Middle East

Middle East

The Arab Satellite Channels and Their Political Impact After the Iraq War

Wounded Iraqi boy on Al-Jazeera
Al-Jazeera shows an Iraqi boy wounded in the U.S.-led bombing of Basra on March 26, 2003, being treated at a local hospital (Photo: Al-Jazeera/AFP-Getty Images).

This era is almost over. Many will remember it as the era of the American invasion of the Arab world, or as the era that saw the beginning of the end of the existing Arab political order.

There are two important factors in this transformation: information and psychology. We must consider not only the invasion itself, but also the result of the way this invasion has been presented and interpreted on Arab satellite TV channels. Through their presentation and interpretation of the destruction and humiliation Arabs have faced in Iraq and Palestine over recent years, these channels have played an important role in changing the way Arabs think, behave, and view reality. In modern Arab history, including during the revolutionary period of the 1960s and ’70s, there has been nothing to equal the power of the Arab satellite channels in changing the nature of popular consciousness and political attitudes in the Arab world.

Four prominent channels among some 30 have been leading the change: Al-Jazeera, Al-Manar, Abu Dhabi, and LBC-Al-Hayat. As many as 70-80 percent of all Arab viewers watch these channels. Al-Manar and LBC-Al-Hayat are privately owned; Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi receive government support. But they all enjoy broad editorial freedom and political independence.

News coverage in the Arab world remained the preserve of foreign media outlets like CNN until the 1991 Gulf War. Then independent news was presented mainly in English. But now political analysis comes in Arabic, from Arab correspondents and political analysts. This has led to a real change in the way realities are presented to the Arab viewer—especially concerning Palestine and Iraq. The reality shown is no longer filtered through a foreign lens, but is perceived through indigenous, Arab eyes. For the first time, Arab viewers have been able to know the suffering of Palestinians directly. Spokesmen for the Palestinians appear regularly on the satellite channels, express their thoughts freely, and relate their opinions to their Arab brothers and the entire world.

Many other programs are shown on the satellite channels: talk shows, political commentary, programs about women’s issues, investigative reports, and so on. These focus on issues, ideas, and problems that used to be hard to find on Arab state broadcast media. Old taboos against criticizing state policies and government corruption, calling for political and social change, and asking for freedom of speech and the right to assembly have been smashed.

Talk shows have become the most popular thing on the air. They regularly feature sober, academic discussions of history, economics, and literature, as well as political debates with viewer participation and shouting matches about sensitive issues. Viewers are encouraged to express their (usually harsh and confrontational) views. Judging from the callers’ accents, it’s clear most are lower-middle class or working class.

Interview shows featuring specialists and figures from different intellectual backgrounds—government officials, foreign correspondents, and activists lobbying for women, workers, or other causes—have also proved popular. These programs present serious analysis and opinion in comprehensible language in a way that has never been seen before. We’ve also seen a growing interest in discussions about women and the politics of gender. There has been a profusion of shows featuring women from Islamic and secular backgrounds. Many women are working as news anchors, hosting debate programs, and reporting from the field as correspondents.

The question is: How will this affect popular political attitudes in the future? It will take time to make a proper evaluation, but for the moment we can say the following:

  1. There has been a clear increase in political consciousness among many people.
  2. People are capable of adopting opinions on political issues in a way that they weren’t before.
  3. Political groups have become more effective and committed. We can’t expect any meaningful change in the region as a whole under American occupation and Israeli hegemony, and there is no easy way to get rid of the paternalistic regimes that have controlled Arab political life for the last half a century—whether in their traditional or revamped forms. Under American imperialist authority, it is not the democratic forces of civil society but the authoritarian forces of the “friendly” paternalistic regimes that will become entrenched in Arab societies.
Indeed, most of these regimes have started to get used to the idea that they are completely subject to the world’s sole superpower. In these circumstances, people seek an escape. They don’t find it in false and obscure promises of democracy, equality, or human rights. They find it by returning to their Islamic heritage and a range of Islamist movements: from the moderate groups that oppose violence to the radicals who talk of jihad and martyrdom.

So it seems obvious that the possibilities for change and fundamental reform in the near future don’t look good, unless there is a surprise collapse of the American occupation regime in Iraq. In the short term, the situation will favor the authoritarian paternalistic regimes. This can lead only to more poverty among ordinary people and to greater instability and violence. Resistance to the American occupation of Iraq will appear and inevitably crystallize. Revolutionary explosions against the current paternalistic regimes will erupt sooner or later.

Although the situation in the Arab world will continue to deteriorate in the foreseeable future, something will inevitably happen in one or all of the three biggest, richest, and strongest Arab countries: Egypt, Algeria, and Iraq...Something that will turn the situation upside down and restore the balance of power between the Arab world and its colonial and settler enemies.