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.
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.
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 Arabia
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.
This article appears in the July edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.