FRONTLINE/WORLD . News War . The Arab Media Revolution | PBS
FRONTLINE/World [home]

Search World 

story home
part I & IIpart IIIpart IVwatch the series

The Arab Media Revolution

By Jamal Dajani

From the early days of state-funded, heavily censored television to today's explosion of multichannel satellite TV, the Middle East has been an ideological minefield in a war of information. Jamal Dajani, producer of the daily online Arab news digest, Mosaic, charts the changes in the Arab media landscape and recalls how Al Jazeera helped start a media revolution that is still unfolding.

A Diet of State-Run "Protocol" News

It wasn't long ago that people living in the Middle East had to rely on foreign-based Arab-language shortwave radio, such as the Voice of America, Radio Monte Carlo and the BBC World Service, to get a steady flow of accurate news. From the 1960s to the mid-1980s, government-controlled radio stations, especially in larger Arab nations, pumped out heavily censored news reports, not only to their own populations but to Arabs across the region. Similarly, when terrestrial Arab television services began in the 1960s, audiences were fed a steady diet of official propaganda. Newsgathering and reporting, in the Western sense, were not critical to how governments ran their media. Instead of field reporting, interviews, studio discussions and the sort of broad coverage we are accustomed to today, viewers were given a studio-delivered digest of "protocol" news -- mainly government bulletins of the official state activities and speeches of the day.

Welcome to the Global Telecommunications Revolution

The region's broadcasting landscape is far different today. The emergence of a global telecommunications revolution in the 1980s, particularly in satellite television, brought dramatic changes to the Middle East, perhaps more than to any other region on Earth. With more than 300 satellite stations now on the air in the Middle East, it's hard to believe there is room for any more. But new stations are still popping up on audiences' satellite menus, and the choice of channels could easily reach 400 by the end of 2007.

Al Jazeera Studio

Al Jazeera's Studio

Many in the West believe the catalyst for the region's media explosion was Al Jazeera, but the first satellite broadcaster in the region started in Egypt. The Egyptian Satellite Channel began transmitting in December 1990, followed a year later by the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). MBC was created from Saudi petro dollars and personally financed by Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of the late King Fahd.

During the early 1990s, many other Arab countries followed with their own satellite offerings. Among the first crop, more than 70 percent were state-funded and controlled enterprises broadcasting in Arabic.

CNN and the First Gulf War

Witnessing the dramatic impact of CNN's international coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, several Arab states realized the strategic value of satellite television during times of conflict. Many of the Gulf States began launching their own national satellite TV networks. Arab governments saw satellite news as the ideal vehicle for extending and exerting influence beyond their own borders.

But it wasn't until Al Jazeera began broadcasting in November 1996 that the Arab world received its first 24-hour dedicated news service. Al Jazeera, whose motto is "the opinion and the counter-opinion," surprised Arab governments and audiences by broadcasting uninhibited political discussions, including studio debates with live phone-ins. This was the first forum for freedom of expression in the region.

The Rise of Al Jazeera

The genesis for Al Jazeera, which means "The Island" in Arabic, was a disagreement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the BBC News Service. In 1996, the Saudi-owned Orbit Radio and Television Service, operating from Rome, partnered with the Arabic TV division of the BBC to create an Arabic satellite news channel. But less than two years into the deal, the two were in editorial conflict. Reports at the time claimed the Saudis stopped financing the project because of a dispute over the broadcast of a documentary about executions in Saudi Arabia.

Seeing a gap and a golden opportunity, Qatar's progressive emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who was looking to democratize his tiny state and increase his influence in the region, immediately hired many of the journalists from the BBC-Saudi venture, who were now out of a job.

With $140 million in start-up money from Qatar's Sheikh Hamad and a pledge to subsidize it for five years, Al Jazeera began broadcasting from a state-of-the-art studio in Doha and quickly established itself as a serious force in the satellite news market.

Now, after more than a decade of beaming its direct style of news and popular talk shows into millions of Arab homes, Al Jazeera has become one of the most recognized media brands in the world. One of its most popular programs, The Opposite Direction, is a 90-minute showdown between opposing guests, in which viewers are encouraged to call in and join the debate. By pioneering a more accessible style of news coverage, Al Jazeera has not only become the most-watched satellite TV network in the Arab world but has also managed to infuriate the United States and every Arab government in the region. Libya and Kuwait, among others, have at various points threatened to pull their ambassadors from Qatar in protest.

Following 9/11, U.S. officials complained that Al Jazeera was dedicating too much coverage to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. It was reported that the then-U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, had asked Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad, to "tone down" Al Jazeera's inflammatory rhetoric. Meanwhile, the channel was upsetting many Arab governments by giving airtime to Arab dissidents, whose voices, until then, had been largely silenced.

How Satellite Changed the Arab World

The impact of the satellite dish across the Arab world has been profound. While Al Jazeera, by far the best-known television network, boasts 60 to 70 million regular viewers worldwide, Arabs spend a lot more time watching entertainment channels, such as MBC, than news coverage, especially during the month of Ramadan, which is a lot like the "sweeps" season in the United States.

Today, the Egyptian government's media giant, Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), boasts no fewer than 25 satellite television stations. And since 1996, Lebanon has produced more than a dozen television networks, among them the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), Future TV and Hezbollah's Al Manar TV, which has large appeal among Islamist viewers in the region. Lebanon, in particular, has become a "media laboratory" for sectarian-style competition. Most, if not all, stations are sponsored and financed by different political parties or religious groups. Al Manar carries the messages of the Shiites, or Hezbollah; LBC caters to the Christian Phalangists; NBN, to the Shiites of the Amal faction; and Future TV, to the Sunnis affiliated with former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. For years, the Lebanese have used satellite TV not only to compete politically in their own market but to disseminate their message to their supporters globally, including the many Lebanese working abroad. Currently, there are also more than a dozen stations competing in Iraq.

The Death Knell of Terrestrial TV

Terrestrial TV has long since been eclipsed by its brash, omnipotent satellite rivals, but state television in the Middle East still has an important role in some of the larger Arab countries, such as Egypt, and particularly in the poorest rural areas. Still, if they can afford it, most people prefer satellite TV. Travel to the poorest places in the Arab world, including Palestinian refugee camps or the center of the desert, and one finds that satellite dishes abound, hooked up to the humblest shacks and tents.

Just as the First Gulf War spurred the launch of many of these satellite networks, the latest war in Iraq has taken coverage to a whole new level. The conflict has set off a "war of information" across the region and attracted a number of non-Arab countries -- including Iran, the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom and, most recently, France -- to compete for viewers in the Arab-speaking world.

The Battle for Iraqi Hearts and Minds

One of the first channels to start broadcasting with Iraqis in mind was the Iranian government-backed satellite TV network, Al Alam ("The World"), which was launched during the invasion. The channel broadcasts throughout the region (with bureaus in Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut) but has focused primarily on Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. Al Alam's initial purpose was to reach out to the Iraqi Shiites and win hearts and minds before the United

States did. Today, however, the Iranian government is using the channel to counter the political influence of Saudi Arabia in the region.

The Iraqi Media Network (IMN), which is funded by the United States and produces the Iraqi government-run Al Iraqiya television network, was not the only attempt by the United States to counteract the popularity of pan-Arab news channels in Iraq, or in the rest of the region for that matter. In February 2004, Al Hurra was established and, two months later, its sister channel, Al Hurra Iraq. Initially, Al Hurra had moderate success around the region but has now developed into a dismal failure. While audiences tune in to find out what the U. S. position is on current events, Al Hurra's coverage is not taken seriously and is derided as nothing more than "American propaganda" by most Arabs.

Competition Has Arrived

While many satellite channels have recently tried to emulate the success of Al Jazeera, the network did not have any serious rivals until 2003, when the Saudi-owned 24-hour news channel, Al Arabiya, was launched from Dubai.

Initially, Al Arabiya looked a lot like Al Jazeera but with flashier graphics. But soon after its launch, the channel's owner, a brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's late King Fahd, put a new, staunchly pro-American editor in charge. Since then, the coverage of the two channels, particularly in Iraq, has diverged dramatically.

American audiences got their first taste of Arab television in 2001, when Al Jazeera scooped the world's media with its coverage of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. The channel also broadcast exclusive interviews with Osama bin Laden. Later, in 2003, when the war erupted in Iraq, the entire world, for the first time, could watch the bombing of Baghdad through the lenses of Abu Dhabi TV and Al Jazeera, rather than those of CNN.

In the early days of the Iraqi War, when many Western journalists were practicing roof-top reporting before becoming more embedded with the troops, Arab reporters and camera crews were putting their lives at risk, reporting from the "eye of the storm" in Baghdad. And while U.S. networks were showing cruise missiles being launched from U.S. destroyers, Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV were showing them landing and wreaking havoc in Iraq. Abu Dhabi TV was competing neck and neck with Al Jazeera in the first six months of the conflict but then retreated from its early prolific coverage. Some believe that an editorial decision was made to pull most of their reporters out of Iraq.

Unfortunately, the success of this hard-hitting, aggressive style of reporting came with a high price. Many Arab television reporters and cameramen have been killed, detained or jailed. Some of these were detained by the United States, including an Al Jazeera cameraman working in Afghanistan. The United States was also concerned that another very negative side to the conflict was being exported to the world. In 2001, American missiles destroyed Al Jazeera's office in Kabul; the channel's offices were hit again in 2003, during the invasion of Baghdad. In 2005, allegations surfaced in the British press that President Bush had discussed bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters, allegations the White House denies.

AL Jazeera Goes English

In recent months, Al Jazeera's new English-language channel has had a tough time breaking into the American market. Despite its international presence, with news bureaus in Doha, London, Kuala Lumpur and Washington, D.C., and the fact that it has signed up prominent journalists and anchors such as Sir David Frost and former ABC anchor David Marash, major U.S. cable operators declined to add Al Jazeera English to their programming when it launched last November. The decision was mired in censorship and politics. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused the network of spreading "vicious lies." Al Jazeera's unstinting coverage of the war's effects on civilians and its footage of American military deaths have upset U.S. officials. Meanwhile, a recent Accuracy in Media poll found that 53 percent of Americans opposed the launch of the channel. Two-thirds of Americans believe the U.S. government should not allow the channel to air in the U.S. market.

Media a World Apart

At a time when animosity between the West and the Arab world is increasing, Arab satellite television has provided a window on what close to 300 million people in the Middle East see on a daily basis. Unfortunately, these images are very polarizing. Almost daily, Arabs are reminded time and again of the American occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Images of the sectarian war that has engulfed Iraq and pictures of Palestinian children haunt viewers throughout the region. Nevertheless, this very same medium has changed people's lives there. The Arab nationalism that Egyptian President Gamal Abed El Nasser tried but failed to market to the Arab world in the 1960s has been revived today through satellite TV. The breadth of the coverage has only highlighted the commonalities that exist among the different populations, whether they are living in Marrakesh or Beirut. Arabs throughout the region watch the same sitcoms, see the same religious shows, laugh at the same jokes and cry when they see the same news stories. Their freedoms of information and expression are no longer restricted by their "ministries of information" or by borders. Democracy might not be a reality on the ground in the Arab world, but "pluralism" is in the air … on satellite TV.

Jamal Dajani is an award-winning producer and the director of Middle Eastern programming at Link TV. Since 2001, he has produced more than 1,300 installments of the Peabody Award-winning program Mosaic: World News from the Middle East.