An Arab vision in focus

Read about the role satellite media played in the Arab Spring in an excerpt from chapter six of The Invisible Arab.

AJ arabic control room
Satellite television, unlike internet-based new media, required no interactivity and tended to reach its target audience with relative ease [EPA]

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from chapter six, and the sixth of a series of excerpts that Al Jazeera will be publishing, from The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions. Missed the earlier instalments? Catch up with excerpts from the preface, from chapter one, L’Ancien Regime, from chapter two, The Miracle Generation and parts one and two of chapter five.

New and social media have played vital roles in coordinating, sharing, and transmitting information and images. They have been effective, especially among the young and connected middle classes, but satellite television reaches most homes 24/7, providing hundreds of Arabic-speaking channels. Unlike new media, it requires no interactivity and tends to reach its target audience with much ease and little resistance. If it’s on the news, it must be real. More importantly, reporting the facts has an empowering effect on those sitting on the sidelines. For the tens of millions who have watched the revolution unfold live, change became real and probable. As satellite television transmitted images, disseminated information, and provided analysis, background and debate, change became a reality. The extended and rolling coverage by the Arab news networks proved indispensable for organisers and activists as they transmitted their eyewitness accounts to the general public at little or no effort or cost.

When the regimes tried to jam internet-based communications, or block certain social media outlets, television played an important role as the information bridge between protesters in different parts of the country. The satellite networks projected real, dramatic images of the evolving protests while conservative and censored state media brought ever more ridicule and contempt upon themselves.

The emergence of satellite networks broke the Arab state’s hold on media, as satellite networks competed in the political and religious playing fields and through the use of entertainment and pop culture. In denial or under orders to tame its coverage, official outlets presented the upheavals either as exaggerated media fantasy or as instigated from the outside.

For decades, the regimes have spread lies and spewed propaganda. They turned their defeats into televised victories along the lines of “the mother of all battles” when referring to Iraq’s forced ejection from Kuwait, and justified their internal repression against minorities and peaceful opposition under the guise of “ensuring stability” and “citizen safety” against fifth columns, using brutal force against civilians to “protect” the population. The visits of foreign officials were projected as elaborate state pageants that underlined the strategic importance of the regime for regional security. Once a regime lost its control over the message, it lost control, period. From then on, it was a question of public will and time.

The same could be said, perhaps, about the early Western monopoly over the airwaves. When satellite television first emerged, Arabs, among others, were likely in 1991 to hear CNN‘s Bernard Shaw reporting from Baghdad, followed by US generals, and, in between, commercials for McDonald’s, Nike, and Jeep. By the time of the 2003 US war in Iraq, satellite television had become the enterprise of the Arab public and private sector, with masked resistance fighters, bearded Islamic scholars, angry intellectuals, and bitter Iraqis dominating the screens.

The affordability and popularisation of television technology allowed dishes and antennas to proliferate on every other rooftop, rendering hundreds of television stations accessible with the mere flick on a remote control. While hardly a sign of renaissance, they’ve underlined and strengthened the Arab collective. In the process, the satellite television market became pluralistic, diverse, and competitive long before new media took root in the Arab world. Since the founding of the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) in the early 1990s, but more strategically since the introduction of Al Jazeera in 1996, hundreds of satellite networks tore through the curtains of state censorship to enter Arab living rooms. They also upstaged the likes of CNN and the BBC, which presented themselves as viable alternatives to local media. Paradoxically, many of these channels were subsidised through Gulf money in search of influence and commercial gains, but were run by Arabs from each and every country in the region, adding to the plurality of accents and perspectives.

Arab talent on show

Regionalisation or so-called “perverse globalisation” has become the norm in the Arab world, as culturalisation took precedence over Western-driven globalisation. Arabic took over from English and French, and Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya pulled ahead of CNN and the BBC on the ratings charts, just as Rotana pulled ahead of MTV among Arabs – including the English-speaking elites. Satellite television has brought the Arab-speaking world together, for better or worse. It mostly advanced Arab rather than Western brands, explored Arab desires instead of US preoccupations, Arab drama and soap operas, rather than French literature or British sitcoms. Even when they adopted Western pop culture, they succeeded in adding their own flavour to it, prompting regional and global powers from Iran to China through France, Russia, and the United States, to establish satellite networks that broadcast in Arabic.

With their own pop stars, Arabic series, and video clips transmitted on specialised satellite networks, the choice was no longer limited for Arabs. Arab pop culture pulled ahead of its Western counterpart, Amr Diab became more popular than Prince, Nancy Ajram became the Arabs’ own Mariah Carey, singing words they understood and felt. The youth reclaimed Arab pop stars and even their stars’ physiques. Frequently aired and widely circulated, the video clips of Ruby, a young Egyptian student turned singer/dancer, became a pan-Arab phenomenon. Shakira had to step aside as many marvelled at the way Ruby moved her hips and went as far as to discuss her bottom on satellite television. In a bitter response to the “Ruby phenomenon”, a conservative Muslim commentator ridiculed her fans, claiming she was no more than an ass. Ruby’s body parts and talents notwithstanding, Arab pop culture, Westernised or otherwise, had become a unifying and somewhat liberating factor for young Arabs, a mirror for their aspirations. Like their predecessors who united the Arab world through the printing press and the radio airwaves, the mandarins of new media have unified and connected the Arabs like never before.

The success of Arabic networks, which bypassed state borders and broke social taboos, answered two central freedoms: freedom of mind and body. This was clearly represented by the early success of Al Jazeera and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), with the former providing an open platform for voicing opinions, discussion and debate, and the latter providing an entertainment platform that underlined aesthetics and exhibited suggestive sensual/sexual expressions. Many of the hundreds of channels that have sprung up since have either emulated Al Jazeera and LBC, or specialised in sports and religion. The fact that Al Jazeera belongs to the Qatari state and LBC is financed by Saudi businessman Waleed Ben Talal adds another paradox to the complicated world of Arab television.

Beyond news and sports, the airwaves have been polarised between the liberal and the conservative camps with a few hundred presenters, stars, and symbols on each side of the cultural divide. The tele-evangical garrison presented a wide range of opinions, from the less conservative Sharia preachers to the hardline Wahhabi apologists that defended the rulers of Saudi Arabia. All the while, the liberal camp presented everything from erotic video clips to the latest catwalk shows by head-scarfed models. By 2010, the airwaves were dominated by hundreds of populist clerics preaching the virtues of living piously and hundreds of mostly female hosts, artists, and pop culture stars. Both sides of the divide were financed primarily by, and based in, the rich Gulf region.

Virtual pluralism

Satellite television networks have also revealed the “invisible Arabs” for the caged political animals they were. They provided a virtual public square for debates and discussions among secularists and fundamentalists, liberals and leftists, feminists and conservatives, officials and opposition never seen or heard before in the region. Along with the Doha-based Al Jazeera and other twenty-four-hour news organisations such as Al Arabiya, there were entertainment, religious, general, or specialised networks that have long presented the Arabs with a wide range of views, perspectives, and information beyond their borders and region that contrasted sharply with the authoritarian regimes and information distributed on domestic channels. No longer were Saudis subjected to the joy of watching endless hours of their king receiving those paying their respects to him, nor the Libyan leader forcing the state television channel to broadcast the image of his hanging shoes as a signal of his dissatisfaction with their programmes. News was no longer prioritised according to hierarchies. Urgency and importance mattered because news no longer had to begin with kings and presidents and end with the commoner. An editor at a state-run television or newspaper had to remember the exact hierarchy of the ruling family so as to start from the top down, regardless of content. If a king or president’s picture came after or below that of a “less significant” person, the journalist was all but condemned.

Democracies make civic studies mandatory in the classroom and incorporate courses on universal values, democracy, and the separation of powers in the curriculum, but not in the Arab states. Familiarity with freedom of expression, civil and human rights, and voting had to be acquired through television. At times it had the feel of a political circus or a “tower of Babel”, but voicing the most outrageous of opinions has long proved more productive than taming them. Indeed, there is no point in defending those we agree with; it’s the right of the most unconventional and disagreeable voices that are preserved by a liberal media and society.

When the television programme “Star Academy” was featured on the MBC channel a decade ago, hundreds of thousands of young people from the Atlantic to the Gulf voted for their favourite stars, and as far as we know, their votes counted. For many, this was a revelation; it was the first vote they’d ever cast, albeit in a virtual democratic ballot run by a TV station. The same was repeated on Abu Dhabi Television, where a popular programme featuring competition among poets was aired. But when, after weeks of live competition, an Emirati won the people’s vote through phone texting, many suspected this was more of the same rigged elections they had grown to hate.

Paradoxically, undemocratic countries that tried to liberalise their economies and commercialise their satellite networks, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, in addition to Lebanon – and later Egypt – have paved the way for a more liberal, albeit consumerist, media in the Arab world. Television and other forms of marketing provided abundant competition and multiple choices in consumer products and services, an abundance that became terribly scarce when it came to the political and social spheres. Eventually, people, especially the younger generation, couldn’t see why they had a choice among laundry detergents and TVs, but not textbooks; news networks, but not political leaders.

Autocracies, sensing the disadvantage of being left out, allowed for a relative opening that underlined Arab culture and history, presenting nationalist and historic series that depicted Arab heroism and pride. Bab al-Hara or “The Neighbourhood Gate”, a Syrian soap opera shown on MBC during Ramadan in 2010, recounted the proud and steadfast resistance to the French occupation in the early part of the twentieth century. The month-long series was reportedly watched by more viewers than any other. The courage and dignity expressed by its characters couldn’t have been lost on a new generation of repressed and humiliated Syrians and Arabs across the region.

The Al Jazeera effect

“What Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable”
Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defence

One could hardly speak of change in the Arab world without invoking the “Al Jazeera effect” in nurturing democracy and connecting people from all walks of life and of all philosophical, ideological, and religious persuasions. A Western colleague once told me: “At times I catch myself watching Al Jazeera, not because I understand anything that it is saying, but because I love watching the pictures and the lively debates that draw me in like nothing on Western networks.”

When it was first founded in the mid-1990s, Al Jazeera was seen as a positive development in the West and was praised in US and European capitals for presenting Westerners, Israeli spokespersons, and politicians of all stripes for the first time to an Arab audience. But soon after its coverage of the 1998 US bombing of Afghanistan and its extended coverage of the second Palestinian Intifada against the Israeli occupation in 2000, Al Jazeera was criticised for providing an open forum for popular sentiments and anti-Israeli and anti-US views.

The network’s detractors multiplied afterward. US-Middle East scholar and an apologist for the Bush administration, Fouad Ajami, wrote:

“Al Jazeera, which claims a global audience of 35 million Arabic-speaking viewers, may not officially be the Osama bin Laden channel, but he is clearly its star, as I learned during an extended viewing of the station’s programming in October. On Al Jazeera (which means ‘the peninsula’), the Hollywoodisation of news is indulged with an abandon that would make the Fox News Channel blush.”

And Fox news anchor Bill O’Reilly didn’t blush or flinch when he said: “That anti-American operation is spurring on the revolt. Many Arabs get their information from Al Jazeera. That network is extremely powerful and is encouraging uprisings all over the Muslim world. Al Jazeera very rarely condemns the jihadists, and I believe the network would be happy to see them take power.” Ajami at least understands Arabic; O’Reilly doesn’t.

Al Jazeera‘s coverage of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks exacerbated Washington’s already hostile attitude towards its uncensored – and at times unfiltered – coverage of the wars. Demonising the Arabic channel became the order of the day for the Bush administration with Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld blaming Al Jazeera for the escalation of violence. President Bush had reportedly discussed with British Prime Minister Tony Blair bombing Al Jazeera‘s bureau in Baghdad. The election of Barack Obama, after eight years of Bush, toned down the criticism, and the United States began to see the network with more objectivity. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterised Al Jazeera as “real news” that was winning against US media outlets. She stressed: “Where you’ve got a set of global networks that Al Jazeera has been the leader in, that are literally changing people’s minds and attitudes and like it or hate it, it is really effective.”

Indeed, the Arab Spring has underlined the importance of Al Jazeera as a free media outlet in a sea of authoritarianism. As the New York Times’ David D Kirkpatrick wrote:

“As the protests accelerated this month, some Tunisian officials protested that Al Jazeera was hyping the unrest because of its anti-Western agenda: its managers wanted to see a ‘moderate’ Arab regime fall, even if the protesters were not Islamists, like those in so many earlier revolts. But that seems unlikely. Al Jazeera’s producers knew they had a story line that their audience would love.”

ABC News Washington correspondent Sam Donaldson told my colleague on “ABC This Week” in January 2010:

“Thank you for what you’re doing. People say Al Jazeera fanned the flames here by bringing the fact that democracy is in existence and that people are being suppressed. That’s what we need. We need more communication in the world. It’s not Al Jazeera’s fault that Mubarak is under siege now.” 

Similar sentiments were echoed by Frank Schaeffer, in the Huffington Post, who asked: “Why Aren’t you Watching Al Jazeera?”

“If you care about anything more on the news than celebrity trivia join me in saying: Thank God For Al Jazeera! We Americans are so isolated from the larger world that we will always be a dollar short and a day late unless we find alternatives to our ‘media’. Al Jazeera is that alternative. If freedom and democracy comes to countries ranging from Egypt to Libya future historians will note that the freedom of information provided by Al Jazeera (at great cost) played a huge role, a bigger role than the increasingly irrelevant US media that is too busy worrying about Charlie Sheen to notice that the planet is changing.”

Indeed, some book titles on Al Jazeera are more than sufficient to give you an idea regarding the role of the Arab network. As Mohammed el-Nawawy’s titles put it, Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism; and Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East; and Hugh Miles’s book, Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that Is Challenging the West.

Al Jazeera‘s reach has been its most important asset and source of legitimacy. It allows it greater access to more people than many other media outlets, old and new. Its viewing numbers jump to the tens of millions during major news events. And during the early days of the Arab Spring it captured the spirit of the revolution like no other network. Admittedly, as with any vibrant news organisation, Al Jazeera has seen serious internal disagreements within its editorial leadership and made some poor calls of judgment during its years of continual round the clock coverage. But ultimately, its success lies in its capacity to report the facts uninhibitedly, provide an open forum for debate, and continuously correct and renew itself – relatively free from commercial and geopolitical pressures.

As Marc Lynch, a leading US Middle East media observer said in the New York Times at the end of January 2010: “The protests rocking the Arab world this week have one thread uniting them: Al Jazeera, whose aggressive coverage has helped propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next.” Indeed, Al Jazeera became the Arab public square where everyone met, and where updates from the centres and the flanks were watched and heard, unfiltered and uncensored.

Robert Malley and Hussein Agha wrote in the Washington Post the day Mubarak fell: “Al Jazeera has emerged as a full-fledged political actor because it reflects and articulates popular sentiment. It has become the new Nasser. The leader of the Arab world is a television network.”

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and a former professor of international relations at the American University of Paris. The above excerpt is from his latest book, The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara