The BBC and the Arabs

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By Hugo Foster

In recent decades, Arab governments have become renowned for their inability to cooperate with one another. Yet there is one area in which cooperation comes more easily, and that is in strengthening their own authoritarian rule, stifling dissent and generally repressing their respective populations.

Earlier this year, Arab ministers met to discuss ways to place further restrictions on freedom of expression in their individual countries. The object of their ire were the satellite television networks that have proliferated across the Arab world in the last decade; the end product was a ‘Charter of Principles’, setting out further draconian restrictions on satellite broadcasting. Prohibitions included criticism of leaders and religious figures, as well as acts deemed to compromise such ambiguous notions as social peace, public morality and national unity, though it remains to be seen how strictly these provisions will be implemented.

The
outcome of the meeting was not surprising. Freedom of expression is a
hallmark of healthy democratic societies and everyone knows that most
countries in the region are far from enjoying this status. What was
concerning though was the remarkably open and publicised nature of the
meeting, indicating that governments no longer need to even bother
covering up their attempts to muzzle independent sources of news, opinion and opposition, or even pay lip-service to principle of free expression.

Twenty-one
countries agreed to the charter. Chief amongst these were US-allies
Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, a notable voice of protest came from
Qatar, from where the phenomenally popular al-Jazeera network has taken
the Arabic-speaking world by storm in recent years. Al-Jazeera itself
has many faults – these are well documented - yet is has earned a
formidable reputation for its commitment to broadcasting items on the
basis of how newsworthy they are, rather than whether they are deemed
acceptable by the powers that be (it does naturally defer to the Qatar
government on domestic issues).

At
the least, through its news broadcasting and popular debating and
phone-in shows, al-Jazeera has provided a limited forum for criticism
of governments, discussion of human rights issues and subjects
considered socially as taboo, as well as a platform for more voices
than those heard in state-run media (its allegedly negative coverage of
Saudi politics was enough to spur a diplomatic dispute
between the Kingdom and Qatar earlier this year). On balance, this is a
positive thing, in as much as without it, the reality would be even
bleaker.

Last
week saw the much-anticipated launch of the BBC Arabic Television
service. The BBC professes that the new service will bring to the
Arabic-speaking world its
“values of accuracy, editorial independence, impartiality, while
balancing a wide diversity of views” and “will have broad appeal - free
from commercial, political and religious affiliations or pressures”.
Whether this is true or not, it will be very interesting to observe
over the coming months the extent of the BBC’s impact on broadcasting
in the region – one observer has boldly forecast that it will“overtake both al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera to become the No. 1 Arabic news television service in as little by 1 May 2008”
– as well as the issues it chooses to report on. At least, by entering
the regional media market, it will provide an alternative source of
information and additional competition to al-Jazeera and the other
dominant players in the region.