Over the past two decades, journalism has made tremendous strides in the oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian peninsula. Benefiting from generous budgets and advanced technology, private newspapers have flourished. Some are now counted among the most influential papers in the Arab world. But for the most part, journalism in the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)–Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–remains far from free. In these highly autocratic states, independent journalists are hindered by a variety of official and self-imposed constraints.
However, the citizens of the GCC are increasingly turning to satellite TV and the Internet for alternatives to suffocating official media.
BROADCASTING IN THE GULF
Saudi Arabia continues to exert considerable leverage over the influential pan-Arab media. Royal-family members and Saudi businessmen with close links to the royal family own several important regional newspapers and television stations. The prominent London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat and its sister magazine, Al-Wasat, are owned by Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, a nephew of King Fahd. Another influential pan-Arab paper, the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, is owned by Prince Ahmad Bin Salman.
In the TV arena, Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) is owned by prominent Saudi businessman Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of King Fahd. Two other powerhouse regional networks, Orbit and Arab Radio and Television (ART), are also Saudi-owned. All these stations avoid any programming that might offend the Saudi regime. Even news about political developments in neighboring Arab countries is notably restrained. Some observers contend that this stems from Saudis fears of provoking retaliatory attacks from media in those countries.
But this Saudi dominance of regional media has been significantly weakened by the growing popularity and influence of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel. Founded in 1996 with a start-up grant of $140 million from the Qatari government, the station has swiftly transformed the pan-Arab media scene through its bold, uncensored coverage of regional events. Tackling controversial subjects such as human rights, social and religious taboos, and the views of political dissidents, the station has become the most popular news station in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera has made it difficult for more docile stations such as MBC to maintain their pretense of objectivity.
The station’s hard-hitting coverage provoked a steady chorus of condemnation from Arab states. In June, Kuwait banned Al-Jazeera’s reporters from working in the country after an Iraqi caller criticized Emir Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah during a live call-in talk show. The station’s reporters were apparently prohibited from entering Saudi Arabia, and Saudi authorities banned all satellite transmissions at public coffeehouses in Riyadh in July, apparently to keep the station out of public view. The move followed Al-Jazeera’s broadcast of a program in which a Kuwaiti intellectual criticized monarchical rule in the gulf states.
Saudi authorities have adopted other, more subtle tactics to pressure Al-Jazeera. In the spring of 1999, the Saudi government reportedly asked Al-Jazeera’s Saudi-owned advertising agency, Tihama, not to place ads with the station and has urged other local advertisers to follow suit.
THE GULF ONLINE
Internet use in the gulf states continued to grow despite government censorship in some countries. In January 1999, Saudi Arabia allowed public access to the Internet after years of preparation, but authorities maintained tight control over the sites that users can access. In order to keep out undesirable material, the Saudis have instituted one of the world’s most thorough Web-filtering systems. Although private Internet service providers exist, all information accessed from the Internet must first pass through a government proxy server designed to filter out morally and politically undesirable sites. According to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, Saudi officials contend that the filtering system is designed to keep out sexually oriented material. Even so, “the site of at least one exiled dissident group, the Committee Against Corruption in Saudi Arabia, was reportedly blocked.”
The Saudi filtering system seems modeled on one already in place in the United Arab Emirates, where authorities also use a proxy server to weed out morally offensive materials. It is unclear to what extent the UAE system also blocks politically sensitive content.
The sudden death of Emir Sheikh Issa Bin Salman al-Khalifa in March was followed by the smooth succession of his son, Sheikh Hamad Bin Issa al-Khalifa. The political violence that marked past years in this tiny Persian Gulf archipelago appeared to be on the decline. So too did overt government harassment of journalists. However, self-censorship continued to hamper the press, which for the most part avoided criticizing the government and covering state human-rights abuses.
For the second time in three years, authorities expelled a journalist from the country, forcing former Al-Jazeera satellite television show host Hamed Ansari to leave Bahrain shortly after his arrival to deliver a lecture. The measure was taken in response to a show he had hosted earlier in the year, when a caller criticized the emir of Kuwait. Bahraini authorities had previously expelled DPA correspondent Ute Meinel in 1997 for quoting a London-based opposition group to the effect that the government planned to bomb Shiite villages.