The Arab Viewer and Media Revolution



                                                                                   By Magda Maurice



For a large number of years, Arab viewers remained satisfied with what they watched on their local governmental channels, which presented them with one perspective that is its own.  The viewers either agreed with the viewpoint offered by their government or not; and in the latter case they looked for an outlet.  Now this outlet was restricted to what was made available by transmissions of radio stations that disagreed with the respective governments.  They were the only choice at the time because of the known difference between radio waves, which can reach all the corners of the Globe, and the horizontal video transmission that does not extend from one country to another unless they are very close to each other. Hence, some foreign radio stations became very popular among Arab citizens, such as the Arabic services of BBC, Monte Carlo and Voice of America.


  Arab citizens had to adapt to foreign television broadcast with the advent of satellite transmission, especially that most Arab countries started competing for the establishment of stations to receive it.  Their motive was either to be in step with the modern age, or to stop the harsh criticism they received and the accusations of their lagging behind world developments.  It was not left to individuals to adapt to the new transmission technology, for an event occurred that drove Arab viewers to quickly take a position and respond to it by owning satellite dishes and receivers.  That was the second Gulf War (Iraq-Kuwait), which constituted a qualitative leap to the Arab viewer when the then new CNN took authority of live broadcast of this war, the ensuing interference by the United States by attacking Iraq and the following up of current battles.  People could watch CNN at the time without a satellite receiver; a number of Arab States received it and rebroadcast it horizontally like any other local channel.  It presented the minute-by-minute developments of what was called Desert Storm.  Thus, the critical broadcasting authority was transferred from the governments to a foreign media with astounding specifications as to vitality, speed in following events and variety in programs, in addition to the amazingly advanced video quality and links and program introductions that were made using the most developed computer graphic techniques in the world.


We may summarize the above by saying that what happened was a great leap for Arab citizens. It put them at the threshold of a new media revolution embodied in the following:


1.It created a gap in the local news coverage system which had been going on for decades with no competition.


2.The position of the Arab viewer was changed from that of distant follower of news to one who is closer to the events, due to the modern communication techniques which allowed him/her a view of battlefields on site.  Arabs still remember the bombing of Baghdad at night and CNN’s correspondent, Peter Arnette.  He was the only reporter to cover the war from Baghdad; and he was enabled to do his job by means of live transmission to satellite and rebroadcast through a television channel, which was new at the time.


3.It placed Arab viewers in a new informative position by exposing them to the capabilities of modern media and the possibilities for variation in presentation and speed of movement towards an event.  This was completely different from the then current media.  Moreover, by rearranging their financial and media-related priorities, it caused a drastic change in the life of viewers themselves, which finally affected their position in current events and their cultural backgrounds.



The Advent of Private Channels


The Gulf War was the most important manifestation of the new media revolution.  It was also the main factor behind convincing Arab viewers of this revolution and their enthusiastic emergence from the cocoon of government broadcasts to the wide world of international television.  Some Arabs quickly realized the importance of this revolution, and it was from this point that the Saudi-owned MBC was launched.  Based in London, it was the first expatriate Arab private television channel.  Besides the significance of the presence of such a channel, it brought to life the aspirations of many Arab bodies that were observing the general situation, and especially the position of Arab governmental media authorities regarding the issue of live broadcast. It is known that some Arab governments prohibited broadcasts of this sort at the beginning and penalized anyone owning a satellite dish by confiscating it.  However, history cannot move backwards. Procedures of confiscation and prohibition were soon retracted, and were replaced by a more intelligent action.  Now government themselves began launching their own satellite channels to express their state mastership of space.  As usual, and within the frameworks of Arab governmental media, Arab governmental satellite channels express what may be called the permissible limits of state or semi-state media.  It is true that there has been a certain degree of courage and first-class professionalism at the margins of some channels, but the predominant formula of their work remained controlled by the above-mentioned framework for a good number of years. Early in 2001, however, the state-owned Abu Dhabi satellite channel succeeded in breaking out of the mold containing similar channels.



Arab Viewers and Satellite Television


At the outset of their broadcast, owners of CNN set out to build a base of viewers by following a known capitalistic method. They began to broadcast free of charge for a while and afterwards started to make announcements for bills.  In Egypt, for example, the network signed an agreement with the Ministry of Information by which their broadcast would reach all Egyptian homes at no charge as of 1990 and until the end of the Second Gulf War.  At the time, this was a trial broadcast for the first news network in the world in the history of television.  It constituted a breaking of ground and an exploration of the possibility of dealing with Arab viewers.  Following the end of the war, CNN terminated its free horizontal system broadcast after it had succeeded in building the required bridge with tens of thousands of Egyptians who immediately purchased dishes and analogue receivers either KU or C Band.  CNN’s trial broadcast was able to convince Egyptian viewers that watching it entails access to news and events that are unobtainable through local television.  Moreover, it gave viewers a sense of confidence in being on equal footing with European and American viewers, or at least with the elite who watch this channel in English.


While the language barrier prevented the increase of CNN’s popularity in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world to the maximum, it had a strong influence on the elite working in visual and printed media especially political analysts.  Those deeply believed that this channel has been an arm of American policy since the moment it had acquired a monopoly on coverage of the Gulf War, and its reporters entered Kuwait with the American armed forces.  However, CNN has been of great service to all other live broadcast channels and to the Arab viewers as well.  Viewers realized, following CNN’s first trial broadcast, the presence of another kind of media different from their own local one. This realization drove them to a decision to come out to the free media arena.  Whether viewers had a command of English or not, their need to watch what has been denied them became more pressing than speaking foreign languages.  Therefore, they hastened to follow all satellite channels which increased in an unprecedented manner following the launch of many telecommunication satellites broadcasting from all over the world (the number of which increased to five satellites from 1990 to 1995). The two analogue systems were available to the Arab viewers, and that enabled them to watch more than one hundred foreign satellite channels.  Moreover, it became possible to subscribe in a collection of channels via Al-Awa’el bouquet launched by Arab Radio and Television (ART) or via the card of the Egyptian Company for CNN, in addition to Showtime and Orbit, all of which are private companies.


The Advent of Al-Jazeera


Arab viewers kept looking for an anchor amongst all government and private channels until they found Al-Jazeera. This channel, which was launched in Qatar in November 1996, was the first Arab news satellite channel. Its specialization in news was fortunate at a time when political events gained massive importance in the framework of world developments that cancelled the dual polarity, and the emergence of the United States as the sole major power striving to impose its dominance on the world through globalization.  This has had precarious implications on the Arab position; for there appeared a broadening of political crises, especially with regard to the Palestinian cause and its developments, the issue of Arab-Israeli relations and the Arab position in this regard and Arab fragmentation as opposed to international coalitions…etc.


Even the most optimistic media observers did not predict this powerful and fast ascent for Al-Jazeera.  In addition to several segments of citizens from the ocean to the Gulf, it has also attracted expatriate Arabs and became their voice through their letters and contributions to its programs.  In record time, Al-Jazeera acquired a real, strong and affective presence in the Arab visual media community; and has become capable of convincing viewers to follow it even if they disagree with it or feel that it has sometimes exceeded limits.  It is important here to stress that Al-Jazeera has rallied viewers in spite of the large number of available channels, and governments’ significant efforts to improve their official channels especially with regard to the form and content of their news programs. These channels include for example: the first and second Egypt Satellite Channel, and the channels of Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Dubai, Al-Shareqa and Syria; in addition to Egypt’s specialized news channel (Nile News) which was established following the launching of the Egyptian satellite, Nilesat 101, in November 1998.  In spite of the presence of Nile News which is one of the best Arab specialized channels, ANN, a private news channel owned by Syrians and broadcasts form London, and CNN’s continuing attraction of a good number of Arab viewers, Al-Jazeera succeeded in becoming the favorite Arab satellite channel of large segments of viewers.  This is for the following reasons:


·        Firstly: Being the first Arab news channel it achieved in its momentum a success that motivates viewers to keep watching it even after changes in the broadcasting systems and the advent of other similar channels.


·        Secondly: The channel has substantial financial resources that allows for fast and active movement and the use of all available means to provide and service news material in a way similar to CNN in many cases.  It has the means for extensive on-location coverage by an army of reporters situated all over the world and in places where there are no reporters of Arab or international channels.


·        Thirdly: It has more freedom than Arab governmental channels (no matter how free).  Moreover, viewers have become doubtful of whatever is presented by media affiliated to state authorities, no matter how powerful or courageous.


·        Fourthly: Al-Jazeera proved that a television channel can succeed without drama and varieties; and that documentaries and news materials can attract viewers if well produced and presented.


·        Fifthly: In spite of many accusations of exceeding limits, bias in favor of one political view against another and some of its presenters attempts at provoking their guests, this channel’s program topics broke most taboos.  Its schema reveals an escalation in the types of confrontation among guests, which is seen by some as some sort of cockfight. However, others perceive it as opinions and counter opinions in accordance with this channel’s slogan, or a powerful cry that was needed, and now achieved, after a long period of failure and powerlessness in dealing with Arab and international political issues with true freedom.  In this it is similar to many foreign news networks; or as one of its presenters said in response to such accusations: What is the difference between our programs and those of the like of BBC’s Hard Talk, CNN’s Larry King and others.


In summary, we can say that whatever the different opinions regarding Al-Jazeera are, it remains an essential component of the media revolution against the stereotype Arab viewers were fed on for a long number of years.  Its appearance may be compared to a stone thrown into still waters. This channel was able to create an unprecedented competition with all other channels for the better.  It has now become the model to which the improvement of any other Arab news channel is compared.



Translation by Lina Abu Nuwar