THE WORLD THROUGH THEIR EYES
Feb 24th 2005
With 150 channels to choose from, Arabs are arguing, comparing and
questioning as never before. Will this burst of freer speech bring
democracy any closer?
THE dusty little town of Laayoune lies at the extreme western end of
the Sahara desert, or about as far as you can get from Arabia and still
be in an Arabic-speaking land. Before this century its only links to
the Arab east were shortwave radio, old newspapers, the occasional
Egyptian movie, and the talk of pilgrims returning from the HAJ. But
now the clamour of places such as Beirut and Baghdad has come to
Laayoune's doorstep: indeed, right into its living rooms, 24 hours a
Across the Arab world, the impact of the satellite dish has been
profound. It has not merely broken the isolation of Laayoune and
countless other towns and villages (roads and telephones can do that).
It has not simply exposed their people to extremes of behaviour, from
stark pornography to fervid fundamentalism (the internet can do that).
Satellite television has created a sense of belonging to, and
participation in, a kind of virtual Arab metropolis. It has begun to
make real a dream that 50 years of politicians' speeches and gestures
have failed to achieve: Arab unity.
That dream remains, in fact, a distant prospect. Despite lofty talk,
the ties that bind Arabs remain largely ones of sentiment and memory,
as well as the broadly shared Muslim faith and Arabic language. Yet all
these common things are strengthened by satellite television.
Arabic is a diverse, richly layered language. Natives of Laayoune still
speak their local dialect. But now that they hear a range of usages
every day--from the classical speech of literature to its many regional
derivatives--these no longer strike them as over-formal or exotic. The
written language taught in schools, known as modern standard Arabic,
used to be forgotten in daily affairs. Now it has come alive as a real
spoken tongue, accessible not just to the educated few, but to
For religious instruction Arabs are as likely, now, to tune directly to
Mecca as to seek opinions from the neighbourhood mosque. They may
follow one of two private Saudi-owned channels that propagate the
kingdom's arid take on the faith. Viewers bored by bearded sheikhs may
turn instead to TV preachers such as Egypt's Amr Khaled, whose
similarly conservative message comes packaged in a snappy blazer and
Such satellite fare has speeded the homogenisation of Muslim religious
practice. In January, for example, Saudi religious authorities abruptly
announced, a day earlier than expected, the start of the Muslim lunar
month of Dhu'l Hijja. During four days of this month pilgrims perform
the HAJ rituals at Mecca, while fellow Muslims celebrate the Eid
holiday. In the past, other governments could have ignored the Saudi
call, citing reliance on their own astronomers. But the HAJ is now
broadcast live. Despite the global chaos as millions scrambled to
change their Eid plans, every Muslim country except Indonesia felt
obliged to follow the Saudi line, for the simple reason that their
people could see their co-religionists gathered at Mecca's Mount of
Local issues still inflame passions in places like Laayoune. But so do
the travails of Iraqis and Palestinians, 3,000 miles away. Saturation
coverage has made provincial Arabs as keenly aware of the issues and
personalities involved as the cafe pundits of Cairo and Damascus. And
when the politically minded of the Arab periphery think of making noise
about their own concerns, their preferred forum is now not the local
press. It is chat shows and news bulletins beamed from distant Qatar
and Dubai--home, respectively, to the Arab world's two most popular
news channels, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.
Al-Jazeera, by far the best known among some 150 Arab satellite
channels, boasts 40m-50m regular followers. The entertainment channel
MBC has even more. When their smaller rival, Beirut-based Future TV,
ran a song contest last summer, 15m viewers voted on the outcome: more
Arabs than have ever cast ballots in a free election.
The winner of the song contest, a Libyan student of dentistry, was
instantly, if briefly, the most famous Libyan in the world after the
country's leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. This underscores another
reason for the potency of Arab satellite TV. Until a decade ago, rulers
such as Mr Qaddafi were assured of captive audiences. The only critical
voices were likely to come from Bush House in London, via the BBC's
Arabic Service, or from the French government's racier Radio Monte
Carlo, or from the propaganda broadcasts of neighbouring, hostile
Nearly all Arab states maintain terrestrial broadcasting monopolies
(Iraq and Lebanon being the exceptions). By and large, however, the
Arab public has exercised technology's gift of choice to leave the
dowdy old state channels in the lurch. Sniffing this wind, many of the
region's ubiquitous ministries of information have launched their own
satellite channels. The Egyptian government's mammoth media organ, for
example, boasts no fewer than 25. Satellite competition has also
persuaded state broadcasters to offer flashier graphics, more field
reporting and coverage of leaders that is less adulatory.
None of this, however, can contain the impact on Arab media consumers
of an ever-widening range of choice. It is one thing to learn of
different, perhaps attractive, lifestyles in foreign cultures by way of
Hollywood movies; it is quite another to see them being practised next
door. Even the most purdahed of Saudi women are liable to observe that
driving cars, forbidden to them, is quite normal for their sisters not
only in distant, decadent America, but also in nearby Kuwait or Dubai.
Syrians or Egyptians can see that real elections take place not just in
rich Christian Europe, but in neighbouring Palestine and Iraq. Such
innovations are no longer perhaps just for people "like them", but for
people "like us".
It is not just inadvertent imagery that can induce a certain
restlessness. The most popular programmes on Arab satellite TV happen
to be those whose interest in posing questions, and stimulating
appetites for change, is pretty frank. The pioneer, and still the
leader, in this kind of programming is al-Jazeera.
This current-events channel, based in Qatar, began broadcasting in
1996, when it luckily picked up much of the London-trained manpower
from a stillborn venture by the BBC into Arab satellite TV. Generously
funded by Qatar's liberal-minded emir, and given a long leash,
al-Jazeera burst on to the scene with a shockingly new approach. It was
slick and fast-paced, serious and playfully critical. It presented
contrasting, often clashing opinions, yet from a pan-Arab viewpoint. It
dug into buried corners of the Arab past. And it had reporting from
around the globe.
Particularly appealing to the Arab public was a programme called "The
Opposite Direction", a 90-minute showdown between guest opponents,
where viewers were encouraged to call and join in. A recent trailer for
the programme posed typically blunt questions: "Why is it that when an
Arab leader dies, people moan and wail as if the nation can't live
without him? What have these leaders ever achieved for us? Aren't they
symbols of corruption and backwardness and tyranny?"
The loud airing of such talk has had a cathartic effect not just on
Arab audiences, but on the profession of journalism. "The fact is that
before us the Arab media were controlled by political and security
apparatuses, which dictated what went in," says Jihad Ballout, the
channel's spokesman. "Al-Jazeera transgressed all that. People suddenly
had access to all kinds of information that had been suppressed for 40
years. This forced regimes to grudgingly allow a bigger margin of
freedom." His view is widely shared.
Inevitably, al-Jazeera came under attack. When its reporters broke an
Arab taboo and interviewed Israeli officials on camera, some said the
channel was a Zionist conspiracy. Others whispered that it was
controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, pointing to the prominence in its
religious programming of Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric with past
links to the group. Numerous governments, alarmed that al-Jazeera
granted airtime to their opponents, clamped restrictions on its
reporters and warned advertisers to spend their money elsewhere.
Al-Jazeera's popularity grew nonetheless. A first big boost came with
the outbreak of the Palestinian INTIFADA in October 2000. Al-Jazeera's
live, graphic reporting of the bloodshed riveted Arab audiences,
prompting a region-wide groundswell of sympathy for the Palestinians. A
year later, its lucky decision to open a bureau in Kabul gave
al-Jazeera an exclusive window on to the launch of America's own war on
terror. Being Arab and Muslim, its reporters gained privileged access
to the losing side on the Afghan front, and it became the outlet of
choice for Osama bin Laden in his efforts to rally Muslims to his cause.
TILTED AGAINST AMERICA
Soon after, al-Jazeera raised American hackles further with reporting
on Iraq that was similarly determined to give equal time to both sides
of the conflict. American officials who had previously praised the
channel's objectivity--a White House aide once described it as "a
beacon of light"--now accused it of being a mouthpiece for their
enemies. Al-Jazeera's slant could be seen not so much in its highly
professional news reporting as in the editing and framing of stories,
the angling of interviewers' questions, and the choice of sound and
imagery for the dramatic plug spots that fill time between programmes.
But this kind of tilt was, of course, just as evident in the
enthusiastic coverage of many American networks.
When American warplanes (accidentally, or not?) bombed al-Jazeera's
Kabul office and later its bureau in Baghdad, much of the Arab audience
assumed this to be a direct expression of American ire. These and
subsequent troubles--including the banning of al-Jazeera by Iraq's
interim government and the recent jailing, in Spain, of a star reporter
on charges of aiding terrorists--only added to the channel's mystique.
It was seen as the underdog, a besieged voice of truth.
Perhaps inevitably, this perception infects al-Jazeera's style of
reporting. Its coverage of Iraq has often been emotional, and has
reflected a bias towards the Sunni, Arab nationalist view that sees
armed resistance to occupation as noble and legitimate. Yet, overall,
America's declining image among Arabs has owed less to al-Jazeera than
to unpopular American policies, and to Washington's ineptness at
selling them. Captain Josh Rushing, who was a military spokesman during
the invasion of Iraq, says now that his commanders should have realised
that the best way to reach Arab audiences was via al-Jazeera. "They
should have identified this as mission critical," he told an
interviewer from America's partly state-funded PBS network last year.
Amazingly, the American government still has no permanent,
camera-trained spokesman capable of delivering its views in polished
Surveys conducted by Shibley Telhami of Washington's Brookings
Institution have found little difference in the attitudes towards
America--or indeed towards most issues--between Arabs who watch
al-Jazeera and those who don't. He has even found that, in some Arab
countries, viewers of America's CNN were more anti-American than
viewers of al-Jazeera. The fact is that Arab audiences often harbour
what look, to westerners, like rather extreme views. According to Mr
Telhami, for example, al-Jazeera was the most popular source of news in
Jordan for coverage of the INTIFADA until 2003. But when it shifted its
news emphasis to Iraq, it lost many of its Jordanian viewers (most of
whom are Palestinian) to al-Manar, the bombastic satellite channel run
by the radical Shia militia in Lebanon, Hizbullah.
Indeed, al-Jazeera has often exercised a moderating effect. Mr
Qaradawi, its star preacher, recently excoriated a viewer who called in
to his show, "Sharia and Life", to denounce democracy and freedom as
"infidel" concepts. The channel refuses to air the snuff videos
produced by Iraqi kidnappers. Yet a recent (wholly unscientific)
electronic poll it conducted found that a shocking 80% of respondents
thought the killing of western hostages was legitimate. Perhaps,
suggests Mr Ballout, this is because al-Jazeera tends to attract the
kind of people who are frustrated at having no outlet for their
It so happens that a practical test of what Arab audiences really think
is now under way. For the first time, al-Jazeera has a serious,
dangerous rival. The competitor is not al-Hurra, an American government
channel beamed from Washington that has struggled, and largely failed,
to convince Arabs that it is objective. It is the Saudi-owned
al-Arabiya, a 24-hour news channel based in Dubai.
At its launch early in 2003, al-Arabiya looked very much like
al-Jazeera, but with flashier graphics. This was not surprising, since
the Qatari channel had set the standard, and al-Arabiya actually
poached some of its best-known newscasters. Al-Arabiya's coverage of
the Iraq war--which again, fortuitously, earned it an instant
audience--was also similar to al-Jazeera's.
Last year, however, al-Arabiya's owner, who happens to be a
brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, put a new, staunchly
pro-American editor in charge. Since then the two channels'
coverage--and particularly their coverage of Iraq--has diverged
A MUSCULAR RIVAL
Watching their contrasting takes on November's offensive by American
marines in Fallujah, for example, one might have thought they were
covering different events. While al-Jazeera focused on civilian deaths
and heroic resistance, al-Arabiya pictured the storming of a terrorist
haven. Before Iraq's election, the Dubai channel broadcast saturation
get-out-the-vote advertising, as well as a four-part exclusive
interview with the interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi. While senior
American officials shun al-Jazeera, President George Bush has twice
granted its rival exclusive interviews.
Al-Arabiya's chief editor, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, is unapologetic. "We
attract liberal-minded people," he says. "Jazeera attracts fanatics."
Officials at al-Jazeera hit back. "They are losing legitimacy fast,"
says Ahmed al-Sheikh, an impish Palestinian who is the Qatari channel's
hard-worked news editor. "Al-Arabiya can be more popular with
governments and get more access, but we can't compromise. We've got to
uphold our principles, and that is much more important."
In some markets, it is true, al-Jazeera retains its edge. A recent
survey of satellite news viewers in Cairo, for example, found that
while 88% watched al-Jazeera regularly, the tally for its rival was
35%. But more Iraqis watch al-Arabiya than al-Jazeera, and in the key
market of Saudi Arabia the two run neck-and-neck. The question of
access is also more important than Mr Sheikh admits. While al-Arabiya
is welcome nearly everywhere, al-Jazeera suffers under bans not only in
official Washington, but in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The
Saudis will not even let its crews in to cover the HAJ.
And al-Arabiya has another advantage: money. Its mother company happens
to own both MBC and Channel 2, the region's two most profitable
commercial channels. It is also beginning to earn significant
advertising revenue itself: $10m last year, it claims, which went some
way to covering operating costs estimated at around $75m.
Al-Jazeera, with a similar budget, earns no advertising income except
from some state-owned Qatari firms. The reason is simple. Saudi Arabia,
which is responsible for four-fifths of Arab advertising spending,
dislikes its politics. The kingdom's rulers also have little time for
Qatar's, whom they tend to view as too big for their boots.
While expensive to run, al-Jazeera may on balance have been good for
the tiny emirate. Qatar has gained both brand-recognition and a
reputation for tolerance from hosting the station. But taken together,
the accumulated bother of protecting and financing al-Jazeera appears
to be swaying the Qataris.
Recently, the emirate announced it was preparing to privatise the
channel. If it means it, and al-Jazeera is truly to be sold outright,
its buyer will be pressed hard to make a deal with the Saudis. That
would be a shame, because except for al-Jazeera, Saudi Arabia, through
various proxies and deals, holds a virtual monopoly of the Arab
satellite ether. In other words, Arabs may soon look back on the age of
al-Jazeera as an all-too-brief flowering of critical, independent