When Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news channel, announced last July that it was adopting a formal code of journalistic ethics, reports also emerged that the network might soon transform itself into a publicly listed company. To many media-watchers, the two moves were linked. By emphasizing words like "credibility" and "independence," the code of ethics seemed to signal to potential shareholders that the channel could rank with global television newscasters and that Al Jazeera could make a profit and meet viewers' information needs at the same time. Doing both would represent a first in Arab broadcasting.
Historically, Arab terrestrial, or land-transmitted, television has been run by government broadcasting monopolies characterized by tight control over content and disregard for profit. Although Lebanese and Palestinian laws allowed private terrestrial channels, most private ownership has been restricted to satellite channels, with owners allied to regimes and seeking to advance their own political interests rather than to satisfy their viewers. In this environment Al Jazeera, founded in 1996, was an oddity. Subsidized by Qatar's reformist ruler, its uncensored coverage won huge audiences and should have attracted correspondingly large advertising revenues. It failed to do so because advertising on Arab television, like programming, has followed the direction of censorious and self-seeking governments, not market forces.
Now, after a decade in which satellite television restructured the Arab broadcasting landscape by generating a degree of competition, there are fresh signs of structural change. Jordan and Morocco, led by kings of a younger generation, are ending their state monopolies on terrestrial broadcasting. In Egypt, where the state needs to offload some of the burden of paying 35,000 government radio and television employees, more liberal provisions for granting broadcast licenses have been drafted. In recent months new private channels have sprung up in Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, although most play it safe by offering entertainment and religious programs rather than news. A raft of other channels, based in Baghdad, Beirut, Dubai, and London have been launched to target the newly-opened market in Iraq.
What is not yet clear is whether in reforming their media laws, Arab governments will allow independent watchdogs to regulate broadcasting, or simply appoint tame commissions to continue the censorship previously conducted by ministries of information. In Iraq, U.S. occupation officials created an independent entity, the National Communication and Media Commission, modeled on Britain's regulatory body, Ofcom, to ensure that Iraqi media would promote unfettered national debate. But almost as soon as the Iraqi interim government assumed power last June, it superimposed a Higher Media Council to do the prime minister's bidding and to expel or outlaw independent media operators it dislikes. So-called reform initiatives elsewhere in the region could end in the re-establishment of similar mechanisms of government control.
Meanwhile, editorial curbs on private broadcasters' content result not just from overt censorship but more subtly from the way the advertising industry works. When viewers' interests and financial profits are not the top priority, television owners have no incentive to measure their programs’ relative popularity. Thus until recently, few companies have conducted viewership surveys and those which were conducted lacked credibility, tending to endorse a few officially approved stations and leaving companies unsure where to place advertisements for best results. Running them on a popular channel like Al Jazeera, which is subject to an advertising boycott backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments opposed to its coverage, is a risky move in a region where most big businesses depend on the patronage of those who hold political power.
But as the number of satellite players has expanded, data collection has started to improve. With some thirteen Arabic-language news channels now available by satellite, and many others devoted to music and sport, more local companies are trying to prove their worth as pollsters. For example, the Amman-based Arab Advisors Group recently reported that 82 percent of Saudi households surveyed watched Al Jazeera and that 69 percent of respondents believed it to be trustworthy or very trustworthy, despite Al Jazeera's unpopularity with ruling regimes. The study also found that 11 percent of Saudi households watch Al Mustaqilla, a privately owned, London-based channel whose name means "The Independent."
Al Mustaqilla established a niche early on by focusing on human rights. Founded by a newspaper editor of Tunisian origin, it claimed to be different from private channels owned by government proxies or big business tycoons. Today a few more Arab broadcasters may be entitled to make the same claim. Yet, in the face of persistent government pressures and distortions in advertising revenue, all still need deep pockets to survive. And even then, as Egypt's privately-owned Dream TV discovered, editorial independence may have to be sacrificed for survival. Dream's owner, Ahmed Bahgat, hired popular presenters with strong personalities to help his channel stand out from the crowd. But one by one, in response to government displeasure, Bahgat took Hala Sirhan, Ibrahim Eissa, Muhammad Hassanayn Haykal, and Hamdi Kandil off the air. Being outspoken had endeared them to viewers but not to those who decide whether Dream broadcasts or not.
Viewers, in other words, are still far from having the last word. Until Arab broadcasting is independently regulated, aspiring independent broadcasters will be buffeted on all sides.
Naomi Sakr is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom. She is the author of Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East (London: I B Tauris, 2001) and the editor of Women and Media in the Middle East (London: I B Tauris, 2004).