Background Note on the Arab Media:
The centrality of trans-border broadcasting
Khaled Hroub - Director Cambridge Arab Media Project, Cambridge, UK
The rise of Arab satellite broadcasting in recent years has become a tantalising phenomenon in the Middle East with hundreds of TV channels transmitting a wealth of material daily. Arabsat, the main satellite that provides services to these channels, is now ranked among the top ten global satellite operators. According to Arabsat statistics, in the 22 countries of the Arab world, with 150 million adult consumers, 140 million are TV viewers and 51 million have cable and satellite dishes.
Almost at the same time as the first Gulf War in 1991, the first trans-territorial Arab station, the Middle Broadcasting Centre (MBC), began transmitting from London. Semi-officially Saudi owned, the station offered a moderate editorial line on news coverage and analysis along with a variety of other programming. Yet, by virtue of its cross-border outreach, the portrayal of many Arab issues has occupied a considerable amount of airtime, including the first Palestinian intifada, the American invasion of Iraq and its aftermath and the rise of Islamism. Given that the nature of MBC’s content was kept in check by the Saudi-sensitive editorial line, the real revolution in coverage of these, and other controversial issues, came with the launch of Al-Jazeera from Qatar in 1996. Driven to imitate or compete with Al-Jazeera, the number of Arab trans-border TV stations has since mushroomed in the region. The phenomenon of trans-border broadcasting channels has since become a salient feature of the socio-political and cultural landscape of the area.
The hundreds of Arab TV channels that pour out news, analysis, talk shows, documentaries and a variety of other programming can be categorised into four groups: news, variety, entertainment and religious channels. In addition to the material transmitted by the latter category, the screens of the first three groups strongly feature religious programmes and material as well. From another perspective, yet in crude comparison, religious and entertainment channels compete fiercely and are at loggerheads. However, the religiosity of Arab TV channels manages to hold sway because of the socially and culturally conservative nature of the leading news channels; Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al-Manar, and others).
One of the greatest achievements of the rising phenomenon of trans-border TV broadcasting has been the provision of a new platform for free debates and news. Compared with previously state-controlled media, the new channels have broken with the repetitive and dull coverage of leaders’ activities and royal family speeches. Dissent voices in the Arab world have finally found a platform to speak out, yet with certain limitations and without levelling the same degree of criticism to all Arab governments.
Another great achievement that has been realised by the new TV stations and their wide and strong network of correspondents, is breaking the monopoly that Western media corporations used to enjoy over the coverage of news in the region. This has been a historic transformation. News from the region used to be collected by Western media, sent back to their headquarters in Europe or the US, and then re-routed to Arab media outlets. For the first time in the coverage of Middle Eastern news, consumption of the ‘final version’ by Arab audiences has bypassed Western editorial desks. In the case of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the irritation in this ‘uncensored’ direct process of broadcasting, and its impact in building anti-war sentiment in the region, has culminated in the targeting and bombing of Arab media offices. The coverage of these two wars in particular, with the images of thousands of innocent Afghanis and Iraqis killed, and those of the ‘Islamic resistance’ to American troops, has surely mobilised religious anger and sentiment. Many commentators on Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi, have portrayed the American invasion in a religious context.
Other TV channels that are defined as ‘Islamic’ channels by virtue of their objectives and content (such as Iqra’, Al-Majd, Al-Nas and Al-Risala) also have considerable impact on the ‘Islamisation’ of the public sphere in many Arab countries. By contrast, numerous entertainment channels that only broadcast Arabic and Western pop music, songs, and dance attract the younger generations in a more secular and Westernised direction. Thus, as opposed to what religious channels are doing, entertainment broadcasting is engaged effectively, if not intentionally, in the process of the ‘de-Islamisation’ of society. This creates a sharp cultural and social polarity across the open Arab airwaves. ‘Preaching faith vs. promoting moral decadence’ is how many people would describe the daily rivalry between religious and entertainment broadcasting. Notwithstanding the fact that this depiction in itself is value-laden and entails a measure of over-simplification, it nonetheless captures the media/faith scene of present Arab TV transmission.
Bearing in mind the pan-Arab reach in the transmission of trans-border Arabic TV channels, and the relative freedom with which they transmit news, religious or entertainment material, the role of this media in shaping prevailing Arab perceptions is fundamental. A central area in the forming and re-reforming of predominant perceptions is the debate on the secular versus the religious in public life. This ongoing debate is not being shaped merely internally, but external factors such as relations with the West and Western policies vis-à-vis the region are also heavily involved. These external factors and their manifestations have been exploited by radical and politicised fundamentalist elements, and of course their media.
The incorporation of foreign affairs news on leading TV channels such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya has been largely linked to their nature as pan-Arab media outlets. They are ‘nation-stateless’ without having any ‘domestic’ agenda focused on one central country. The vacuum created by the lack of local news items has been filled by further news coverage, news debates and talk shows that primarily tackle general Arab issues that appeal to a wider Arab audience.