The Media and Democracy in the Arab World

DNW TV, Holland. (2000). Distributed by Films for the Humanities & Sciences, FFH 11205, Princeton, NJ. VHS. Lars Otten, director. 45 minutes.

Reviewed by Ralph D. Berenger

Before Control Room [see excerpts and review in this issue] there was the Netherlands' DNW-TV's "News World" program from 1999, which aired a segment that was among the first Western examinations of Al Jazeera, and the political world surrounding it in Qatar.

Repackaged as The Media and Democracy in the Arab World by Films for the Humanities & Sciences (and reformatted to play on US-made NTSC systems), the program remains strangely fresh nearly half a decade after it was produced. Perhaps that is because it makes references to US military action in Iraq while criticizing US foreign policy in the region. Not much has changed in the past five years.

The documentary covers such wide-ranging stories as the role of women in Iranian politics (including an interview with the then-prime minister's wife); the jihad in Afghanistan and Osama bin Ladin, who had showed up as a wanted man long before September 11, 2001; coverage of the first democratic election in Qatar; and a poignant interview with a lonely Egyptian camel herder in the employ of a super-rich Qatari. But it was Al Jazeera that clearly fascinated the documentarians.

Labeling Al Jazeera as the "CNN for Arabia," producers conducted interviews with Faisal Qasim, presenter of the feisty talk show "The Opinion and the Other Opinion," who gave his near-Jeffersonian views of media's role in democracy. To illustrate his point, the producers selected a segment of the talk show featuring an academic debating a political Islamist, an exchange that often degenerated into name-calling as the two guests shouted past each other in Arabic-directly to their particular audiences. In that regard, Qasim's show is not unlike televised debates between supporters and detractors during an election year in the US. "Democracy (in the Arab World) will come through media," Qasim opines.

Another familiar face to Middle East media-watchers was Salah Negm, at the time Al Jazeera's chief editor. Negm moved to competing Al-Arabiya in 2003.

Director Lars Otten's documentary has historical significance-although this is no museum piece-because he caught Al Jazeera in its formative years and froze in time those heady early days of the satellite broadcaster when it was riling governments throughout the Middle East-and the West.

For more information on the Films for the Humanities and Sciences series, click on www.films.com. TBS

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu