Uneasy about satellite television coverage of civil strife and economic hardship, Arab governments are trying to reassert control over the medium. Will a new regional agreement halt the satellite revolution? By Joel Campagna
Some of the most heavily guarded sites in the arab world are state television and radio buildings. In Riyadh, armed guards, sandbags, and a thick iron fence surround Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Information building, headquarters of Saudi TV. In the 1990s, when the Egyptian government fought a brutal counterinsurgency against Islamist militants, the government deployed tanks outside the Egyptian radio and television building in central Cairo. Newspapers are important in disseminating news and opinion, but it is television that has vast influence across the Arab world. With television’s ability to reach mass audiences in a region with high illiteracy rates, it’s no wonder that regimes have so closely guarded this strategic medium. Now, with the rise of satellite television as a popular avenue for critical news and commentary, a new front in the fight for press freedom has emerged.
Arab broadcasting was the realm of turgid news programming and state propaganda until the arrival in the 1990s of new satellite outlets such as Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. Despite being a target of government censorship and harassment, Al-Jazeera was able to provide millions of Arabs with unfiltered news and political debate. Today, the number of satellite broadcasters has grown into the hundreds, and viewership has jumped into the tens of millions as satellite access has become less costly. Although many stations are still owned or backed by governments in one form or another (Al-Jazeera among them), the region has seen remarkable growth in open discourse.
The trend might seem irreversible, but governments have worked hard in the past year to dispel that notion. Uneasy about coverage of inter-Arab political disputes, terrorism, civil strife, and economic hardship, governments are attempting to reassert control over a medium they believe has gotten beyond their control.
A strong, collective message was sent in February when Egypt and Saudi Arabia introduced a pan-Arab regulatory framework for satellite television stations at a meeting of Arab League information ministers in Cairo. The document, titled “Principles for Organizing Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region,” clearly targets independent and privately owned stations that have been airing criticism of Arab governments.
The 22-member council of Arab information ministers approved the document without dissent; Qatar abstained and Iraq did not attend. The charter seeks to forbid content that would have “negative influence on social peace and national unity and public order and decency” and would be “in contradiction with the principles of Arab solidarity.” Defaming “leaders or national and religious symbols” was declared out of bounds.
The document calls on each of the member states to take “necessary legislative measures to deal with violations,” steps that could include confiscation of equipment and withdrawal of licenses. How each government would enforce the new strictures was not immediately clear, but many appeared ready to implement its guidelines.
Momentum had been building since the 2006 Lebanon war to take action against satellite media, Marwan Kraidy, an Arab media expert at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a March piece for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Many Arab leaders found their positions uncomfortably at odds with public opinion that was being spread and amplified by satellite television. “When hostilities broke out, Egyptian and Saudi leaders at first condemned Hezbollah’s ‘adventurism,’ then backpedaled in light of Hezbollah’s resilience and the mounting civilian casualties of Israel’s onslaught. In the meantime, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television climbed to the top 10 in pan-Arab ratings, and live talk-show hosts struggled to prevent callers from heaping verbal abuse on pro-U.S. Arab leaders,” Kraidy wrote.
Popular frustration with Arab regimes is strong motivation for authorities to rein in satellite television. In June, Moroccan authorities enforced the spirit of the charter when they fined Al-Jazeera Bureau Chief Hassan Rachidi 50,000 dirhams (US$6,000) on charges of airing false news after the station reported that security forces had killed demonstrators during street protests in the southern city of Sidi Ifni. A month earlier, authorities forced the station’s Rabat-based regional news program off the air without explanation.
The biggest pushback has been in Egypt, traditionally a leader in Arab media and perhaps a bellwether for the direction of press freedom in the region. In April, Egypt’s government-owned satellite transmission company, Nilesat, stopped carrying Al-Hiwar TV without warning or explanation. Al-Hiwar featured talk shows such as “People’s Rights,” which invited human rights activists who had been harassed or persecuted by Arab governments, and “Egyptian Papers,” which hosted prominent Egyptian government critics such as editor Ibrahim Eissa and dissident judge Hisham Bastawissi.
Much of the Egyptian government’s concern centers on coverage of social unrest. Al-Jazeera and the feisty Egyptian talk shows that air on private satellite stations have zeroed in on sensitive topics such as the rising cost of food, a lack of public services and drinking water, and the hundreds of strikes, sit-ins, and protests that have rocked the country over the last two years.
“These TV stations played an important role in covering demonstrations and sit-ins,” said Egyptian journalist Wael Abrashy, host of the talk show “Al-Haqiqa” on Dream 2, a privately owned Egyptian satellite station. “The authorities are afraid of the spread of the culture of protests, particularly in light of the powerlessness of the official media. … Satellite TV stations have become the main source to raise awareness and to form a public opinion.”
On February 23, the privately owned Mehwar TV was barred from broadcasting its popular “90 Minutes” program only two hours before it was scheduled to air a live program on a pending antiterrorism bill. Producers from other talk shows on private Egyptian television complain of behind-the-scenes pressure from security services.
Regional outlets have come under similar pressure as well. In August, the Egyptian government censored a live show on U.S. government-funded Al-Hurra that was to feature democracy activists. In April, police raided the offices of the local production company Cairo News Company, which provides services to outlets such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC, and confiscated equipment. The company’s manager, Nader Gohar, was taken to court on the pretext that he did not have the proper permission to broadcast. The real reason for the crackdown was thought to be client Al-Jazeera’s coverage of labor protests in the northern industrial city of Mahalla Al-Kobra, which included footage of protesters tearing down a poster of President Hosni Mubarak. Gohar was later fined 150,000 pounds (US$27,000), although his company is still operating.
It was only five or so years ago that governments could shrug off satellite TV coverage because it reached only a small slice of the population. They focused instead on maintaining a stranglehold over terrestrial broadcasts. But today satellite television, especially in Egypt, is becoming a mass medium. A small cable costing the equivalent of US$4 allows a family to tap into satellite networks providing access to non-terrestrial airwaves. Each day, Egyptians eagerly await popular public affairs programs such as “90 Minutes,” ”Cairo Today,” and “10PM,” which air on local private stations and feature discussions of everyday issues affecting ordinary people.
“Three years ago, it was the terrestrial TV broadcasting that influenced Egyptian people, but now 70 percent of Egyptian people watch satellite TV stations,” said Mahmoud Saad, host of the popular program “Al-Beit Beitak” (My House Is Your House), which is privately produced and airs on one of Egypt’s state channels. “It takes only 20 Egyptian pounds to get the cable that gives access to these satellite TV stations. So the government no longer exerts media influence. That’s why it’s trying to regain control.”
The charter adopted by Arab information ministers was primarily a message to the satellite stations: Governments are ready to push back. But it also provided Arab governments with impetus and a legal structure to impose specific restrictions. Egyptian authorities have already drafted new “audio-visual” legislation that would bar broadcasters from airing material deemed harmful to national unity and public order. The bill, pending in late year, would allow the government to impose fines, confiscate equipment, or shut down stations as penalties.
The coming year should provide a clearer picture of whether the Arab satellite revolution is sustainable or whether governments can put a harness back on the medium. If history is a guide, authorities will try to single out broadcasters for censorship and harassment, impose restrictive new laws, and thwart meaningful efforts to privatize radio and television.
But authorities may find themselves going against the tide of viewer expectations. One-sided, one-dimensional content is not likely to satisfy Arab viewers any longer. Proponents of free airwaves can take advantage of the public’s higher expectations to fight restrictive legislation as it arises in individual nations. Investors can push for higher quality and greater diversity in satellite stations. And, as part of their engagement on political reform, the United States, the European Union, and others can seek true privatization of broadcast outlets, not simply cosmetic reforms that put regime cronies in control of the airwaves.
Joel Campagna was senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He reported from Egypt and Tunisia in 2008.
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA: Regional Analysis
Pre-empting the Satellite TV Revolution
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA: Country Summaries
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