In a recent article for the Wide Angle Web site, Marda Dunsky, author of Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, looks at the phenomenon of satellite television in the Arab world.
Dunsky argues that Arab satellite television, which includes more than 200 channels and reaches 325 viewers, is playing a key role in democratization in the region. While the content on satellite television is restricted somewhat by tradition, religion, and Arab social norms, it is far freer from governmental controls than broadcast television. Thus an issue such as homosexuality was recently featured on Kalam Nawaem, the Arab equivalent of The View.
In the article, Dunsky not only provides a fascinating overview of Arab satellite television, she also examines the ways in which the United States has tried to use the medium to promote democracy in the region and inject American values. These efforts, Dunsky argues, have met with decidedly mixed results:
“Nearly $500 million in U.S. tax dollars has been spent since 2002 to fund the Arabic-language Sawa radio station and al-Hurra television network, but these American-produced Arabic media have had minimal, if not counterproductive, effects in promoting U.S. interests and policies in the Arab and Muslim worlds, according to a joint investigation by CBS News’ 60 Minutes and the independent ProPublica that was broadcast and published in June 2008.
The investigation found that Arab viewers have found al-Hurra to lack journalistic credibility and that audience share has been limited to between 2 percent and 8.5 percent. The report further documented that American managers of Sawa and al-Hurra neither speak nor understand Arabic and cannot monitor or understand the content of the programming that they direct.
Enabled by satellite broadcast media, Arab citizens — not, by and large, their governments — are at the forefront of democratization, and democratization will likely remain a key focus of U.S. interest and involvement in the Arab world for decades to come. This process, however, is slow-going and subject to pressures and influences from within and without. U.S. policies aimed at advancing the process have thus far has sought to inject American values via hard-power and soft-power interventions alike.
The degree to which this American role will include listening to and understanding Arab voices is an open question. For now, clues to how democratization will continue to unfold and whether U.S. policies will ultimately contribute to its success can be heard on Arab satellite TV, echoed in the words of Fawzia Salama, the Egyptian co-host of Kalam Nawaem:
‘We are a traditional conservative society. There is a common value system that we all share. And this value system,’ says Salama, ‘stems from the notion of stability, of resistance to change. And if you try to break that mold, you won’t have an influence at all. I don’t think the Arab world takes very kindly to revolutions; I would say it’s an evolution. Gently, gently does it, in the Arab world.'”