Politics and media in the Middle East: The post-Al Jazeera era

By its constant interviewing of political opponents, Al Jazeera infuriated virtually all Arab heads of state, and western leaders alike. Some of its bureaux were closed, and diplomatic relations were (temporarily) severed.

Al Jazeera newsroom

We
have to admit that there was a pre-Al Jazeera era and a post-Al Jazeera
era. There is no doubt that the start of broadcasting in November 1996
by the Qatar-based Arab satellite channel has profoundly changed the
media and political equation in the entire Middle East. Countless
articles, many books, and research papers in many languages have been
devoted to “the Al Jazeera phenomenon”i.
State broadcasting authorities and newspaper managers in the Middle
East, international broadcasters elsewhere, and governments in the
region and beyond had to rethink their policies, change the way they
addressed their people and the people of their neighbouring countries.
Competitors were forced to set themselves up with the aim of luring away
Al Jazeera viewers. Where this succeeded (e.g. with Al Arabiya), it was
because these other broadcasters emulated Al Jazeera’s formula of field
reporting, and tough questioning of political figures on live
interviews. Those viewers who were attracted to other channels usually
continued watching Al Jazeera for the sake of comparison.


But
Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 and this is 2010, 14 years later. We
cannot be satisfied repeating the same clichés, however true they may
be, about the pioneering role of Al Jazeera. In the course of these 14
years the media and political landscapes around Al Jazeera have
profoundly changed, largely due to the role it played in disrupting the
traditional media system in the Arab world. But these changes, in turn,
affected Al Jazeera for two main reasons. The most obvious reason is
that, in 1996, Al Jazeera’s style of reporting was unchallenged in the
Arab world. This is no longer true. By setting the standard, Al Jazeera
created the conditions and the framework for real competition and
pluralism, and everyone had to more or less adapt to the Al Jazeera
model. As a result, Al Jazeera is still a figurehead and a major actor,
but it no longer has a monopoly on professional and independent
reporting in Arabic. The second reason might be less obvious but it is
linked to the reason for which Al Jazeera was originally created.
Irrespective of the sincerity of the new Qatari Emir regarding freedom
of the press, Sheikh Hamad had set himself a major objective: put Qatar
on the geopolitical map well beyond the size of its territory and
populationii. Al Jazeera was instrumental in achieving this goal, as the subsequent years have proven.

By
its constant interviewing of political opponents, Al Jazeera infuriated
virtually all Arab heads of state, and western leaders alike. Some of
its bureaux were closed, and diplomatic relations were (temporarily)
severed. Throughout this turmoil, the Qatari Emir stood by Al Jazeera’s
management in the name of democracy and freedom of the press. Whether
his interlocutors were convinced by his stance remains to be seen, but
they had to accept it, and, usually after a few months, the bureaux were
reopened and ambassadors sent back to their posts. The trick was not to
alienate every Arab government at the same time, and one must admit
that Al Jazeera did a good job of taking them on one by one, making it
easier, if not easy, for the Qatari government.

Meanwhile,
as Sheikh Hamad had planned, Qatar had developed a reputation for
itself. Its diplomacy became active in mediating between Arab or Muslim
factions, a role that previously had been the domain only of Egypt and
Saudi Arabia. Despite numerous misgivings, most Arab states – notably
Saudi Arabia – had reluctantly come to terms with the existence of Al
Jazeera, and had normalised their relations with Qatar. Several
high-level meetings between the Qatari and Saudi leadership marked this
reconciliation after long-standing strains in their relationship. (In
1992, there were even armed skirmishes on their border, resulting in
three deaths.)iii

Mohammed
Jassim Al Ali had been Al Jazeera’s managing director since its
inception, and he had embodied the new brand of journalism, and its
resistance to government pressure that was represented by the channel.
Needless to say, he was not very popular with the Saudi or American
authorities. So, when his replacement was announced in May 2003, it was
difficult not to see a connection. Since then, no one disputes the fact
that Al Jazeera has retained its professionalism, but many observers
contend that its programmes are less offensive to Saudi Arabia or the
United States than they previously had been. Many point out that the
first Al Jazeera was a curious blend of Islamic conservatives, Arab
nationalists, and, to some extent, free thinkers. The new Al Jazeera has
definitely a more religious and conservative flavour. In a nutshell,
many have the feeling that Al Jazeera has been normalised along with the
normalisation of Qatar’s diplomatic relations.

As
stated earlier, however, whether this perception is founded on a strong
basis or not has far less importance than if it had taken place in the
first years of the channel’s existence. Because – and I am not saying
this is the case – even if the Qatari government or Al Jazeera’s current
management wanted to put a lid on the channel, it simply could not do
so without losing Al Jazeera’s most precious asset: its credibility. Its
viewers are by no means captive; Al Arabiya, LBC and others have
established themselves as global – or, at least, regional – players. The
competition has improved the quality and freedom of information offered
to Arab citizens. Even newspapers had to open up for fear of losing
their readers – who also watch satellite news channels.

What
these Arab satellite televisions have achieved is not confined to this.
They have also succeeded in bringing the Arabic-speaking populations of
the Middle East and North Africa closer to each other. In a sense, it
can be said that they have done within a decade what the Arab League
arguably had failed to do in five decades: the unification of the
“arabosphere”. To be sure, the problems of the Maghreb are quite
distinct from those of the Mashreq, and this situation is unlikely to
change in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, whereas in the early
1990s the multiplication of satellite dishes in Algeria, Tunisia and
Morocco allowed the populations of these countries to receive French
channels, the advent of Al Jazeera and others like it has radically
altered the situation: households in these countries now watch Arab
satellite channels instead of France 2 or TF1. So do, for that matter,
many North Africans living in Europe. The reason for this is twofold:
the coverage of Middle Eastern issues on European broadcasting channels
has been perceived as biased against Arabs and Muslims by southern
viewers, especially at the peaks of crises such as the Iraq war. On the
other hand, Arab satellite television channels give Arabs a voice, and
people in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia or Mauritania easily relate to their
coverage and the worldview depicted in their programmes.

Moreover,
the language factor is essential, as many of those who had previously
watched European channels had a poor command of French, Spanish or
Italian, but understood the Arabic spoken on these Arab channels, even
if it was not the dialect of Arabic commonly used at home. The fact that
Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya (but not the Lebanese channels) have North
African newsreaders, talk-show hosts or reporters is also a key element
in the success achieved in North Africa by Arab satellite channels
broadcasting from the Gulf. In fact, this is a novelty for Eastern Arabs
who also had to get used to watching news read by an Algerian or a
Moroccan. Until recently, Lebanese and Egyptians were exerting a
monopoly over transnational Arabic newscasts, whether from the BBC or
from Monte Carlo Doualiyya (formerly Radio Monte Carlo-Middle East). The
newsrooms of Al Jazeera or Al Arabiyya epitomise the feeling of
belonging to a common entity: the Arab world.

However,
these achievements may also have a rebounding effect. Since Arab
governments have long ago given up on censoring programmes, and all
attempts to check the sale of satellite dish receivers failed in the
1990s, virtually everyone in the Arab world can watch these channels,
and most do. As a result, they are perceived as local television
channels as much as they are perceived as transnational channels,
including by governments and religious authorities. This can carry a
heavy price tag, both for the viewers and the broadcasters. Last June,
in Saudi Arabia, the religious police had been probing an MTV programme
for “sin”. In the programme, called “Resist the Power!”, a Saudi girl
spoke about how she had been riding a bicycle in the streets of Jeddah,
disguised as a boy. On the same programme, a Saudi boy was explaining
how he had broken local rules on gender segregation in order to meet his
girlfriend. Earlier, in October 2009, a Saudi man had been sentenced to
five years in jail after he had boasted about his sexual exploits on
LBC’s “Bold red line”.


The penalties can be even harsher for broadcasters. For many years, Ali
Hussein Sibat had been the host of a programme on the Lebanese
Scheherazade satellite television channel, in which he used to give
personal advice and predict the future. In October 2008, as he was
performing the pilgrimage in Makkah, he was arrested for “sorcery”. He
was sentenced to death in November 2009, and, in March 2010, the death
penalty was confirmed by a Saudi appeal court. An international outcry
and diplomatic pressure stayed his execution, but his fate is unknown.
Even if these examples are extreme, it shows that, in many places in the
Middle East, governments have not gracefully accepted the de facto
end of censorship. The message seems to be: you may be free to speak to
our populations from abroad, but watch out if you happen to travel
within our jurisdiction; we are also free to capture and punish you.

The
fact is that Arab satellite television channels have played (and still
do) a tremendous role in changing the Middle East in the past 15 years;
they have become part of the landscape and everyone has adapted:
governments in the regions – albeit unwillingly – and the channels
themselves, which seem to be less disruptive to the traditional order
than they had been a few years ago. As for the viewers, they are picking
and choosing from all the television programmes at their disposal. The
situation has more or less stabilised on this front.

Meanwhile, a new front (and new challenges) has opened for all the dramatis personae
of the play, and in this new one, the public is becoming a major actor.
The internet, mobile phones, voice over IP (VoIP), chats, social
networks, and SMSes have now become a major headache for all
governments, a powerful competitor for traditional media, and a prime
source of information for many. From being passive recipients of
information, people have become central players.

After
the June 2009 Iranian election which saw Mousavi’s supporters
demonstrating against alleged electoral fraud and the ensuing
repression, President Ahmadinejad’s opponents had been deprived of
access to most traditional media outlets. Television and radio were
tightly controlled by the government; opposition and independent
newspapers and magazines were closed one after another; and journalists
were put in jail. But the opposition capitalised on the tools made
available by Twitter, Facebook, Youtube (with videos taken and sent from
mobile phones), and SMS. The Iranian authorities tried to block Twitter
and Facebook, and to shut down the mobile phone networks for a time.
But, after a while, they had to back down.

The
same retreat occurred when the Pakistani government decided to block
access to Facebook. Gulf governments face the same dilemma. Since the
1990s, they have tried, and to some extent succeeded, in developing the
internet while – at the same time – monitoring its content through a
comprehensive system of firewalls and proxies. Dubai police are
particularly competent in this respect. Cybercafés in the Gulf and in
Saudi Arabia are closely monitored by police officers who track any sign
of opposition to the royal family or the government, and any accessing
of “immoral websites”. But, with the advent of smart-phones which
combine the ability to send SMSes with VoIP, internet surfing, emails,
and video/photo cameras, it has become increasingly difficult. Saudi
Arabia has even tried to prevent travellers from entering the kingdom
with a mobile phone fitted with a camera. It has been to no avail. In
July, the UAE and Saudi Arabia announced that unless the Canadian
company Research in Motion gave them the key to its encrypted
communication systems, they would ban the use of Blackberry devices in
their territories. In the UAE alone, there is an estimated 500,000
Blackberries in use.

This
is the crux of the problem. Littoral Gulf States have been pretty adept
at profiting from the globalisation process. This is particularly true
of Dubai and Qatar. But, in a competitive world where localisation is
increasingly less important, how can they continue luring businessmen
from around the world if they disable major communications functions of
mobile phones or of internet terminals? These measures are, of course,
taken in the name of fighting terrorism and money-laundering, but these
excuses are not entirely convincing. One cannot but notice that, in the
course of the last decade, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements have
been far more responsive and adept than governments at using the new
communication technologies both for private communications and
propaganda. If anything, Arab governments are losing this communication
battle to terrorists, political opponents, human rights NGOs, and their
own populations. This loss is not for a lack of resources. These
governments pay huge fees to public relations companies who host foreign
journalists for scripted tours, or organise media conferences abroad
for local leaders or carefully-selected “representatives of civil
society” who have nothing to say and are in denial of even minor
problems back home.

Arab
satellite channels have posed a major challenge for Arab and other
governments in the past 15 years. They may still pose a challenge, but
it is no longer a major one, as everybody seems to have made the
necessary compromises. The rising challenge derives from the people
themselves, who take up the information business with the tools which
are now available to virtually everyone. There can be no doubt that,
with time, money and technology, governments will succeed in reducing
this challenge. But time does not stop. New technologies which we cannot
conceive in 2010 will emerge and give people the ability to, once
again, bypass censorship.

For governments, this is a battle which – in the long run – can only be lost.

* Olivier Da Lage is an author and journalist.

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