The Emergence of Middle Eastern "Geo-media"?

By Khaled Hroub, conference convener
Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies - University of Cambridge, UK

Over the past decade and a half the mushrooming of transnational satellite broadcasting in the Arab region has brought the entire Arab mediascape to a new phase. Satellite broadcasting has without a doubt left a remarkable impact on Arab societies. Among the aspects relating to this medium that have been analyzed are the manner in which it has raised the ceiling of the freedom of speech and broken through many known taboos; its harmonizing effect on pan-Arab identities and/or its encouragement of patrimonial ones; the manner in which it has provided a replacement for Western media dominance; the manner in which it has encouraged the fragmentation and/or the integration of Arab societies; etcetera. Arab governments by and large have become exposed to an unprecedented number of questions regarding their policies and the failures of these via programs broadcast within this new medium. In response, these governments have counterattacked, denouncing satellite broadcasters-mainly Al Jazeera-for being the mouthpiece of their opposition, who, in actuality, have been excluded from any other platform in the political process in their countries.

The significance and impact of this medium have also come under the continuous scrutiny of external players, mainly the United States. The rise of transterritorial channels coincided with the intifadas in Palestine and, later, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader context of the American 'war on terrorism." Thus, after initially welcoming this new medium as constituting a sphere of freedom, Washington has become increasingly anxious and critical of the role that it has played and continues to play. The current American administration has recently accused the main Arab TV channels, such as Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, of inciting hatred and mobilizing Arab public opinion against American policies in the region.

Over a short period of time Arab satellite broadcasting has come to occupy a central role in the political arena-locally, regionally and internationally. States such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt (and also Iran and Israel since both have set up Arabic-speaking channels) allocated enormous resources to compete at this front.

Discussion about transnational TV broadcasting can be found in almost all current political, cultural, and social discourse. Such discussions are either laudatory or critical. From political speeches of state leaders, to intense intellectual debates within academic and media circles, to the ordinary "chit-chat" of people in the street, the role of this new medium seems to figure high in everyone's expectations.

Interest in this medium and its impact cuts across all strata of Arab societies and goes far beyond their borders. Satellite broadcasting's crucial role in the presentation and analysis of foreign policies directed toward the region, current daily live coverage of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq notwithstanding, elevates this medium into a new strategic position. This is a new development where media is playing a significant strategic role, a role that goes far beyond its role in other regions of the world where the stakes for major foreign powers, principally the United States, are not as high as they are in the Middle East.. The peculiarity of the American military strategy and presence in the region, the mere existence, along with the American defense, of Israel, and the awkward and uneasy love-hate relationship between some Arab regimes and the United States all give this new medium a far greater scope than any medium before. Whether the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq constitutes liberation or occupation; the Iraqi attacks against Allied targets, resistance or terrorism; and the Iraqi Ruling Council, a legitimate national government or a mere puppet in the hands of the occupiers-the manner in which these issues and events are defined lies in the hands of this new medium.

What could such a portrayal do on the ground when the new realities are dictated by a powerful military force and other classical strategies? Quite a lot. One could safely assume that much of the unrest and political violence in Iraq is due to the media coverage. As a free and media-hungry society, Iraqis tune their televisions to Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and other Arab channels which transmit wider anti-American sentiment from all parts of the Arab world. Pro-American views are also given their fair share of the coverage but are far less influential in terms of size and argument. The outcome is an increasing shift against the American occupation, far surpassing the short period of rejoicing that came with the fall of Saddam Hussein. When the media comes to play a central role in affecting the interplay of local, regional, and international politics and partly re-orients the outcome, it no longer constitutes a medium providing purely news coverage process or information. Instead, it becomes a complex process that goes hand-in-hand or head-to-head with other grand strategies - it becomes "geo-media."

The presence of geo-media in the Middle East implies that the media is becoming a crucial aspect of international affairs in the region. It is not only a major tool of foreign policy but is sometimes the most important tool. Some small Arab countries have discovered that they can compete with big ones for leverage and prestige by pouring massive resources into media. The case of Qatar versus Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, versus Egypt is a telling example. Qatar is amassing far more prestige and political influence than its size or location would merit merely because of Al Jazeera. If in recent history countries used to rely on 'geo-politics' and/or 'geo-economics' to gain influence and dominance, in contemporary forms of globalization, geo-media seems to follow suit. Indeed geo-media is capable of attaining certain goals that were unattainable by means of other 'geos' simply because this or that state lacked those.

With regard to the aforementioned observation, The Second Cambridge Conference on Arab Satellite Broadcasting was held in March to assess Arab and Western TV coverage of the war in Iraq and to provide further insights not only at the 'hard' geopolitical and state level but also on various 'softer' fronts. Such media coverage must be analyzed and contextualized within the broader debate of Muslim/Western relationships. The media in general-TV media in particular-is increasingly becoming enormously influential in shaping perceptions and creating dominant discourses across the globe and specifically across binary divides, be they real or imagined.

In times of war, media is often brought under further scrutiny in terms of what role it should play. Should the media challenge official narrations, support them, or simply (and with tremendous difficulty) attempt to speak the "truth"? Such scrutiny has been evident in the wide-ranging discussion of media performance in the war in Iraq.

This war and its consequences has been a historic milestone in reshaping the Middle East and forming the future relationship between the West and the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether this historic juncture will further the hostile nature of current mutual perceptions between the Arab/Muslim world and the West or create positive new ones. The role of the new geo-media in this process is central. The manner in which it directs Arabic perceptions and attitudes towards the present situation in Iraq, inciting hostile reactions towards the war, is just an example of its growing power. 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