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Tuning in to Arab TV


New communication technologies have transformed the Middle East media landscape and opened a path for profound political and social change in the region, say many experts. But journalistic standards still need to be mastered.

The 1990s witnessed the emergence of Arab satellite television that challenged traditional state controlled broadcast outlets. The region now boasts more than 300 satellite channels, which are often owned by wealthy individuals, political parties or religious groups. The Arab world has more TV news sources than ever before.

Many experts note that the profusion of television channels has brought a degree of freedom of expression rarely before seen in the Middle East. Some of these broadcasts have encouraged open debate on socially forbidden topics and given a voice previously unheard in the Arab media.

Sociologist Sam Cherribi of Emory University in Atlanta says that the rise of Arab satellite television broke state media monopolies. "There was a kind of revolution in the Arab world when it comes to satellite TV. It also changed the way people looked at the news, but also the world around them -- the society and the political configuration of their countries. What happened is that for decades in the Arab world, everything was domesticated controlled by the state. There was no freedom; everything was seen through the filter of the governments."

Arab media expert and journalist Hugh Miles agrees. According to him, “It was just what the president or emir or sheik did that morning. The news would typically start with him opening a new oil refinery or meeting a foreign minister. In Egypt, for example, the evening state news still looks like the Mubarak family show. You have the President and then you have his wife. And at the end of the news, you have a story about his favorite son. The standard of TV news was so low,” says Miles.

The Arrival of Al Jazeera

Many analysts point to the launching of Al Jazeera in 1996 as the catalyst for the region's media explosion. The Qatar government-subsidized satellite TV offers a 24-hour news service laced with controversial political discussions and debates, and live viewer phone-ins. It gives airtime to opposition leaders and Arab dissidents who largely have been silent in their countries.

Hugh Miles, author of the book: Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West, says Al Jazeera even provided a media outlet for Israel in the Arab world.

"Before Al Jazeera was on the air, Israelis were never allowed on. They were never given a voice. They were always dumped out or newscasters in Arabic reported their opinions,” says Miles. “Al Jazeera let them speak and be heard in their own words, which made the channel very suspicious in the Arab world. People wanted to know why it has broken this taboo, why it allowed Israelis to speak. But Al Jazeera said that the intelligence of the viewers needed to be respected and Israelis should be allowed to present their case in their own words. And not long after Al Jazeera started broadcasting, everybody else was doing it too.”

Breaking Down Social Taboos

Some analysts, including Ramez Maluf of the Lebanese American University in Berut, note that many other television stations are also breaching what used to be strict conventions in the Arab world.

"Taboos are broken in a number of ways not just by discussing sensitive issues, but also by having very dynamic, progressive women acting as talk show hosts by having people discuss different opinions about social issues, family issues, homosexuality, relations between religions, and mixed marriages. In the last ten years, I have seen a tremendous change in the way people discuss these issues openly and I think a lot of it has to do with satellite television," says Maluf.

But some media specialists contend that despite the proliferation of satellite TV channels, average news consumers are not informed enough about their own societies.

"Take for instance Lebanon, you can't really find out what's going on in the country. The news is a point of view. The average individual in Lebanon does not know information about corruption, electricity shortages and water shortages. Basic problems that affect the individual are not addressed by the media," says Nabil Dajani, a professor of communications at the American University of Beirut.

Dajani adds that most television stations, including Al Jazeera, have yet to find a way to turn a profit. He says their programs often reflect the interests of those who finance them.

Journalistic Standards still an Issue

Emory University's Sam Cherribi agrees. He says Al Jazeera's two channels, in Arabic and English, rarely criticize the Qatari government or royal family. And he says Al Jazeera in Arabic is neither neutral nor liberal. The channel, Cherribi adds, uses spiritual leaders to comment on religious as well as political matters.

"There is a predisposition in the Arab world to listen to religious news and religious programs. And if you want to have a bigger audience, indeed you need some religious programming. If they stop that kind of programming, I don't know what's going to be the future of Al Jazeera or any other Arab satellite channel," says Cherribi.

Still, many other analysts argue that the more open Arab media environment could be a boon to political change in the region. Philip Seib, a professor of Journalism and Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California sees it as an evolving process.

"What we'll have to see is whether people are stimulated by these media advances into getting involved in politics themselves and really changing the political system,” says Seib. “Media can't democratize. Political systems democratize. And that's the next big step for the region -- increased democratization institutionally. And perhaps the public pressure that evolves from watching all those talk shows and watching different kinds of news coverage will start exerting pressure on the political system.”

Most analysts agree that the explosion of satellite TV in the Middle East is a step forward.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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