Expert speaks on emerging trends in Mideast broadcasting

Avi Jorisch, a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, addressed the College community in Goodrich Hall last Tuesday evening in a talk entitled “The Role of the Media in the Middle East: Hizbollah’s al-Manar Television in the Context of Arab Media.” The lecture, sponsored by the International Club, was one of a series of events planned to celebrate International Week.

“The last decade has witnessed a revolution which has swept the Arab world and that revolution is Arab satellite media,” said Jorisch, whose specialization is Arab politics and Islamic society. “Satellite television has changed the way Arabs perceive themselves, their governments and the way they interact with the West.”

The rise of Arab satellite television, Jorisch said, has influenced the Middle East in four key ways. First, satellite television has challenged the traditional monopoly of Middle Eastern governments. Over time, these regimes will have difficulty convincing their people of ill-considered policy, making them more accountable to their respective peoples. Second, Arab satellite television has been slowly breaking down the barriers of censorship since satellite television cannot be regulated. Third, satellite television has served to bind Arabs throughout the Middle East. Finally, satellite TV has encouraged Arabs to interpret information in new and sophisticated ways.

According to Jorisch, the rise of Arab satellite television only occurred during the last decade. He cited the Persian Gulf War as well as the launching of Arab Sat – and the subsequent proliferation of satellite televisions – as key events in the development of Arab satellite television. Because the satellite televisions were state-sponsored, the Arab governments exhibited great control over these stations. Moreover, during the Persian Gulf War, for the first time Arabs were exposed to CNN’s constant stream of impressive information and images. They then became disillusioned by their own local television stations. Consequently, Arab television stations felt pressure to follow CNN’s model.

After speaking about the history of Arab satellite television, Jorisch surveyed the current five most popular stations in the Arab world: the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, Arab Radio Television, al-Jazeera, and al-Manar. The Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) is the oldest, most established station in the Middle East. Before the rise of al-Jazeera, it was the leading source of news in the Arab world. MBC features the pioneering program, “Voice of America,” which brought together American and Middle Eastern experts to comment on various international issues. Jorisch spoke more extensively on al-Jazeera, a station which has become a household name since the rise of al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 attacks. Launched in Qatar in 1996, al-Jazeera has become “one of the most effective and influential stations in the Middle East,” Jorisch said. Al-Jazeera has 27 offices worldwide and offers 24-hour news coverage. Its employees have been trained by western media outlets such as CNN and BBC and are committed to reporting unbiased news. However, al-Jazeera is primarily funded by the Qatar government and as a result is not permitted to criticize Qatar’s domestic issues. Al-Jazeera also receives funding through advertising and selling news feeds to other stations worldwide. In the case of Osama bin Laden, this practice has caused al-Jazeera to be severely criticized by the state and defense departments of the United States.

“Many in the United States have labeled al-Jazeera bin Laden’s personal mouthpiece, a charge I believe is baseless,” Jorisch said. “Al-Jazeera did what any other station would have done in its position, got a scoop and aired it first. CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the rest would definitely have done the same.”

Jorisch further said that al-Jazeera should be commended because although it is a state-sponsored station, it still represents unusual views and political debates. For example, al-Jazeera features programs such as “The Opposite Direction” and “The Other Opinion” which are similar to CNN’s “Crossfire.” By undermining censorship, Jorisch said, al-Jazeera is taking a valuable step towards spreading free speech throughout the Arab world.

Finally, Jorisch spoke about al-Manar/Hizbollah television. Established in 1991 in Beirut, al-Manar is the official station of the Lebanese “party of God” – Hizbollah. Hizbollah has implemented terrorist attacks against Israel and various other countries. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the group has come under close scrutiny of the American government, which has designated them “global terrorists.” Hizbollah uses al-Manar to spread its message of hatred and violence.

“With the stated purpose of waging psychological warfare against the Zionist enemy, al-Manar is a potent instrument in keeping the Arab world focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Jorisch said.

Al-Manar deals exclusively with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The station views Israel as a terrorist state whose formation disrupted Palestine. Al-Manar does not believe in a two-state solution and instead aims for the destruction of Israel through terrorist acts. By combining anti-Israeli propaganda and savvy entertainment, al-Manar encourages these acts of violence, suicide bombings, and killing of innocents. For instance, in April 2002, a female suicide bomber who blew herself up in Jerusalem reportedly had watched al-Manar excessively day and night.

Arab satellite television, Jorisch said, can be used to promote tolerance, as in the case of al-Jazeera, as well as to promote hatred, as in the case of al-Manar. He urges the U.S. government to take advantage of stations such as MBC and al-Jazeera in order to explain U.S. foreign policy.

“With the rising tide of anti-American sentiment and the growing popularity of radical Islam, there has never been a more important juncture to explain our world views and policies,” Jorisch said .