call in and debate, so Iím exposed as an Arab viewer. Itís something new to me. Iím able to listen to people from the Gulf, from Syria, Jordan, Algeria.

Schleifer: One could suggest that to certain degree the pan-Arabism that failed on any ideological and revolutionary claim is at least in appearance re-emerging as the product of commerce and the media.

Daniela Khalaf: You just said watching all the satellite channels brought the Arab world close—in a sense I know more about Oman, or Yemen, where they are, what the people look like. I think we have the same experience inside Palestine with radio—the reason for the success of radio was that people inside the West Bank, or Gaza, they never knew about each other. We are all under occupation; I thought in Ramallah that my problems are the same as in Hebron, or in Bethlehem but I never really thought about it. But with radio, the phone-in programs, you get calls from the West Bank, from Gaza, and this tells you that we all share the same problems, so its easier to look for the same solutions or a unified solution. It did help bring the people together. So in a sense, in Palestine, the radio still plays that role, regardless of whether or not we need a satellite channel now, and I donít think we need it yet.

Boyd: I was in the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) radio studio and heard live a call-in program from families of Palestinians who were imprisoned in Israeli jails. The Arab prisoners are allowed a radio, and for seven hours a day families can call in with family news. And itís one-way information, but itís the mother, or the spouse talking about the familyís health, whoís died, whoís been born, all the family news, which is a great service--and probably for the Arab speakers in the area makes for some very interesting listening, with a lot of personal information being revealed on the airwaves...kind of a soap opera.

Schleifer: Why donít you think Palestine needs a satellite channel? Everybody is watching the satellite channels. Why canít they watch yours—or their own, so to speak?

Khalaf: If weíre not ready to have local TV I donít think weíre ready to go international. It will end up giving a wrong stereotype about the Palestinians if we arenít professionally ready to go out with the TV we have in mind. It will end up easy to control. You asked the question about how the media was used for PR. I think the media does involve some kind of PR. Each country is trying to look its best over its satellite channels. Saudi Arabia doesnít necessarily look like that, or Lebanon, or anyone.

Schleifer: More than PR—for political warfare. The station we most appreciate for introducing debate and free discussion and Western values, ironically, is the one that is most conducting political warfare, al-Jazeera. Because in a context of state ownership and repressive press policies, to have a station which openly flaunts free discussion is a form of political warfare against the other regimes, particularly against Saudi Arabia, which we know Qatar does. So thatís a sort of irony, that if there is political warfare going on, itís going on in the most subtle manner, and probably Qatar is the most successful practitioner of it. Because no one would think of that--you think of Qatar, then, as the great citadel of liberal discussion.

Nasser: The other day they had an interview with Sheikh Jassem Bin Hamed, their foreign minister, on al-Jazeera, and they asked him this. A well-known writer called from Kuwait and said, youíre using this as a political tool for your foreign ministry to wage wars against other regimes. He said no, I have nothing to do with it. They have their independence, they can do whatever they want. But these stations do have lines they cannot cross, and they know when to stop. We canít say that they are totally free. But I think that what made these stations so very popular is that for the first time in the Arab world they allow the participation of the people in a debate—it all used to be from top to bottom, the audience never had the chance to participate.

Khalaf: Then the criticism of that is that you canít run a TV station with 12 to 17 hours of talk shows. Itís too many talking heads. All the programs are different names but the same thing. The news bulletins take up maybe twenty minutes.

Schleifer: Thatís a trend. CNN has moved in that direction tremendously in the last two years, the reason being that the repetitiousness of news gets boring, so they get more into Q&A.

John Merrill: How much controversy do you really get? Or do you just get the same sorts of things? Itís lively, but how pertinent is it to the real issues? How much do these people who are participating know? In our country these call-in shows are drawing a great deal of criticism because people are just sharing their ignorance with everybody.

Schleifer: Here as I understand it you usually have a panel of two or three experts who have a debate and then take calls. Imagine something like Crossfire with phone calls.

Nasser: And with very highly qualified experts.

Khalaf: [The audience] is getting both opinions and information, because they do introduce studies, they do mention sources, at least the moderators.

Hussein Amin: And in the Arab world the illiteracy rates are very high, so itís a good way of obtaining information.

Saad Labib: I believe that these new talk shows on some television channels do have an impact, at least on the most enlightened segment of viewers. They represent a new source of information and alternative viewpoints on current events.

Schleifer: So your assessment of these shows is that the intellectual content runs deeper than, say, a similar show in America.

Nasser: Thatís right, because itís not just shouting at each other about politics. Here they deal completely with real issues facing the society.

Labib: But these issues aired go right along with the general philosophy of the programs, which in turn go along with to the broad policies of the state—or at least they do not oppose them. The groups within Arab society that benefit most, despite their relatively small numbers, have a fairly significant impact on other segments of society, but usually this is not a decisive impact.

Khalaf: But if we look at the the civic education, the effect that it will have on peopleís thinking when they see two people arguing or see this open criticism, I think youíre creating an attitude among people. And itís really a marvelous job in terms of attracting viewership.

Merrill: What is the main purpose of it? Is it to unify the Arab world, or to create a kind of intellectual friction?

Khalaf: Well, itís more news oriented, with lots of chance for open criticism. This is something weíre not used to in the Arab world. You donít get the true news in the Arab world, and you never hear criticism—and thatís what theyíre doing at al-Jazeera. But I disagree with the fact that they donít have women on the talk shows, you only find them reading the news.

Roger Gafke: What is the set penetration in the region, in terms of people who are able to receive satellite broadcasts? Satellite reception in our country is very low, partly because of cable, and a majority only get over-the-air broadcasts.

Khalaf: In Palestine it used to be very expensive, but now itís very cheap—one or two hundred dollars.

Nasser: I did a small survey in my class the other day. I have 50 students, and about 40 percent have satellite TV at home. And most come from very poor backgrounds.

Schleifer: I think that the higher penetration is because of the absence of cable and because of the absence of competitive alternative programming. It isnít a matter of choosing between a satellite program and ABC, CBS, or NBC, itís a choice between satellite or unbearably boring and restrictive state television news.

Letís move to our next question. Some experts believe that transnational communication in the Arab world will bring harmony between subgroups, eventually leading to a new unity of Arab culture—or a new uniformity, as to a certain degree American mass media has done in breaking down regional differences. Others think the diversity of cultures that transnational broadcasting reflects and spreads will do the opposite, in the long run causing Arab peoples to watch their own local and national broadcasting systems and be more concerned with local and national politics, culture, and identity. What do you think?

Suzan el-Kalliny: I think it will bring harmony and unity. In this age of information and globalization, the Arab world needs new perspectives. The field of communications depends on cooperation. Exchanging experts, ideas, and new technologies will bring the opportunity to compete with other countries through satellites.

Nasser: The influence of satellite transmission brings more harmony than diversity, in my experience. I hear intellectuals from Algeria or Morocco talking to people in the Gulf or in Syria or Lebanon, and I learn something new about their way of thinking, and see a bond created between them.

Merrill: I think so too, among the Arab communities. But what about the harmony between this cultural and another one, a global perspective? I donít think things are getting any friendlier because of the growth of international communications. I still believe that walls make good neighbors.

Amin: I tend to agree with Mounir. Right now we are amazed, we know about subcultures, subgroups in Morocco or Saudi Arabia. In the beginning, in the short term, we are recognizing and identifying with these groups, there is harmony, but I think in the long run we will see the differences, and these walls will be up again.

Labib: I think there are two trends in cultural unity. The various sources of Arab media promote greater intercultural communication. That is all that can be accomplished at this stage. On the other hand, the fragmentation of local media will not happen, unless there were no other alternate Arab media, since local media cannot respond to cultural media needs on a national level.

Boyd: I find that people in Jordan are primarily interested in things Jordanian--and the Palestinian question. People in Saudi Arabia are more concerned about the price of oil and preserving their local culture. People in Egypt are concerned about the economy and the peace process. And so on and so forth. Iím not really sure that transnational programming is going to alter this a great deal. People prefer programming in local dialects that take into account local sensibilities.

Schleifer: One school of thought says that transnational broadcasting will stop the ďinformation monopolyĒ of the West and result in a more balanced communication and exchange of information, a ďglobal village,Ē between East and West. Others argue that, although there is a chance for the East to reach the West, this reach is insignificant, and that cultural imperialism and cultural invasion are inherent in transnational media. What are your thoughts?

Khalaf: I think itís heading toward more of a global village. Itís giving more of a fair chance to people to present themselves to the world.

Schleifer: But if I were going to play devilís advocate, Iíd ask whoís listening, besides those of Arab origin.

Merrill: I think the imbalance will continue. The imperialism may be of a different nature, but it will continue. Just like we have a east-coast west-coast information imperialism within [the United States].

El Kalliny: But itís more balanced than in the past. The majority of Arab countries now have satellite or transponder capacities and can reach different countries abroad.

Boyd: I continue to say that the concept of cultural imperialism died and forgot to tell anyone. The idea in cultural imperialism is not so much that the West foists its television programs, radio programs, and music but also its blue jeans and Coca-Cola on the rest of the world, as a kind of conspiracy. Whatís actually happening is that these are just people who want to sell stuff, and for some reason people want to buy it. And if itís no good they wonít buy it. I think the revolution to a certain extent is better local media. Years ago, when a country would have very limited offerings, there might be a government monopoly—not just in the Middle East but also in Asia and other areas—and there was a tendency to want to see American programs, whether they were dubbed or subtitled. But the revolution has come in better local programming, and so what you see is regional production centers.

Schleifer: I would argue that what is offered up as an Eastern response to the West is still a continuum of Western culture. For example, the French were very upset about the high percentage of American programming they were receiving, but when they finally prepared their answer, a show called ďMonte Carlo,Ē it was nothing more than ďDallasĒ in the French language. It had nothing to do with French culture. They were very proud that they had responded to to threat of American imperialism, but I canít think of anything that more deeply implanted shallow American cultural values in France than that program. So even the counterthrust could in itself be a vehicle of Western cultural domination.

Amin: This is the same thing many scholars from the third world are really shouting about right now, the concept of Western imperialism in terms of media and cultural products. Because the Americans perfected these products to such a degree—itís like basketball in the Olympics, you have the Dream Team and then everyone else. But I think itís the responsibility of others, though—instead of complaining, they should try to present their own cultural products to the world.

Labib: It has become the prevalent trend in educational media, and in cultural, historical, and political relations to rely upon Western media sources. But continuing to broadcast Western media does not mean acquiescing to the ďcultural imperialismĒ of the West. Arab cultural values are being transformed despite that, especially on the national level. As far as any flow of information from East to West is concerned, it is limited in its effect so far. The reason for this is that it is tied to the first stage of the development of balance of power between the East and the West. This sort of balance is not in the interest of the East in all circumstances. For that reason, the influence of Western media will remain conspicuous, within the limits that I have mentioned.

Gafke: Most of the discussion here has had to do with state boundaries, with a close identification with the cultural. But you can lay on top of that the global economic considerations, and the national boundaries become a lot less significant; the national political leader becomes more of a civil engineer, because the economic part has gone global. And so will the cultural go global.

Merrill: It shrinks the pluralism—thatís what concerns me about globalism.

Khalaf: When you come here [to the Middle East] you see familiar symbols from home, like ads for Ford or Coca-Cola, but when youíre there you hardly see anything that represents the Arab world, and thatís whatís happening too on the satellite channels. We have to present ourselves as Arabs on a European or Western plane to be accepted, to be understood and be part of the global village. But the world should accept the 220 million Arabs the way we are, and we should stay the way we are until that happens. We donít have to change.

Amin: But we are not productive in terms of media products, with the exception of maybe Egypt. Thatís why popular cultural products of Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, dubbed into Arabic, are so successful. These are appealing to the people, so this is in a way a threat to TV production here, because they will reflect on our cultural products here.

Nasser: Regarding the impact of the spread of Arab satellite stations, I think they are going to limit some of the flow of Western cultural products, because people now are watching Arab stations more than they are watching channels directly from the West. But the danger is still there, because a high percentage of the programming on these Arab stations is of Western origin. I was reading the other day that many people in the Gulf now are calling their daughters ďCassandraĒ or ďMarie,Ē because they are so obsessed with watching these soap operas. And I think thatís dangerous, that we are being influenced by foreign culture to that extent.

Schleifer: Media and politics are often tied together in the Arab world. One could therefore argue that the Middle East peace process is affected somehow by transnational broadcasting in the region. Do you think this is true? If so, how? Letís look here at a broader definition of transnational broadcasting, meaning not just Arabic-language but also CNN, etc.

Nasser: The issue of the credibility of the news sources is very important. Palestinian listeners, for example, will get their news from the BBC or Radio Monte Carlo, but not from their local station, because they have a mistrust of their government media. If something happens in Palestine, like an eruption of violence, people will turn to the BBC and other stations because they are seen as more credible sources, and they think their own government will try to hide things. Surprisingly, many people will turn to Israeli radio to get information about whatís happening on the Palestinian side. So that has an influence on what happens in the negotiations—most of it is secret. Thereís a feeling that everything is vague, that the people are still in the dark.

Khalaf: I think itís true that the peace process is affected. In a sense, when you have criticism of the peace process coming over the platform of Arab satellite channels, for example, it will definitely affect the leadership in Palestine. Maybe not immediately, but they will bear it in mind, because they need the Arab solidarity, the Arab unification, the Arab support behind them. So they care about how they are covered on those satellite channels. Look at how the embezzlement issue was handled. Iím happy as a Palestinian that this issue was so open to the media, that the legislative council could talk about it, and Iím sure that the mediaís handling of this issue did affect the decision of the government to hand in its resignation. Because the world was talking about it. They are accountable not only to their own people but to the many people supporting them in the region, politically, socially, financially or psychologically. So they definitely should worry about how we are being seen, because it does affect the peace process.

Nasser: Look at President Arafat, when he talks to the international media, like to CNN. They use a different language when they speak to their own people. And I think the purpose of these international programs is to inform the people. When Arafat does something wrong, we donít read about it in our own press, on our own television, we hear about it from the foreign press.

Khalaf: But you hear it from correspondents there [in Palestine]. He doesnít arrest these correspondents. He wants the news to go out—maybe not on his own channel, because itís all governmental. But there is still an outlet coming from inside. BBC, NBC, al-Jazeera, CNN—they are located there.

Nasser: So in a sense that itself will affect the peace process. Arafat will be on his toes. He doesnít want his people to know about certain things, but they get information anyway from outside.

Amin: What about Arab transnational broadcasting going into Israel? Do you think it affects their decision-making process?

Khalaf: I know, since I work in the media, that they watch certain channels, because you get reactions on certain things. Or they ask where you got your information on certain things, they double-check. They donít censor what you do, but they do watch you. When you interview Israeli officials now they do worry about the public opinion of the Arab world, and they do care about transmitting a flow of information from an Israeli point of view. Even with a two-minute interview, they know it will somehow affect the peace process, because Arafatís support comes from the Arab world, especially financially.

Merrill: Of course, [Israelís] financial support is coming from the West, from the United States, so theyíre really concerned about U.S. public opinion.

Amin: Arab transnational broadcasting, like in any other region, must pay significant attention to property rights and privacy rights. How does this manifest itself in the region, and how are copyright laws affecting and being affected by the globalization of the media? Are they respected and enforced? We have claims from the United States that most countries are not paying attention to copyright agreements, especially with the introduction of the internet and transnational broadcasting.

Nasser: This is definitely a problem in the Arab world because of the lack of these agreements. Thereís no law to enforce.

Labib: Copyright protection is not sufficiently observed legally or in practice in most Arab countries. Individual and corporate property rights are usually ignored.

Khalaf: What do you think of the counter-argument that those who pirate and rebroadcast material are helping to reach many more people, those who donít have satellite?

Amin: Iíve heard people say that itís a good service for the people.

Merrill: Like Robin Hood.

Amin: Exactly—the Robin Hood Syndrome. But this is not right, and it will constitute a major problem between the Arab states, in particular, and the West. Officials must be aware of whatís happening, that people are stealing. This concept of piracy is not always clear.

Khalaf: And because itís not clear it becomes a habit; people start to think itís OK to use a piece of music for three or four seconds, even though itís not mine. Thereís no followup on it, and the danger is that it becomes normal, not an exception. TBS

Copyright 1998 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo