Arab Satellite Stations: Their Role in the Middle East Peace Process
Arab satellite stations are indeed a phenomenon that has started to attract wide attention, not only from within the Arab world, but also from outside it. The details presented in the diagram below attempt to explain the ownership and dependency of these satellite stations, as well as their classification - government or private - regarding their political program and performance.
News broadcasts presented by government/official satellite stations differ from those of private and quasi-governmental ones, which can be termed as pan-Arab satellite stations (among which are ANN, Al-Jazeera, mbc). These satellite stations are not subject to direct political censorship on the part of officials from information ministries and security apparatuses in Arab countries. Thus, on the one hand, they are bolder, and on the other, they are more professional, since they have to respect a certain balance in their news coverage. This is because the staff in the news rooms of these stations are aware of the necessity to present a comprehensive coverage of the issues pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conclusion has been reached that disregarding Israeli positions, through suppressing first-hand coverage of them over decades, has not succeeded in sheltering the Arab viewer from understanding what goes on around him, as well as the essence of Israeli politics (irrespective of whether this new method would lead to a deepening of the Arab student's knowledge of Israeli politics).

The Significance of the Diagram

First, if the Arab media has usually been government-owned, the private sector is now participating, either alone or in partnership with governments.
Second, Gulf capital dominates the ownership of these satellite stations. It is the strongest in the Arab world from the standpoint of power of investment and publicity.
Third, the majority of experts, especially those working in the news departments or news rooms in Arab satellite stations, are Lebanese, Egyptian, North African (especially from Algeria) and Palestinian. They come either from countries such as Lebanon and Egypt, which have a long history in the domain of exporting expertise, as well as their media traditions, or from countries that experience a drain of expertise as a result of forced emigration, like Palestine and, now, Algeria and Iraq. These factors are very important because these experts have been able to interact with Western civilization and experience, and were influenced by their openness to Western culture and ideas and, as a result, have acquired real expertise in the field of modern media.
Fourth, Lebanese satellite stations are distinctive (probably originally in cultural and entertainment programs), due to the long media traditions in this country and its openness to the West.
Fifth, the five pan-Arab satellite stations - ANN, mbc, ART, Orbit, Al-Jazeera - have based themselves in Europe, with the exception of Al-Jazeera which is stationed in Qatar. The capital for these satellite stations, again with the exception of Al-Jazeera, comes from private Saudi sources (or at best, private, but an extension of the politico-economic influence of the royal family). As for Al-Jazeera, its capital comes from the ruler of Qatar, while the Arab News Network (ANN), is recent and is financed with private Saudi-Syrian capital.
Sixth, all Arab countries, with the exception of Palestine, have satellite stations. These are often a copy of their terrestrial stations. This is probably due to the fact that these stations target, first and foremost, their own nationals in the diaspora, and do not necessarily aim to spread the local culture or political positions of their respective governments. This is true of the stations of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Abu-Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Tunis and Morocco.

How Much Openness?

The above-mentioned comments about the pan-Arab satellite stations reflect a serious change, one that has taken place within the following framework:
• The plurality in ownership of the means of media transmission. The countries that could not do that overtly, like Saudi Arabia, have resorted to transmitting from European countries, thus benefiting from the laws regulating media transmission in these countries.
• The improvement in the level of technical performance.
• The multiplicity and depth of content, emanating from the openness on the various subjects.
On the whole, a discussion of the content can be considered according to the following order: news, entertainment and cultural programs. We will, however, confine ourselves to news because it is the "carrier of the flow of information." An editor in the news room of one of the Arab satellite stations once stated that news on human-rights violations can be aired with complete freedom and without censorship, but only if it deals with violations on the part of Israel or the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
The same goes for any administrative/government corruption in the Arab countries. The topic can be discussed only if it pertains to the PNA or to the performance of its autonomous government. Naturally, this refers to Arab satellite stations that are only loosely connected with Arab governments, or that are, at least, not subject to tight censorship, and they are largely those stations that have taken Europe or Qatar as their base of operation. Clearly, the above-mentioned example points to some sort of professional and psychological schizophrenia in the departments or news rooms of these stations: there is a readiness on the part of their staff to address the issues of human rights and corruption when the opportunity arises. This opportunity, however, is confined only to Israel and Palestine.

A New Facet in the Arab Media

As for the local or government satellite stations, they have a pact among themselves, whereby each country withholds transmission of any sensitive material about another Arab country, unless some sort of enmity exists between any two countries at any particular moment. One can say that no mentionable change has taken place in the media policy of the official satellite stations.
The discussion here, then, relates only to the new satellite stations, i.e., ANN, Al-Jazeera, mbc (and sometimes Orbit and ART, as the latter deal mainly with cultural and entertainment programs and do not overly concern themselves with news).
ANN, Al-Jazeera and mbc, undoubtedly, present a new facet in the Arab media. The manner with which these stations are dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict has given rise to a lot of discussion in Arab political and cultural circles. Does this new approach imply an approval on the part of these stations of a cultural openness to Israel? Of course not!
However, it is self-evident that these stations (and, probably, this is their distinctive feature) seek to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict with candor; in other words, presenting the news with a great degree of balance and opening the door to Israelis to talk across their screens, thus allowing the Arab viewer to get first-hand information on the Israeli position.
It does not necessarily mean that this will effect a greater change on the level of understanding between Arabs and Israelis. Opening the door to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, for example, to talk to the Arab viewer through a television interview (as happened with Orbit and mbc) does not mean that the Arab viewer will comprehend the Israeli government position. The only difference is that the Israeli position does not necessarily pass through the selective filter of the censor.

Presenting Programs about the Jewish State

Undoubtedly, this practice helps to promote a deeper and more serious comprehension of the Jewish state, but, again, this does not mean the Arab viewer gets any closer to the Israeli concept of the peace process. Rather, it constitutes, in my opinion, a sound basis for the Arab viewer to take up a position and embrace a stance and a cultural vision predicated on a lesser degree of selectivity.
There is another very important factor regarding Arab satellite news. This relates to the source of information on Palestine and Israel: firstly, the fact that these stations enjoy the presence of correspondents based in Jerusalem and Ramallah, placing them closer to the source of news or events. Secondly, these satellite stations do the work, even if European and American agencies determine their news agenda, since these agencies are the primary source of news to different media networks worldwide. This situation, albeit negative from the standpoint of the Arab viewer, helps to minimize selectivity.
News does play a role in connection with the peace process, and also has an impact on the socio-political changes in the Arab world, and can probably reflect the degree of democracy in the political life of these countries.
Finally, in the Arab satellite stations, it should be pointed out that entertainment programs take the lion's share of the programs at the expense of cultural programs or news. This is an increasingly common phenomenon, seen against the background of a trend that chooses to adhere to market requirements. There is also a reluctance on the part of what we have termed "new stations" and new Arab media to depend on government subsidies and help, and they desire to achieve profits that would assure them a greater degree of autonomy.
This link with the market means a bigger tie with the Gulf, one that is not less than the political ties with the governments of these Gulf states, because 88 percent of the advertisment market on these satellite stations is that of the Arab Gulf states.