Politics and media in the Middle East: The post-Al Jazeera era
By Olivier Da Lage
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. He has published several books and numerous articles on the Middle East, and is a regular lecturer at the Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques (IRIS), a Paris-based foreign policy think tank. He also teaches journalist ethics and press law.
** This article is published as part of a partnership agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre and the Doha-based Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies.
iThe Al Jazeera Phenomenon is the title of the work edited by Mohamed Zayani, Pluto Press, London, 2005.
iiSee my contribution in Zayani’s book: ‘The politics of Al Jazeera or the diplomacy of Doha‘.
iiiOlivier Da Lage, ‘Saudi Arabia and the Smaller Gulf States: The Vassals take their Revenge‘, 2005.