Arab Media Offers New Perspectives to Middle East
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SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: A few seconds before 8 o’clock on a weekday evening in Amman and Donna Jordaan is preparing to go on the air. In her mid-20s, she is Western-educated, charismatic and lively, and hers is the new primetime face of Jordanian Television News.
DANA JORDAAN, JTV Anchor: Well, actually, the 8 o’clock news bulletin is the main news bulletin at Jordan Television. It contains all the local and international news, but it concentrates on the local news.
SIMON MARKS: What happens in Studio One of the government-run Jordanian Television used to be the envy of the Arab world. It was one of the region’s first TV networks when it came on air in 1968 and one of the first to broadcast in color.
But today, JTV is under enormous pressure, after hundreds of cable and satellite networks came on air over the past 15 years, stealing its audience and some of its most experienced staffers. Even its anchor, raised in the satellite generation, admits that, before she was hired, she wasn’t a JTV viewer.
DANA JORDAAN: Well, actually, I started watching it on since I started working in it. Unfortunately, I have to say this. But what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to get people back to watching Jordan Television.
SIMON MARKS: People like Naja Carraja (ph), herself a former JTV anchor…
FORMER JTV ANCHOR: Then you have the English part of the orbit, which is all American TV…
SIMON MARKS: … now sits at home juggling five remotes and choosing between more than 500 different channels.
FORMER JTV ANCHOR: Programs like Oprah. Oprah is on Channel 4, NBC, every night.
SIMON MARKS: Some of them are familiar in many American living rooms, and some of them are the established Pan-Arab networks, like Al-Jazeera, which is funded by an emir from Qatar, and the Saudi backchannels Al-Arabiya and Middle East Broadcasting.
But through the home satellite dishes that have sprouted here like mushrooms, Jordanians can also now watch networks like Nile TV of Egypt, the Koran Channel, Hamas TV from the Palestinian Territories, Israeli TV, Arabic music, cooking and movie channels, and even the output of tiny local stations, like Mauritanian Television.
Wael Kharadsheh, a retired diplomat, says he rarely watches Jordanian Television and has also now switched away from Al-Jazeera, which he says is biased against the kingdom.
WAEL KHARADSHEH, Retired Diplomat, Jordan: It is attacking — it attacks every Arab regime, every government. They attack everybody, and that’s a little bit disappointing. I’m very disappointed. And a few times, I really get upset. I say, “Why attack Jordan? Why say this?”
SIMON MARKS: Many members of the Jordanian elite now express similar sentiments about Al-Jazeera, but the network does have a loyal audience, and you can find many of its members at the Wihdat refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman.
It’s not a refugee camp in the classic sense of the phrase; it’s been here since 1955 and is now a bricks-and-mortar home to more than 45,000 Palestinians, whose families sought refuge in Jordan during and after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
In the living room of their spartanly decorated home, three generations of the Al Akhras family gather around the television. Khalid Al Akhras and his wife, Lica (pH), moved here in 1967, when they fled violence in Jericho.
KHALID AL AKHRAS, Palestinian Refugee (through translator): I trust the channel which is the fastest, and that’s Al-Jazeera, because it has many correspondents and it conveys accurate news faster than the other channels. It has more correspondents than the others, so it transmits the news faster.
SIMON MARKS: Their son, Jamal, a doctor in the Wihdat camp, is also a loyal Al-Jazeera viewer.
JAMAL AL AKHRAS: It gives you immediate and detailed accounts of the event, but that doesn’t mean the other stations don’t cover the events themselves. However, there is more detail in Al-Jazeera’s coverage.
SIMON MARKS: Also popular in these impoverished neighborhoods, the religious networks that transmit meetings from the Koran around the clock. And it is these gritty townships that channels owned and operated by terrorist organizations, like Hamas and Hezbollah, also find a small but loyal audience.
The multitude of satellite television stations available now has led to a vigorous competition for audiences here on the Arab street. And the big losers of that competition are the state-run national networks, the television stations that people here used to watch when they had no alternative.
At JTV, that means anchorwoman Dana Jordaan’s job today is not just to anchor the news, but to lure young Jordanian viewers back to the network. Her news team is trying to do so by relentlessly focusing on the local beat.
Today, we visited a crew that was dispatched to cover one of the night’s big stories, the drought, and when the local weather bureau thought it might end.
JTV has largely given up trying to report regional and international stories for itself, instead charting a course as Jordan’s local news station. It is still government-owned, and the weather story, like many others on the 8 o’clock news, included an interview with a government minister. But JTV’s chairman, Moustafa Harmaneh, told us those days were coming to an end.
MOUSTAFA HARMANEH, Former Chair, Jordanian Television: In the past, reporting was more international than domestic because you didn’t want to get involved in the domestic scene. It’s very difficult and almost impossible it was to report on issues related to the environment, political parties, congresses, discussions with the government, disagreement on certain issues, corruption. It’s covered all now on the 8 o’clock news, and it’s happening, and people are watching it.
SIMON MARKS: That is not a risk-free proposition in Jordan, a country still grappling with the concept of democratic reform. Since our interview, Mr. Harmaneh as resigned from JTV’s helm, after his pugnacious approach engendered enormous political opposition.
But elsewhere in Amman, there are private investors willing to bet that the battle for audiences in the Arab world isn’t over yet. In the heart of the Jordanian capital, the owners of Al Ghad are building a studio complex to accommodate the country’s first privately owned commercial network.
MOHAMED ALAYYAN, General Manager, Al Ghad: I believe if you do relevant, local content, no matter terrestrial, satellite, people will come and watch you. There’s no more loyalty to stations.
SIMON MARKS: Mohamed Alayyan already owns Jordan’s most successful independent daily newspaper. Now, Al Ghad — it means the future — is getting into the broadcasting business, planning a local station that he believes can take on Al-Jazeera and the other regional ratings powerhouses and deal with the domestic political objections that independent news coverage can create.
MOHAMED ALAYYAN: I’m not saying it’s not going to be a struggle, but I believe we are changing, we are reforming. I believe things are going to open up.
People are realizing that all of these stations have certain agendas, and I believe that the Arab world and the people want an independent media to hear from them.
SIMON MARKS: The struggle under way in Jordan is also being waged in neighboring Syria, where a government that brooks essentially no political opposition has been gingerly liberalizing the media.
To understand why, you only have to visit the mountainous overlook that affords unparalleled views of the Syrian capital, Damascus, the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world, is now pockmarked with satellite dishes. They sit on every rooftop, hang from every balcony, and bring previously banned discussion and debate from around the world into virtually every Syrian living room.
The response of government-run Syrian television has bring dramatic. The news division now engages in journalistic endeavors never previously permitted, like bringing viewers live coverage of United Nations debates on Syria’s alleged involvement on a campaign of assassinations in neighboring Lebanon.
Syrian Television’s director, Diana Jabbour, is herself a symbol of the change under way here. She’s not a member of the ruling Baath Party and says she was offered the job after writing a newspaper article critical of Syria’s ruling regime. Asked about how much freedom her reporters now have, and she laughs.
DIANA JABBOUR, Director, Syrian Television (through translator): The difference is that they have more freedom than they’re taking advantage of. The funny thing about this situation is that we’re given more freedom now but, as editors and individuals, we still don’t have the courage to push things to the limit.
Every day we take one step further, and discover that everything is OK, and that it meets with approval. So then we take another step forward. Day after day, we find that we’re taking these steps and they’re meeting with approval.
SIMON MARKS: Which is not to say that Syrian Television’s output could be described as balanced and objective; it is still fully government-controlled. But its executives are mindful of the fact that there is no longer any point in broadcasting inartful propaganda to viewers who are experiencing a 500-channel universe.
DIANA JABBOUR (through translator): I cannot market an image of Syria that does not exist; that would be stupid. It would be stupid for me to think that my viewers are stupid, because they know the truth. They know the reality, and they will not watch my station. They’ll switch off.
Therefore, I go with the truth, even if it has its faults. Maybe we’re not as competitive as we want to be, but you have to be honest with what you have instead of pretend.
SIMON MARKS: And some media outlets in Syria are not now government-owned. Just outside Syrian TV’s headquarters on Umayyad Square in Damascus, a tent houses the country’s latest media experiment.
Sham TV is a privately owned network, the first of more than 10 that the government says it plans to license. The day we visited, it was broadcasting a live political talk show, not just to Syria, but to the rest of the Arab world on satellite.
In the back of the tent, journalists and technicians juggled tapes that would be used in the channel’s evening newscast and spoke of their desire to push the journalistic envelope in Syria.
MANAL KHADDAM, Reporter, Sham TV (through translator): Whoever watches our channel regularly will realize that we don’t only speak to members of the legislature or the government; we talk to them, but we also talk to the people.
The opinion of the Syrian people is actually more important. So, in our newscast, we’ll cover official pronouncements, but we’ll also find out what people on the street think of them.
SIMON MARKS: There are some Syrian journalists who go even further, and Kinda Kanbar is one of them. In her mid-20s, she runs an English-language magazine called Syria Today from a newsroom in the so-called free zone in the heart of Damascus.
The free zone was introduced by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to encourage foreign investors to build manufacturing plants on territory that is officially free from Syrian government control. It was never intended to serve as a place where the independent media could flourish until Kinda Kanbar sensed an opportunity and opened her magazine.
KINDA KANBAR, General Manager, Syria Today: We’re independent because we don’t take our funding from the government. We fund it ourselves, and we depend on the advertisements. We struggle a lot financially, because of various things, like taxes, advertising taxes, and the distribution taxes, but we have taken the decision to continue until we see what we can do. That’s why we are independent.
SIMON MARKS: Effectively produced as a foreign publication, even printed in Lebanon to stay within the rules, she must submit the magazine for censorship before it goes on sale in Syria. To her amazement, she says not a single article has ever been changed.
KINDA KANBAR: Well, actually, what the government can do — you’re going to keep this country sharp, we have to look around us. Jordan, for example, three hours away from us by car, with the borders, one hour and a half from Lebanon. They can’t do anything. They have to be with life that’s changing.
SIMON MARKS: The government appears to have come to the same realization. While the laws and structures still exist to control the media’s message and self-censorship is rife at Syria’s government-run media outlets, even high-ranking members of the ruling Baath Party acknowledge the environment has changed.
MAHDI DAKHLALLAH, Former Minister of Information (through translator): Any Syrian today can watch over 300 Arab satellite channels, and they have a variety of sources for information. This makes directed media impossible, 100 percent impossible, and public opinion is pressuring the government for more liberalization of media.
SIMON MARKS: Are you going to be Syria’s last minister of information?
MAHDI DAKHLALLAH: In Shalah (pH).
SIMON MARKS: “In shalah,” (pH) with God’s help, he said, but he did not get our way. Since our interview, he has been replaced in a government reshuffle, as Syria and the wider Arab world tries to come to terms with a media revolution that is playing out on the small screen and also in the corridors of power.