Living under occupation can be quite boring at times, especially during lockdowns and blockades such as those on the West Bank following last summer’s bombings in Jerusalem. But no fear, television is here to ‘occupy’ your idle hours. In large Palestinian towns like Ramallah, most people who can afford it subscribe to one or another of the various satellite TV services. Perhaps the most popular is ‘ArabSat,’ which offers about 20 channel of broadcasting from various Arab countries. ArabSat does not include Libya, Iraq, Morocco, or Qatar, but some of these can be seen on other, smaller satellite services. there are also European services with dozens of stations, including Turkey and , when it’s not jammed , Iran.
In the 1970s, the Saudis quietly initiated ArabSat. no one really noticed, as satellite TV was still a novelty. but with cheaper dishes available, and privitization of media on the rise, satellite TV caught on big in the late 1980s, and ArabSat expanded. In the early 1990s, Fahd signed a lucrative deal with AT&T, giving the mega communications corporation exclusive rights to rewire his kingdom. The power of the Saudi-AT&T media nexus can be felt in various ways around the globe. For example, Saudi sponsored American Muslim organizations, such as the Islamic Information Service based in Southern California, have entered into partnerships with AT&T, enticing viewers of its weekly ‘Islami’ program to purchase the transnational conglomerate’s services ‘for the benefit of Islam’ (the program, not the religion, one might guess).
While the Saudis one way ot another have their mitts in many of the offerings on ArabSat, they also weigh in with 2 channels of official state TV. The Saudis resort to state propaganda often, as in, for example, their programming designed to deflect criticism of the kingdom’s well-documented exploitation of guest workers. In one oft-repeated sequence in English, and no doubt intended for journalists who haven’t taken the time to study Arabic, a jubilant roving reporter asks a number of nervous looking guest workers from turkey, the Indian subcontinent, and the Philippines questions like: ‘are you being treated well by your sponsor here in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,’ ‘do you recieve your wages on time from your employer in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,’ ‘how do you like living in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia?’ Saudi state TV also runs programming catering to its homesick american expatriates, including 1970s sitcoms and dramas, and the occasional American rock and roll concert. Of Course, the singing and giggling is briefly but dutifully interrupted for the Saudi state televised adhan and prayers.
While some stations are clearly state run TV, the origins of others are not so clear. The slick ‘Future Television’ (al-Mustaqbal) is said to be owned by Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi-made mutli-billionare Rafiq Hariri. Likewise,’Arab Radio and Television’ (ART) is believed to be owned by a Saudi businessman, while the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) is thought to have links with Nabih Berri. But whatever their ultimate funding source, all three share a commonality: they are promoting an American way of life with an Arabic cultural gloss. In fact, ART, whose motto is ‘on every satellite around the globe,’ has branches broadcasting to Arab Americans via various cable networks. ART often features fashion shows, sometimes with French models and Arabic voice overs (folks here chide LBC with the pun ‘ilbisi,’ the feminine imperative meaning ‘get dressed’). Along with live music shows and MTV-style music videos, LBC features a host of silly American style games shows.
Future Television is the most enticingly enigmatic of all. It often features lengthy interviews with Hariri and other movers and shakers in the region. Some of this programming is useful, but Future TV also has lots of American flash and glitz, including fashion shows, music videos, junk science and medicine reports, and dubbed or subtitled American sitcoms. The contradictions of Future TV are highlighted by its advertising fare. For example, commercials for beer promoting carefree abandon on beaches are often followed by women in selling laundry detergent. anything goes, one must suppose, in the corporate driven ‘marketplace of ideas.’
CNN is everywhere in Mideast satellite land; it is the Voice of America of the corporate video age, with specially edited programming for various target markets. As communications conglomerates fall into line with governments, there becomes no need for separate official outlets. In the West Bank, folks are treated to CNN International, which has colonized most of the satellite services. CNN is also a major force in preparing the way for consumer culture that has enveloped its American homeland. For example, it runs advertisements that equate corporate advertising with individual ‘freedom of speech.’ But this kind of free speech is only available to the mega-wealthy corporations who seek to benefit from the global consumer culture they are promoting. It should not be confused with the kind of freedom of speech associated with, for example, political freedom or the right to free access to information. The implicit censorship of ArabSat, on which CNN appears, is obvious, for example, in its refusal to air Iranian broadcasts.
In fact, with all the stupefying diversity of information age programming, there ar esome glaring ommissions. Iranian broadcasts are generally censored from most services, and all news from Iran is filtered through the Western or Arab news agencies. Even the Arab stations do their share of filtering Iran’s news. For example, when Hafez al-Asad visited Iran last July, he met with outgoing president Rafsanjani, incoming president Khatami, and the rahbar of the revolution, Seyyed Khamane’i. There were several live broadcasts of the various press conferences from the visit, but despite the Iranians supplying an Arabic/Persian translator, the Syrian TV stations used voice-overs with their own translation, and some of the interviews were heavily edited. at the same time, while Iranian broadcasts are carefully filtered from all satellite services, Gulf Arab stations broadcast official news and Wahhabi doctrine in Persian nightly.
News on the Gulf sheikhdom stations is generic and always begins with the innocuous doings of the each respective headman. In fact, most follow a simple script: ‘His Majesty (fill in the blank) received a communication from His Excellency (fill in the blank) to which he responded in kind,’ or ‘His Excellency (fill in the blank) opened a new (fill in the blank) to cheers of admiration from his loyal people,’ or some such other claptrap. However, despite the annoying and slavish praise of kings, the news is actually somewhat better than in the States, especially on international reporting. Even CNN seems to take itself a bit more seriously in the region. Occasionally, Syrin TV will show and American diplomat in an embarrassing moment, half-heartedly defending the zionists. United Nations oriented news, non-existent in the States, pops up occasionally on various stations. But all this is faint praise, since Americans are the most propagandized people on the planet, and anything in contrast seems more informative.
Satellite movie channels are also available on the West Bank, often featruing film festivals of Hollywood’s latest. Recently, to commemorate a visit by American actor robert De Niro to Ramallah, the Satellite Movie station ran a festival of his films for its pay-per-view customers. According to folks in Ramallah, De Niro is a friend of the Palestinians, though Americans would never know it as such facts are strictly censored from the American corporate media. This is probably because most Americans live in a Hollywood and advertising dreamworld, looking toward actors as role models (they even elected one president in the 1980s); if word got out that De Niro came to Ramallah and sat down for a hearty and hospitable Palestinian meal with his friends on the West Bank, perhaps the media moguls fear that such rogue stars might awaken Americans to question the uniformly pro-zionist party line of most corporate media discourse.
Another mainstay of the satellite industry making its way to the region is the credit card driven, shop at home programming. Numerous infomercials and program length paid advertising spots, many of them straight off of American TV overdubbed with Arabic dialogue, offer anything from the latest exercise contraption to an array of kitchen implements and women’s cosmetic products. A new wave of locally produced infomercial programming is coming out of Egypt and Lebanon, but they are virtual clones of the American originals. And the result is the same--milk consumers twenty bucks at a time for stuff they can live without.
Taken as a whole, the Mideast satellite fare doesn’t say much for the ‘information revolution’ that is supposed to revolutionize global communications; the majority of what one finds in the same old info-tainment, morally questionable diversion, and cyber-consumption of the mainstream corporate American and European media. And despite its potential to put information in the hands of the masses (or at least that small percent humanity who actually have access to computers and telephone lines), the internet is no better. According to a computer at the MAssachusetts Institute of Technology, which monitors daily global internet traffic, the largest volume of internet activity is the transmission and reciept of pronography and erotica. The folks at ArabSat and its cohorts don’t yet allow porno on their television stations; the French tried to introduce some soft-core, but the station was soon cut from the ArabSat lineup. For now, Israeli TV remains the only outlet for this most popular of all ‘information’ on the Euro-American paved superhighway. Perhaps there is a revolution on the way, then, one which will be fueled by an increasingly arrogant media apparatus that promotes a disdainfully narrow lifestyle of greed, frivolity, corruption, and individual self-gratification in a region whose people surely must know better.
Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1997