Television Channels the Arab Spring

By Tuesday 15 May 2012 No Comments

Everyone wants to talk about the role of social media in last year’s
uprisings, but the big Arab television news channels played just as
significant a part in the Arab Spring. There is a limit to the extent to
which mobile phones can replace professional cameras: their short video
sequences do not have the emotional impact of a feature on Al-Jazeera or
Al-Arabiya, the two biggest news channels in the region. Their live
reports from Tahrir Square and elsewhere were able to reach tens of
millions of viewers. Surfing the net cannot provide the live thrill
viewers got each Friday in February 2011, as their TV screens
simultaneously relayed the demonstrations in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Sana’a
and Manama like major sporting events. These will remain in the popular
imagination of the region for years.

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is aware of this, which
is why it has harassed television journalists for the last year, and
interfered with broadcasts. The demonstrations this year after the deaths
of dozens of “Ultras”, supporters of the Al-Ahly football club at Port
Said (who were often in the front line against the security forces), or
for the first anniversary of the revolution, did not bring as many people
as last year onto the streets. This was not just because of the weariness
and anxiety of many people, but because these protests were not given
positive coverage by the major Arab television stations.

It is less relevant now to make a distinction between old and new media,
since content moves easily from one to another: the press publishes
online, and television stations broadcast most of their programs online
too. Al-Jazeera has been innovative in this area because of its
difficulties broadcasting to certain countries (US secretary of state
Hillary Clinton may have praised its coverage of the Arab revolutions but
it still cannot broadcast by satellite to North America). During the
Israeli offensive against Gaza in January 2009, Al-Jazeera’s website,
launched in 1998, was ahead of many of its international rivals; it
allowed other sites to use its reports, published under a Creative Commons
licence at a time when it was almost the only media organization covering
the offensive from inside Gaza. It reinforced its relationship with
internet users by entering into a partnership during the January 2011
uprisings with X Media Lab, an international digital media thinktank.

Television choice

It would be impossible now to impose a total blackout on news in the Arab
world, with more than 700 television channels, hundreds of thousands of
bloggers and nearly 40 million Facebook users. But are all these outlets
and linked networks enough to ensure choice, especially in television,
still the most important opinion-former?

The 2011 revolutions brought down dictatorial regimes and ended, perhaps
forever, the more ridiculous practices of subservient news channels, such
as starting each bulletin by reporting what the head of state did that
day. The move towards limited pluralism, noticeable for a few years now,
is picking up momentum — the Algerian authorities appear to have agreed to
open up the audiovisual sector to competition. There will necessarily be
more private players in the media sector; what matters will be their
relationship with the political establishment.

The record over the past 12 months is not encouraging, even in those
countries like Tunisia which had a rapid changeover of power. Nessma TV,
Tunisia’s main private channel (set up in 2009 by local investors and
Mediaset, owned by Silvio Berlusconi), did quickly sever its links with
the old regime, even though it had supported the channel. But circles
close to political Islam thought Nessma TV’s programming provocative,
particularly its decision to broadcast Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s
animated film criticizing Iran’s religious authorities and even depicting
the Prophet. The Islamists were furious that it was shown just before the
elections and dubbed into Tunisian dialect, which they regard as a threat
to the use of classical Arabic. The matter indicates the tensions within
public opinion, and reflects badly on the ability of private media to
fulfil the mission of reporting the news.

In Egypt, the uprising discredited the state channel, which continued to
show peaceful images of the Nile while everyone else in the world was
broadcasting live the clashes between protestors and police. A dozen
private initiatives sprang up after the revolution, started by experienced
professionals with wealthy backers, or amateur activists relying on
enthusiasm. The SCAF quickly decided to postpone the launch of any new
channel, and threatened a return to censorship. The journalist Yosri Fouda
exposed this threat when he resigned on air in October 2011.

The most prominent channels all represent a mainstream political or
economic force: Al-Hayat is owned by the leader of the Wafd Party, Sayed
al-Badawi; Misr25 is the unofficial voice of the Muslim Brotherhood; ONTV
— the last channel still supporting the revolution — is financed by the
billionaire Naguib Sawiris, founder of the Free Egyptians Party. The
weakest players have been eliminated, or deflected, such as Tahrir TV
(where the well-known opposition figure, Ibrahim Issa, is a journalist),
which was bought by the businessman Suleiman Amer who removed critical
voices. The new political order has not changed the economic model: few
initiatives could survive without advertising revenue or the support of
powerful investors, who are rarely far from the circles of power.

Fading star

The upheavals of 2011 did not unseat the dominant channels. Al-Jazeera and
Al-Arabiya, set up in 1996 and 2003, remain important political tools for
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who can use them to undermine regimes in Libya and
Syria, while not covering repression in Bahrain.

Al-Jazeera has just celebrated its 15th anniversary, but its future is in
doubt. The events of 2011 and their popular slogans — like “The people
want…” — could describe Al-Jazeera’s editorial ambition to give a voice to
the real players, while affirming national and religious identity. It used
to be known for its professionalism and independence, to the point where
it seemed able to dictate its agenda regionally, but lost credibility
during the Arab Spring.

After the honeymoon period of the first revolutionary movements,
Al-Jazeera’s complete alignment with Qatar’s diplomatic policy
(intervention in Libya and Syria) made it just like the other channels
that act, officially or semi-officially, as vehicles for the political
sympathies of their backers. Many commentators believe it has departed
from the professional standards of its director general Waddah Khanfar,
who resigned (or was fired) in September 2011. There have been many other
resignations, a sign of unrest among its journalists. And there have been
protests in Damascus, and even Tunis, against Al-Jazeera, until recently
so popular that it seemed untouchable. Its star is fading, at a time when
Qatar’s diplomacy relies on the trust of the Arab public. The range of
news channels in the region will grow this year, with Al-Mayadin in Beirut
(headed by Ghassan Ben Jiddo, former Al-Jazeera correspondent in Lebanon
who resigned), and Alarab, an international news channel in the Gulf
funded by the Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Bin Talal, who owns Rotana, the Arab world’s largest entertainment
company, has chosen the financial media corporation Bloomberg as a
partner, and also has business links with Rupert Murdoch who has made no
secret of his pro-Israel and ultra-conservative opinions, and who is
preparing to launch his own Arab channel, Sky News Arabia. Alarab will be
based in the Bahraini capital, Manama. After rumors that it would have its
headquarters in Beirut or Cairo, then Doha (entailing an arrangement with
the Qatari authorities) or the United Arab Emirates, no one foresaw
Bahrain as the choice. Not only does this mini-state have no experience in
the news industry, there is still unrest and repression there, provoked by
the military intervention of Gulf states in March 2011, led by Saudi

Bin Talal has never made a secret of his political ambitions, and he has
invested a lot in this trans-Arab news channel (he is its sole owner,
unlike his position at Rotana). Setting up in Manama is an attempt to give
the channel an original stance between the official voice of Al-Arabiya
and the more anti-establishment one of Al-Jazeera. Its editor will be
Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical enough to have been recently sacked
from the Saudi newspaper Al Watan. Alarab already has a motto: “Freedom
and development” — an echo no doubt of the social network slogans of the
Arab Spring, but also a reference to the direction Bin Talal wants to see
policy go in the region, towards an “Islamic-style” capitalism. The
success of this path has become clear following the region’s more reliable
recent elections.

YVES GONZALEZ-QUIJANO is an academic working on Arab affairs.

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