Arab satellite TV: promoting democracy or autocracy?

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A fascinating new phenomenon in the Arab World is the advent of satellite television, particularly the Arab-owned services that have added new dimensions to news reporting and debates on current political issues. Programmes from new stations such as Jazira, Dubai, LBC and Mustaqbal (Lebanese), MBC, ART, Orbit, ANN and others have revolutionized how Arabs at home receive news of their region and even of their own countries. Especially in Western Europe and the United States, Arab satellite stations that have made political reporting more transparent and factual are often described as ushering in a new era of political change and accountability. Maybe, but probably not.

Arab satellite stations have certainly expanded the range of news and views that are easily available to most Arab families in their own homes, but it is an over-optimistic over-reaction to conclude that these television services have impacted on the nature of political systems in the Arab world. In fact, they may be having precisely the opposite impact — they may be entrenching autocratic, top-heavy Arab political regimes, rather then loosening them and promoting democracy and accountability.

My observations as a working journalist who has spent his entire career working in the Arab World for Arab and Western media are that the Arab satellite channels, with very, very few exceptions, have essentially combined the worst aspects of American and British television with the worst aspects of Arab political culture, i.e., we have adopted the Western style of confrontational, argumentative television entertainment with the Arab tradition of absolutist, heated ideological debate. So, any night on the Arab satellite stations we can watch Arabs engaged in energetic debate about the hot issues of the day, such as Palestine, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon-Syria, American-Arab relations, Islamism, secularism, womens rights, and others.

These are hugely entertaining shows and shouting matches, but they do not have any significant impact on Arab political culture or decision-making by the existing Arab elites. This is because the media activities in our region are still totally divorced from the political processes. An Arab viewer who might change his or her mind because of something they saw on television has no effective means of translating their views into political action or impact. For the political decision-making systems in most Arab countries are pre-configured to maintain a pro-government, centrist majority that allows more and more debate and discussion of important issues, but maintains real decision-making in the hands of small elite groups who have managed public affairs and matters of state for some decades now. How many times in recent years, for example, have you seen any discussion of military vs. developmental budget expenditures in an Arab country?

The reality of political change and impact in the Arab mass media is, in fact, an illusion, because the liberalization of the mass media has also been accompanied by its marginalization and commercialization. It is striking, for example, how many Arab satellite stations now offer entertaining programs with beautiful young dancing girls in tight clothes, but I have not seen a single serious original documentary or really high quality pedagogical or civic education program. The concept of investigative reporting is totally absent from the Arab mass media — an important sign that suggests that the role of the pan-Arab media is to entertain, rather than to promote political accountability.

The pan-Arab satellite stations are not as revolutionary as one might think, because most of the information they offer has been available to interested viewers for many decades, through the good old media of radio and word-of-mouth. The political debates that appear on the satellite stations have been taking place in Arab homes and workplaces for many decades (except for the few frightening Arab police states where ordinary people fear even to talk openly in their own homes); and, easy access to Arabic- and foreign-language broadcasts from Arab, Israeli, and Western radio stations have always provided easy access to political news that was not provided by ones own national television, radio, or press services. Access to news or views has never been a problem in most Arab countries; the problem has been an absence of means of impacting on political decision-making, and that problem persists today.

Finally, the pan-Arab satellite services enjoy mixed credibility, because most of them do not apply standards of free and open reporting and analysis to their own home countries. As such, they may retard rather than promote real Arab democratization by providing a safety valve and a release of tension and emotions through the illusion of mass media liberalism. In the past, frustrated Arab citizens may have sought means of bringing about political change; today, people release their frustrations in part by enjoying the entertaining political and dancing girls fare of the Arab satellite services, which may induce new levels of lassitude and political lethargy in the Arab world.

The Arab satellite channels certainly are an important phenomena that must be analysed, but such analysis to date has been made mainly by foreign observers, and much of this has been superficial and impressionistic, rather than comprehensive and factual.

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