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Arab Television Beams Pro-Democracy Images Across Middle East

Arab satellite television channels have been beaming images of voting and pro-democracy demonstrations across the Middle East, and analysts say this is promoting the possibility of a more democratic region that has long been associated with monarchs and dictators. But some experts say while pictures can add to the momentum for positive developments, the media are not a substitute for indigenous movements dedicated to changing domestic politics. Arabs throughout the Middle East have in recent months watched satellite television news programs cover events that could result in major changes for reform in the region.

Al-Jazeera and other Arab television stations covered free elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announcing that opposition parties will be allowed to run in upcoming presidential elections.

Arab viewers watched coverage of large demonstrations in the streets of Beirut, the redeployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon, and a withdrawal of Syrian intelligence agents from the Lebanese capital.

Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at Williams College who specializes in the Middle East, says television viewers identify with their fellow Arabs who are voting and demonstrating in the region.

"People protesting peacefully in the streets of Beirut and the televised images of those protests, that resonates with something which has been building over a 10-year period which I see this kind of al-Jazeera public, if that is what you want to call it, they identify with the Arab people, the Arab people and they cannot stand the Arab governments for the most part," he said.

In addition to covering images of democracy in the Middle East, al-Jazeera and other Arab-language networks have been criticized for airing videotapes made by al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.

U.S. officials have frequently charged al-Jazeera with airing biased reports about American policies and actions in the Middle East.

The chief Washington correspondent for al-Jazeera, Mohammed Alami, says his channel has come a long way since it was first launched in 1996, and its critics should recognize that al-Jazeera broadcasts a more truthful message than government-run Arab media.

"We have a lot of problems because we operate in a very, very difficult area," he explained. "But also, my main problem with our critics, they don't give us any benefit of the doubt. They don't give us any credit. I think al-Jazeera broke a lot of taboos in the Arab world. For the first time Arab people in their living rooms can hear their leaders trashed. After those local media and state-sponsored media painted them as gods and all of a sudden they are not as powerful as they claim to be."

James Zogby is president of the Arab-American Institute and is a senior analyst with Zogby International, a firm that frequently conducts surveys of Arab attitudes in the Middle East.

He says the idea that Arab television is simply an inflammatory device to communicate politics is an unfortunate stereotype.

Mr. Zogby says, as in many Western countries, Arab television viewers like to watch so-called reality shows and situation comedies more than news programs.

"The image of Arabs sitting at home hating America and hating Israel all day with news on is as real as Americans sitting at home all day watching Fox News and hating Arabs," he noted. "Some do. Most don't. The attitude is that if you watch al-Jazeera you have a more hostile attitude toward America than if you don't. The answer is no you don't. Actually, across the board, Arabs are angry at American policy. But do they like America? Arabs who watch satellite television actually like America better. Why? Because they are watching a complex menu of programs, many of which are programs coming from America."

Williams College professor Marc Lynch says television coverage of elections and demonstrations in Arab countries helps give momentum to the promotion of democracy.

But Mr. Lynch says pro-democratic political groups in Arab countries are needed to help bring about a permanent, positive change.

"The Arab media has done a lot to kind of create the underpinnings for democracy, but the Arab media cannot substitute for domestic, the hard work of domestic politics and democratic change," said Mr. Lynch. "I think that what you end up seeing is that what the Arab media can do is to help build the expectation, or the hope, or even a sense of urgency for democracy, but it cannot actually do all that much to bring it about."

Professor Lynch warns that hopes can turn into frustration if expectations for more democratic governments in the Middle East are not met.

Mr. Lynch says, as of now, he believes the underlying change in the region is moving in a democratic direction.