On the Ground
Who Do They Believe?

Arab viewers show little loyalty to particular TV channels

by Simon Marks

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This story is part of "24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio.

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In the center of Amman, the Jordanian capital, construction crews have been hard at work putting the finishing touches on one of the region's newest broadcast facilities.

You might think that with more than 250 satellite stations already on the air in the Arab world, there isn't much room for anything new.

But the backers of Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper disagree. They're preparing to launch the country's first privately owned television station later this year. As they see it, the battle for the dominance of the Arab media landscape is by no means settled yet.

The 8 O'Clock News

A few seconds before eight on a weekday evening, Dana Jordaan is getting ready to go on the air. In her mid-20s, she's Western-educated, charismatic, and lively. And hers is the new prime-time face of Jordanian television news.

"The 8 o'clock news is actually the main news bulletin at Jordan television," Jordaan explains after the broadcast. "It concentrates on the local news more than on national news. Anything related to the king, the prime minister, or any ministers or any events happening in Jordan whether they're economic or sports or political events—you can find that they are concentrated in this news bulletin."

What happens in Studio 1 of the government-run Jordan Television every night was once the envy of the Arab world. Back in 1968, JTV was one of the first television networks established in the Middle East. It went on to become one of the first broadcasters to offer viewers two channels of programming—and one of the first to shift from black and white to color. But today JTV is under pressure, losing audience members and experienced employees to the pan-Arab satellite channels that have come to dwarf it.

Jordanian media experts estimate that close to 60 percent of the country's households own satellite dishes with access to more than 400 stations.

Facing this tremendous competition, JTV is not throwing in the towel. On the day this reporter visited the station, JTV Chief Executive Moustafah Hermaneh insisted that by retooling the network he was positioning it for a comeback. And George Hawatmeh, former editor of the government run Jordan Times newspaper, says that illustrates the dilemma in which JTV finds itself.

"It's a new world for the media," Hawatmeh says. "I'm not sure it has fundamentally changed though. The government might well feel that television station is its television station, that there is still a vertical relationship with the people who operate it."

And so Jordan Television's reporters focus relentlessly on the local beat. Heading off from JTV's newsroom, one reporter briefs his cameraman about their story for the day: the drought and when the local weather bureau expects it to rain. JTV is still wholly owned by the government here, and the weather story—like many others on the 8 p.m. news—will include an interview with a government minister.

But Hermaneh says the network realizes it now must challenge authority if it is to rebuild credibility with its audience.

"In the past, reporting was more international than domestic, because you didn't want to get involved in the domestic scene. It was very difficult and almost impossible to report on issues about the environment, political parties, congresses, discussions with the government, disagreements on certain issues, corruption. It's covered now on the 8 o'clock news and it's happening and people are watching it."

Speed, and Accuracy

To understand what JTV is up against, you only have to visit the Wihdat refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman. It is not a refugee camp in the classic sense of the phrase; it has been here since 1955 and looks increasingly like a permanent settlement for more than 45,000 Palestinians whose families sought refuge in Jordan during and after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

In the living room of a spartanly decorated home, three generations of the Al Akhras family gather around the television. Khalid Al Akhras and his wife Liqa moved here in 1967 after fleeing Jericho. Khalid believes accuracy and speed are directly related when it comes to news.

"I trust the channel which is the fastest: Al Jazeera. Because it has many correspondents and it conveys accurate news faster than the other channels."

Their son Jamal is a doctor in the Wihtad camp. While he says he occasionally watches Jordanian television like his mother and father, he is more likely to be found tuning in to Al Jazeera.

"It gives you immediate and detailed accounts of the event," he said. "That does not mean that the other stations do not cover the events themselves, but there is more detail in Al Jazeera's coverage."

Before TV, the BBC

Also popular in this overwhelmingly poor neck of the Jordanian woods are the channels that transmit readings from the Koran 24 hours a day. Several are available from various satellite distributors—and like Christian television and radio in the American Bible Belt, you can hear them echoing through neighborhoods.

Wael Kharadsheh lives at the other end of the economic and social spectrum. A retired Jordanian diplomat, he is a prominent figure on the political circuit in Amman. And like many Jordanian intellectuals he refuses to watch Al Jazeera, accusing the network of pandering to the radical political sensibilities of its mass audience.

"They have certain programs that are obnoxious, unfortunately, and they disappointed us," Kharadsheh said. "I really get upset and say 'why attack Jordan, why say this and that?' I change sometimes now to Al Arabiya, which is new, and I find more moderation and more realism...not prejudice or attacking. In my old days, before TV, it was BBC."

Breaking From State Control

It is that sense of viewer dissatisfaction that Jordanian Television and its new private competitor hope to capitalize upon. Al Ghad is already Jordan's most successful, privately owned newspaper. Now it is getting into the broadcasting business, building two six-camera studios with picture windows overlooking downtown Amman.

Mohammed Alayyan owns Al Ghad and believes he can make money by running a commercial, locally focused television station in Jordan.

"There's no more loyalty to certain TV stations," he said. "There is only loyalty to content and to specific programs."

He argues that the government-run JTV has done well wooing viewers back from the satellite stations. And he says Al Jazeera in particular is vulnerable to allegations of bias.

"A lot of people perceive it as being independent. But my argument has always been, how can you have independent media if it [is not financially viable]? You just cannot. If you are subsidized and you keep losing money—50, 60 million dollars every single year, year on year—basically you are obliged to follow the agenda of the person who is subsidizing you, whoever that person is. So, therefore, you cannot really say that it is independent."

That there is even a discussion about the independence of media in Jordan is a testament, in part, to the influence of the pan-Arab satellite channels. Had they not come along, Alayyan acknowledges, it might still be impossible for a private businessman to own newspapers and television stations in a part of the world where the media has traditionally been under state control.

Pride and the Media

This is certainly true in neighboring Syria, which only now is beginning to experiment with a loosening of the government reins.

In the 12th-century Souk Al Hamadiyah—the market in the center of the Damascus where one can buy everything from strong Arabic coffee and spices to the latest fashions imported from Paris—a decidedly old-style scene was recently filmed by government-run Syrian television. Patriotic songs rang from loudspeakers, and a Syrian cameraman was gingerly hoisted above a crowd whose members are waving the country's flag.

To the anger and frustration of the Syrian television director sent to acquire enough footage to create a music video, the crowd had not learned the words. Several takes were ordered before they got them right. The director, Mohammed Skiyah, insists that this was a spontaneous outpouring of national pride in the country's achievements.

"We are directing a message to all the people of the world—that Syria is a country of proud and courageous people," Skiyah says. "It is more than a song. It is a presentation for the whole world to see that we have millions of people, from 2-year-old kids to 70-year-old men—so that we can show the world Syria is not what they think it is. Syria is a peaceful country."

This, despite the fact that Syria has been defensive of late—particularly after the United Nations accused it of involvement in the assassination of several prominent figures in neighboring Lebanon.

In the "Free Zone"

Syrian television dutifully broadcasts music videos and other government-inspired programming not just inside Syria but also on a satellite channel that is viewed across the Middle East.

Despite that seemingly heavy-handed control of the media and the message, the liberalization under way in Damascus is, in its own way, transforming society even here.

"We're writing [about] a lot of sensitive issues, and sometimes we are really surprised that we passed the censorship, says 27-year-old Kinda Kanbar, managing editor of Syria Today, a glossy English-language magazine produced from a newsroom in the so-called "free zone" in downtown Damascus.

The "free zone" was established by President Bashar Al Assad to encourage foreign investors to build manufacturing plants on territory that is officially "free" from Syrian government taxation and control.

Sensing an opportunity, Kinda Kanbar opened her news magazine on "free zone" territory—effectively producing it as a foreign publication. After the magazine is printed, she must submit it to government censors. But to her amazement, she says, not a single article has ever been changed.

"We do not know exactly what our red lines [are]—meaning there are no guidelines or laws to tell you 'do not talk about this issue' or not. It's a gray area. And sometimes you draw your red lines, and if you are really pushy and brave enough and take responsibility in a professional way, you can push it."

New Freedoms

Those red lines are being tested at Syrian Television as well. The nightly news, broadcast from an imposing building in the heart of Damascus, now carries live coverage of events that in the past would have been considered too hot to handle. When the United Nations discussed allegations that the Syrian government was behind the string of assassinations in Lebanon, it did so live on Syrian Television.

Dianna Jabbour, Syrian TV's chief executive, now oversees the network. She is not a member of the ruling Ba'ath Party, but was appointed after writing a newspaper article critical of the Syrian regime. Asked about how much freedom her reporters now have, she laughs.

"The difference," she said, "is that they have more freedom than they're taking advantage of. The funny thing about this situation is that we are given more freedom now, but as editors and individuals we still don't have the courage to push things to the limit."

Jabbour says the journalists working in her newsroom would never have won the relative freedoms they now enjoy had it not been for the legalization of satellite dish ownership in Syria. Everywhere you go in Damascus, there are dishes crowding the rooftops. And the presentation of news on the pan-Arab satellite stations has, she believes, changed everything there.

"I cannot market an image of Syria that does not exist," Jabbour said plainly. "That would be stupid. It would be stupid for me to think that my viewers are stupid, because they know the truth. They know the reality and they will not watch my channel. They'll switch off. Therefore, I go with the truth even if it has its faults. Maybe we're not as competitive as we want to be, but you have to be honest with what you have instead of pretend."

"Life Is Changing"

The Syrian government also points to satellite ownership as a key factor in its decision to liberalize local media laws and make Syrian journalists more competitive. Until recently, Mehdi Daklallah was Syria's minister of information. The former editor of the ruling party's hard-line newspaper Al Ba'ath, even he has bowed to the inevitable.

"Any Syrian today can watch over 300 Arab satellite channels," Daklallah said. "And they have a variety of sources for information. This makes directed media impossible. One hundred percent impossible. And public opinion is pressuring the government for more liberalization of media."

Will Daklallah be Syria's last minister of information?

"Inshallah," he answers. With God's help.

But Daklallah did not get his wish. A few weeks after this interview, he was replaced in a Cabinet reshuffle. But Syrian journalists, like Kinda Kanbar of Syria Today, say the changes already instituted are unlikely to be reversed.

"What [can] the government actually do?" she asks. "You're going to keep this country shut? We have to look around us. Jordan, for example, three hours away from us by car with the borders. One hour and a half from Lebanon. [The government] can't do anything. Life is changing."

Modern, Fancy, Traditional

"Al Jazeera's in Doha, Qatar. Al Arabiya is in Dubai, the UAE. And you never see them covering stories from the Gulf," says Khalwa Mattar, deputy editor in chief of Al Wachten, a daily newspaper in Bahrain. She believes that Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya honor "red lines" of their own when it comes to avoiding coverage of controversial issues in their respective backyards.

"You never see them raising issues of concern to Gulf citizens," Mattar said. "If you close your eyes and just listen to Al Jazeera, many times you wouldn't think that Al Jazeera is in Qatar. For example, they attack the American foreign policy in the region. They have a position that is very clear. Everybody who watches Al Jazeera can feel that Al Jazeera has a position towards the American foreign policy, which might be a reflection of its viewers. Because the majority of the Arabs have that feeling."

For Mattar, it all boils down to a question of who owns the two largest pan-Arab networks, and therefore who subsidizes the enormous financial losses. There are no reliable audience ratings covering the entire Arab world. But public opinion polls clearly and consistently show Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya as the most-watched news channels in the region. Al Jazeera is financed by the royal family of Qatar and Al Arrabiya is owned by a Saudi businessman with links to the Saudi royal family. Khwala Mattar says both are reluctant to bite the hands with the cash.

"I think that this pan-Arab media is highly modern," she says. "They use all the fancy equipment, but it's still very conservative when it comes to social issues. And that's why they shy away from these issues, because the ownership is very conservative. So the package is very fancy. The package is very modern. But the content is still very traditional."

To support her argument, Mattar singled out the coverage of women's issues on both networks. The Saudi-backed Al Arabiya, she says, never discusses the repression of women's rights in the Kingdom. And Al Jazeera fences in the debate over the role of women by consigning it to a special weekly program, she says. This lack of coverage, or lack of broader coverage, worries Mattar.

"Al Jazeera is so much open for political discussion when it comes to political issues, and when it comes to women's issues they just package it in that program. And they called it "Only for Women." Really [it is] produced by a very conservative wife of a clergyman, a woman who gets all the conservatives' views about women in Islam, the treatment of Islam, and all of this...and how women should wear the veil, and if they don't wear the veil they go to hell, and things like this. And you get one feminist in a group of ten women who are veiled...I'm not against the veil. I'm just trying to say that there are other views in this region that are not heard. These are the views of the secular population in the Arab region that are not heard."

"24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media" is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. The full program includes segments on Arab broadcast media, the regional perspectives on the rise of Arab media, Washington perspectives on the shifting Arab media landscape, and an essay by David Brancaccio on the influence of satellite television on Arab society. Exclusive interviews with Al Jazeera senior anchor Jamil Azar, US Central Command's Media Engagement Team, senior CNN correspondent Jane Arraf, and Professor Ramez Maluf of the Lebanese American University are also available.

Simon Marks also reported for the foundation's award-winning radio programs "The Russia Project," "UNder Fire: The United Nations' Battle for Relevance," and "Security Check: Confronting Today's Global Threats."