By Frank H. Stewart, a professor in the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting scholar at New York University (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15/03/07):
LAST summer, the Archbishop of Algeria remarked to this newspaper that when satellite dishes first appeared in Algeria, they were typically positioned to receive French broadcasts. Now the majority receive programming from the Persian Gulf.
“If you watch Western television, you live in one universe,” said the archbishop, “and if you watch Middle Eastern television, you live in another altogether.” The Middle Eastern broadcasts, he added, tended to depict the West in a negative light.
Washington is well aware of this problem and has tried to address it. In 2004, the United States established its own Arabic-language satellite television station, Al Hurra. But Al Hurra has not been a success, and stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya, based in the Gulf states, continue to dominate the region.
Those stations will soon face a formidable rival. The BBC World Service plans to start an Arabic television service this fall, and the BBC knows what it is doing. It has been broadcasting in Arabic on the radio for more than 60 years and has a huge audience.
This new television station might sound like good news for America. Many of us pick up BBC broadcasts in English, and we respect their quality. But the World Service in English is one thing, and the World Service in Arabic is another entirely. If the BBC’s Arabic TV programs resemble its radio programs, then they will be just as anti-Western as anything that comes out of the Gulf, if not more so. They will serve to increase, rather than to diminish, tensions, hostilities and misunderstandings among nations.
For example, a 50-minute BBC Arabic Service discussion program about torture discussed only one specific allegation, which came from the head of an organization representing some 90 Saudis imprisoned at Guantánamo. This speaker stated that the prisoners were subject to disgusting and horrible forms of torture and suggested that three inmates reported by the United States to have committed suicide were actually killed. Another participant insisted that the two countries guilty of torturing political prisoners on the largest scale were Israel and the United States.
At the same time, the authoritarian regimes and armed militants of the Arab world get sympathetic treatment on BBC Arabic. When Saddam Hussein was in power, he was a great favorite of the service, which reported as straight news his re-election to a seven-year term in 2002, when he got 100 percent of the vote. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria enjoys similar favor. When a State Department representative referred to Syria as a dictatorship, his BBC interviewer immediately interrupted and reprimanded him.
The Arabic Service not only shields Arab leaders from criticism but also tends to avoid topics they might find embarrassing: human rights, the role of military and security forces, corruption, discrimination against minorities, censorship, poverty and unemployment. When, from time to time, such topics do arise, they are usually dealt with in the most general terms: there may, for instance, be guarded references to “certain Arab countries.”
By contrast, the words and deeds of Western leaders, particularly the American president and the British prime minister, are subject to minute analysis, generally on the assumption that behind them lies a hidden and disreputable agenda. Last summer, when the British arrested two dozen people alleged to have been plotting to blow up airplanes crossing the Atlantic, a BBC presenter centered a discussion on the theory that these arrests had taken place because Tony Blair, embarrassed by opposition to Britain’s role in the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, wanted to distract the public while at the same time associating Muslims with terrorism.
The British are among our closest and most reliable allies, and it is strange that their government pays for these broadcasts, many of which are produced in Cairo rather than in London. If the BBC models its Arabic television service on its Arabic radio service, yet another anti-Western, antidemocratic channel will find its place on the Arab screen.