East Satellite Television
Upon hearing a Dutch diplomat recite a dismal litany of statistics indicating the current social and economic plight of most Middle Eastern states, a Jordanian academic heaved a sigh. “This is a triple tragedy, ” she said. “Not only are the figures bad, but they have to be collated by foreign agencies while governments in the region keep people in the dark.”
For human rights campaigners, the three tragedies are interlinked. Ideally, freedom of information should be a catalyst for all aspects of development by creating public awareness and encouraging transparent decision-making. Conversely, development should promote freedom of information by increasing the channels through which information flows. If this is the case, what are the implications of satellite television broadcasting for development in the Middle East? Although several Arab satellite broadcasters have been operating since the early 1990s, a sudden proliferation of new ventures since 1996 has inspired hope that the vicious circle of censorship and stagnation in the region might soon be broken.
By transcending borders, satellite broadcasts are technically capable of circumventing national controls. Several channels serving Middle Eastern audiences are based outside the region. A quick glance at the six leading free-to-air Arabic-language operators, however, reveals that, where free speech is concerned, ownership matters more than location. The London-based Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) belongs to Sheikh Walid bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. The latter is widely believed to have underwritten a large part of MBC’s costs.
The Egyptian Space Channel is part of an enormous state-run monopoly, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, while Emirates Dubai Television is state-owned. Of the two private Lebanese channels that expanded into satellite television at the end of 1996, one - Future TV - is part-owned by Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri. The second, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, is controlled by a board dominated by ministers and officials close to the Syrian government. Syrian military intelligence activities in Lebanon, in addition to the large number of Syrians currently watching Future TV and LBC, make trouble-free relations with Damascus a prerequisite for Lebanese media entrepreneurs.
If there is one exception to the rule of ownership by government or government proxy, the only candidate out of the six leading satellite broadcast channels is Al Jazeera, based in Qatar. Officially, this is an independent station, whose “only” connection to government is that it was promised five years’ worth of government loans. Unofficially, Al Jazeera’s output indicates that it has been given considerable scope. Its staff prioritize stories according to their newsworthiness, not their acceptability to local regimes, and much of Al Jazeera’s material is broadcast live. Newsworthiness criteria, however, are subjective, and Al Jazeera’s criteria may well reflect the Qatari leadership’s agenda for now. The paradox of Al Jazeera’s situation is that if it were wholly in the private sector its relatively independent approach might be curtailed.See also:
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