Effects of Satellite Television on Arab Domestic Politics
By Jon B. Alterman
This is a presentation prepared for the Arab Satellite Television Broadcasting
conference in Cambridge, UK, in November 2002. It is presented in its preliminary
form for the benefit of TBS readers, and not as finished research.
It was impossible to read
debates in the 1990s about political change around the world and not have a sense
that everything was about to change. Two main drivers of change were emerging:
the end the Cold War, and the explosion of communications technology. The former
held out the promise of an end to superpower competition and proxy wars around
the world. Regimes could no longer play one power off the other, and great powers
would walk away from repressive client states that they had supported for raison
d'etat. Changes in government in Ethiopia, the Philippines, and more recently
in Zaire, combined with the resolution of long-running insurgencies in Central
America, suggested we were on the verge of a sea change in international politics.
was the other driver. In the Soviet Union, authors famously relied on the samizdat
press - laboriously produced carbon copies of their manuscripts - to circulate
ideas. Increasingly inexpensive technology available in the 1980s and 1990s brought
not only photocopiers, but also fax machines, videocassette recorders, telephones,
satellite television and the Internet within the reach of an increasingly broad
spectrum of the world's population.
As a consequence of these
changes, in universities, think tanks, and even among governments, the idea grew
that we were on the verge of a new world order in which international conflict
would diminish and democratization would spread. Donald Chatfield summed up the
logic chain this way:
New patterns of information
dissemination follow highly decentralized networks, rather than the old hierarchical
structure. As a result, communication becomes more interactive, with less opportunity
for governmental or corporate intrusion. The absence of 'noise' in new communication
networks permits the flow of information with fewer ideological filters and allows
citizen groups to grasp a more accurate picture of political events.(1)
Just last year, David
Hoffman wrote in The New York Times, "Nothing raises more fear in a repressive
regime than challenges to the control of information. And nothing is more important
to the development of a civil, democratic society. Free elections may be a first
step in establishing rule of law, but there can be no multiparty elections without
a multiplicity of news outlets."(2) Much of the enthusiasm for the political effects
of a free media resembled nothing so much as the 1960s developmentalists' enthusiasm
for mass media. Daniel Lerner, for example, viewed the mass media as a crucial
vehicle for fostering "modernity" in the Middle East, because exposure to different
perspectives would create empathy and openness to new ideas, and encourage planning.
The effects of open media were not only to affect domestic politics, however.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously observed that two countries
with MacDonald's have never fought a war, and in the academic world, scholars
fleshed out the idea that democracies are almost invariably at peace with other
Were such deep changes
to occur, the Arab world would stand to gain greatly. For decades, the region
had been both locked in deep conflict and plagued by the heavy hand of authoritarianism.
Many Arabic newspapers had long ago ceased to be readable by the early 1990s,
and Arab television, for the most part, was a drab affair with fawning national
news coverage and third-rate entertainment programming.
But as we look now at
Arab politics and the regional media environment, one cannot help but be struck
at how little of the bright future came to pass. Authoritarianism remains the
rule in the Middle East. Freedom House, an American NGO, not only estimates the
Middle East to be the least free region of the world, but that levels of freedom
in the Middle East modestly declined in the 1990s while it increased almost everywhere
else.(3) Not only are meaningful elections a rarity, but states continue to use
arbitrary detention and torture to defend their interests. After a period of exploration
and experimentation, Middle Eastern media are more predictable and in many ways
less interesting than they were even five years ago. Like Western television,
and perhaps even more so, it has a predilection for sensationalism and spectacle
over public affairs. True investigative journalism remains a rarity, and a top
journalist for a leading Arab satellite channel lamented to me recently, "Our
work is judged on a political basis, not on a professional basis." Rather than
pushing for accountability among rulers, talk shows increasingly turn to commentators
with no responsibility, no constituency, and ultimately no positive vision with
which to lead the Arab world.
In addition, the explosive
growth in satellite television audiences appears to be tapering off. The shift
to digital broadcasting raises costs and makes some extant equipment obsolete,
and the clutter of outlets makes it increasingly difficult for any single outlet
to gain substantial audience share. Television remains a losing financial proposition
for almost all participants, meaning that only those who are governments or close
to governments can play successfully in the television field.
the rise of Arab media does not appear to have diminished conflict in the region.
There was a time when the Arab media was breaking down boundaries and providing
a regular forum for Arabs and Israelis to present their competing claims to historic
Palestine. This phenomenon has diminished, although not entirely ended. But interestingly,
polls by Zogby International indicate that regular viewers of Al Jazeera are more
positively disposed toward peace with Israel, despite the frequent vehemence of
talk show guests and the strong editorializing that seeps into the regular news
coverage. One reason for this may be that exposure to Al Jazeera's coverage brings
with it more information and a greater awareness of the nuances in the conflict.
One of the primary consequences
of the rise of Arab satellite television is the rising sense of regional solidarity,
or "Arabism from the ground up."(4) Arab television has brought the al-Aqsa Intifada
into the living rooms of tens of millions of Arabs, in addition to hundreds of
music videos and an Arabic version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Those programs,
as well as others, have helped define an increasingly developed common Arab culture
that has long been aspired to but never before achieved. Yet what is striking
about this growing solidarity is that most treat it as an end itself, rather than
a means to an end. Practical cooperation on necessary reforms in economics, trade,
education, and politics all to often remains a dream.
What accounts for Arab
satellite television having less of an impact than some predicted? Part of the
answer is surely misplaced optimism. One can hardly blame Arab satellite television
for failing to meet unrealistic goals that others had set for it. But I think
it is instructive to examine the ways in which the optimistic predictions were
wrong, and why. Doing so can help us understand better where current trends might
take us in the future.
I'd like to make six observations
about the medium of television, the Arab broadcasting environment, and the audience
for Arab satellite television broadcasting.
1) Television is fundamentally
an entertainment medium. The effect of increasing coverage of political matters
on television appears to have been in large measure to reduce politics to entertainment.
This is not a reflection on the Arab world specifically; many of the most popular
formats for political debate owe their origins to Western television. But television
has not emerged as a place where people create blocs advocating political change.
Mobilizing people requires them to participate in some action - sending a letter,
attending a protest, buying or not buying a product. Television is passive, and
people seeking to create actions have not been able to mobilize political action
using the airwaves.
2) Satellite television
stresses issues of regional solidarity over individual domestic issues. The
regional audience for satellite television creates a need for regional messages
addressing regional interests. For the most part, these messages have stressed
issues that build feelings of solidarity, rather than ones that divide the community.
There are many reasons for this. One is that regional broadcasters want to reach
the broadest possible audience. But another has to do with the disconnect between
the audience for satellite television and responsible political organs. Only a
minority of the audience for a station will come from any single jurisdiction,
meaning that calls for action affect a multiplicity of local authorities, each
with their own politics and local conditions to consider. The effect often seems
to be to reinforce authoritarian patterns of behavior among the populace. Lisa
Wedeen's monograph on domestic governance in Syria discusses at some length how
public professions of belief, no matter how cynical, create important appearances
of solidarity, guidelines for behavior, rules for belonging, and importantly,
induced complicity in the actions of the regime.(5)
3) Ownership patterns
have shifted little in the last decade. Satellite television continues to
be owned by states or those close to states, meaning that the prerogatives of
governments, rather than of publics, continues to dominate stations' agendas.
To a degree, the fact that viewers are not subjects of the state whose programming
they are watching gives them more freedom and independence. But a) programming
stresses broad issues of solidarity anyway, and b) the views of those who wish
to do away with the extant state system or contemporary politics have a hard time
finding an outlet.
4) The Arab public
remains cynical about media messages. When I lived in Egypt, the phrase kalam
gara'id [literally, "newspaper talk"] didn't mean news, it meant empty talk. Although
there are places where the media have improved markedly, the media do not enjoy
a high degree of trust anywhere in the Arab world.
5) Clear red lines
still exist. Independent media often push boundaries, and Arab media is no
exception. Satellite television stations have clearly broken new ground in important
areas: political leaders are held more to account than before, social issues are
aired, and opposing views are brought into the discussion. But some red lines
have proven more durable than might have been expected. For example, while there
is often debate between religious and secular figures, there is almost never debate
between religious figures. The effect is to present an image of a single and authoritative
religious viewpoint, when in fact many exist in the Arab world and in the umma
6) Representative politics
continue to get short shrift. Arab satellite television has not made media
stars of Arab parliamentarians, except perhaps Azmi Bishara. While one can certainly
enter into chicken-and-egg debates about parliamentarians receiving more attention
when they have more influence, and their having more influence when they receive
more attention, one does sense a reluctance to give too much coverage to parliamentary
politics, perhaps because of the sensitivities of large and important countries
in the Middle East. An unanticipated effect of this is that Arab publics have
an especially difficult time understanding American parliamentary politics, and
thus tend to discount the arena as one that has already been lost for Arab interests.
The observations I've
just made are just that, and not criticisms. In no way do they undermine the very
positive effects that Arab satellite television has had on the people of the Middle
East, to wit:
1) Local broadcasting
continues to improve. Satellite broadcasting raised the bar for local broadcasters,
who have had to adapt in order to preserve market share. Not only have their production
values improved, but their content has improved as well. The news contains more
bona fide news, and the range of viewpoints expressed has expanded. Without satellite
television, such an improvement would almost certainly not have taken place.
2) Censorship is no
longer a viable information strategy. For many Arab governments for many years,
the easiest response to unpleasant news was to squelch it. The ubiquity of communications
means that bad news must be confronted, and government lines must complete with
other narratives. This does not immediately create good government, or democracy,
but it creates an environment of greater transparency and accountability that
is very much in the interest of Arab publics.
3) More people are
aware of democratic experiments throughout the region. Elections in Qatar
or Bahrain make regional news, and have a regional impact. Israeli politics are
followed more closely than at any time in the region's history, and Palestinian
leaders and reformists have a disproportionate role on the regional stage. While
such coverage may not have immediate effects on national politics, in the longer
term it cannot help but shape people's understanding of possibilities for their
own political future, as well as their expectations from their own governments.
4) Young leaders see
the media environment differently. King Abdullah, King Muhammad, and Sheikh
Hamad and President Asad all view the media very differently than their fathers.
They do not seek to create a cult of personality or an aura of invincibility.
Instead, they demonstrate a comfort with a more open media environment that suggests
more openness will come to other countries in the coming years.
But we are now way in
the end game. Satellite broadcasting is on the brink of change in the region,
and several questions bear watching:
1) What effect would
a war with Iraq have, if one takes place? Will public protests change government
actions (either their own or the U.S.)? Dismay over Israel's Operation Defensive
Shield dissipated fairly quickly, but if there is a war, it will be covered better
than Defensive Shield and generate far more distressing images. Will those images
be well distributed? Will they have different effects in different places? Will
public opinion be decisive in the Arab world, which has not happened in recent
years? Will a government fall because of media coverage? If that happens, will
it affect the way states treat the Arab media?
2) What will happen
in the cultural arena? The cultural wars are not nearly over in the Middle
East, and one can expect pitched battles to define what is "authentic" and what
is permissible on an Arab outlet. If censorship returns strongly, it is much more
likely to involve social issues than political ones. There may be some resistance
to "Gulf Islam," or a to a general homogenizing effect among the religious community.
Also, look for creative synergies of modernity and religion that are well keyed
in to public needs. The media allows constant innovation and reinvention among
those putting forward ideas, and some are likely to succeed.
3) What will be the
effects of satellite television on domestic politics? In the Gulf, satellite
television has had very little effect on domestic politics, which are often intensely
personal and rely on cooptation of political opponents. In recent years, some
opposition figures have gained a foothold on the satellite channels of other states,
but there still seem to be few signs yet of the development of mass politics.
A Kuwaiti legislator still might reasonably be expected to know all of his constituents
by sight if not by name, and even Saudi Arabia has managed to maintain deeply
personal bonds between the governors and the millions of governed.
In poorer, more populous
states, media could help groups articulate their opposition to governments, and
propose alternative policies. Governments face increasingly difficult times mobilizing
public support, and many appear to have all but given up. Some governments seem
to aspire to "post-political societies." In such societies, there is broad cynicism
about politics and consequently few efforts to influence them. Politics is left
to politicians, who have a relatively free hand as long as they provide basic
One downside of this chain
of events is the possibility that open media presents opportunities for demagogues
to seize the public imagination. In the new media environment, there is a Darwinian
competition for attention, and new voices sometimes win out not because their
ideas are the most sound, but because they are most appealing to a broad audience.
In all of this discussion,
it is important to be clear what our timeframe is. Media develops over time, and
politics often take even longer to develop. When we talk about political and social
change in the Arab world, we need to be thinking not in terms of weeks and months,
but years and decades. Although television is made every day often for 24 hours,
one cannot judge its impact week-to-week, or even year-to-year.
Partly because of this,
trends are especially important, and the trend toward sensationalism at the expense
of political and economic change is a disturbing one. When more than fifty Arab
scholars cooperated in publishing the Arab Human Development Report(6) under the
auspices of the UN Development Program, it made only a small ripple in Arab media
circles. The report lays out in some detail the urgent challenges facing Arab
- education, emancipation of women, economic change, among others. But somehow,
it was perceived as "off message" by those who see their job as encouraging their
viewers to remain steadfast in the face of outside challenges. The most important
challenges facing the Arab world are those from within, not those from without.
The international Arab media can play a significant role bringing these issues
to the fore. So far, it has not. TBS
Jon B. Alterman is director
of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
a Washington think tank.