Media in the Middle East: bridges or walls, or the need for a cigarette

So, Al Jazeera’s broadcasting to the North in English. How do people in the Arab world feel about Northern stations broadcasting to the region in Arabic? (Here’s a hint: some of them really, really disliked al-Hurra, the US goverment’s Arabic-language channel.) The session discussing these issues – “Regional News Channels in the Middle East: Building Bridges or Walls?” – is spirited, verging on fiery.

Daniel Dodd, the acting head of strategy for BBC, explains the logic behind BBC’s new Arabic-language service. This isn’t BBC’s first attempt at an Arabic television network – the first one was a commercial partnership launched in 1996. When the partner pulled out, BBC was forced to back away from the project, and many of the journalists associated left to join Al Jazeera. This project is a little different – it’s a BBC project funded by freeing up money in other parts of the organization’s budget. By closing some European bureaus – largely those that produced content in Eastern European languages – the funds can now go towards providing a network in Arabic, launching in November.

Dodd talks about the risks the BBC takes in providing news from around the world, including the kidnapping of their Gaza correspondent. BBC is one of the most trusted brands in the world – a survey of trust in media ranks BBC above CNN in terms of trusted media. This survey has very different results in the Middle East, he admits – there BBC ranks third, behind Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. But Dodd sees demand for BBC’s coverage in the region and the project is going forward.

Abdul Bari Atwan, the editor of London’s Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, isn’t buying it. He asks whether the new channel proposed by BBC is intended to build a bridge, or to open a path for attack by the west. “Is it a preparation for war? Is it a coincidence that these channels are rising at the time of wars in Iraq, Palestine and maybe Iran?” Al-Hurra, he argues, looks like the media produced by “any other dictatorship in the world, like Idi Amin and others – a channel to dictate to the world.”

He argues that this is a widespread movement – France, the UK and Russia are all building services in Arabic. “These are all government channels, all financed by governments involved in war in the region.” The stations follow “American trends and ideas” and are funded by countries that are “part of the American project in the region.”

He’s not just upset about the Western-sponsored stations – he’s got concerns about Arab-created media as well. Of 280 satellite channels available in the region, only ten are news channels. The rest are entertainment, sports and religious broadcasting. “And the companies that finance the religious channels are the same that finance the dancing and the music.” These channels are an attack on Arab identity, pulling on the youth away from Arab identity both to these forms of entertainment and to Western news.

Why is the west targeting this region? It’s a war on Arab intellectuals, he tells us, an attempt to deal with these nations as if they were “nations of minors”. “Why isn’t there a British channel broadcasting in Hindi or Chinese? Why isn’t there a Russian channel in Swahili? It’s because we’ve got the petroleum.”

He predicts that these new networks will fail and that Northern taxpayers will be left paying for the experiment. He mentions appearing on a panel organized by CNN to ask Arab intellectuals why there’s such hatred for the US. “Do you really need a panel to tell you this after the invasion of Iraq?” An official tells the participants that the US has spent $1 billion financing newspapers and broadcast stations in the Middle East, and that based on these discussions, he’ll recommend doubling that spending. “But the problem is that the product – the propoganda – is bad. The problem is not the radio or television – it’s what they’re trying to sell.”

Henri Piaget (I’ve got his name wrong, and I don’t have his affiliation – I’m sorry, my program is in my luggage, which is lost in Heathrow) steps to the defense of France 24, the new French news network which broadcasts in French, English and, coming soon, Arabic. He points out that there are plans to produce the network in Chinese next and to expand into other languages as well.

Piaget sees the function of these channels explicitly as bridge-builders. “We’re living in a world divided, for technical and national reasons.” But as the economy integrates, “we’re now in an open market – we need the growth of international channels to listen, to connect.” He sees the rise of Al Jazeera as a critical moment in media history, pointing out that this was the first time people were hearing Arab voices “not through the channel of a government but from a channel run by journalists.”

Journalism, he reminds us, is highly parochial. He taught a workshop in Sarajevo and, in the course of two days, fielded almost no questions abouit the Middle East. Understandably, the journalists there wanted to talk about the Balkans. But these new channels can help bridge these gaps: “If the world is open, we’re obliged to listen to others.”

Dr. Muhammed Musfir, a lecturer at Qatar University, picks up the theme of news as cultural invasion, arguing that the North has been trying to invade the Arab world for 1400 years, starting with the Mongols and Tartars. (Man, I wish Genghis Khan had a cable channel. Wouldn’t that have been great?) “No one has been able to change the views of this part of the world.” And now the attacks are coming through the media.

He argues that the influence of international media in the region is to “spread hate”, referencing the terms used by networks to refer to armed people using violence in pursuit of political goals. “I’m ashamed to say that we’re starting to use the western terms – instead of calling them ‘freedom fighters’, we’re calling them ‘armed men’.”

The Northern media are “using all of their efforts to reform our minds.” Their special target is “the main cell, which is the family, especially the mother.” He argues that Arab societies have made a place for women’s rights, honoring women by appointing female ministers and politicians before the North did so, and that rhetoric about “women’s rights” is a way of veiling attacks on the Arab family.

Dodd understandably wants to respond to Atwan’s concerns that BBC Arabic is the precusor to a British invasion. He argues that it’s a business decision, not a government decision, and that the BBC feels it can serve its mandate in the region better through TV than through radio. It’s been broadcasting in Arabic for years in the region and now wants to reach a new audience. Atwan’s response gives a good sense for how difficult this dialog is going to be for any participants who’d like to build bridges, not walls. He argues that “we know there are good cigarettes for the first world and bad ones for the third world. BBC in English is for the civilized world – there’s no room for propoganda in it. But the BBC Arabic version will twist the facts” to fit the UK’s political agenda.

This makes me want a cigarette, you know, one of those good ones we get in the first world, where they don’t cause lung cancer.

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