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Last Updated: Monday, 22 November, 2004, 13:41 GMT
Arab TV eyes reform agenda
By Peter Feuilherade
BBC Monitoring, in Portugal

Top broadcasters from pan-Arab satellite TV stations have expressed mixed views about whether their channels should limit themselves to reporting and informing the audience, or have a political agenda and promote reform.

Baghdad residents watching Osama Bin Laden recording on al-Jazeera
Pan-Arabic TV has made a huge impact on viewers in recent years

They were taking part in the recent News Xchange broadcasting conference in southern Portugal.

King Abdullah of Jordan, speaking via a satellite link from Amman, told over 400 TV executives and journalists at the gathering that the media in the Arab world had "a vital role to play in bringing about reform in Arab people's minds".

But Arab governments had to play their part too, the king suggested.

He cited Jordan as an example where the government had relinquished direct control of the media and abolished the ministry of information.

"Is there any media without a political message?" asked Emad el-Din Adeeb of Egypt's Orbit TV.

Hosam El-Sokkari of the BBC Arabic Service replied that the British public broadcaster certainly did not see its role as political.

The BBC's role was to give as much information as possible to inform people and help them make up their own minds, he said.

Independence test

Mouafac Harb, director of news at the US government-funded al-Hurra TV, said it was a myth that pan-Arab TV channels were free and independent.

"Pan-Arab media are mouthpieces of Arab governments... they are all linked, money-wise, to one or other Arab state," he argued.

But Abdallah Schleifer, director of the Adham Centre for TV Journalism in Cairo, countered that relying on state funding did not need to impinge on the independence of pan-Arab channels.

The real test of editorial independence lay in whether the stations could act as a force to watch over their own governments and criticise them when necessary, delegates suggested.

And Egyptian broadcaster Mohamed Gohar joked that in Egypt "we have a full democracy - in criticising Bush and Sharon."


Mr Harb said that when it came to deciding whether to screen footage of captives filmed by kidnappers, Arabic satellite channels had to ask themselves: "Are we being used by terrorists?"

Turkish citizen in Iraq seen with kidnappers in al-Arabiya clip
It is not only the Arabic stations that show such images
But leading satellite channels al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera both insisted that editorial value was their first consideration with footage of hostages and killings.

In tapes from Osama Bin Ladin, for instance, "we have to avoid the rhetoric and take what's of news value", said Salah Negm of UAE-based channel Al-Arabiya.

Al-Jazeera's Ahmad Sheikh denied the Qatar-based channel was helping "to create the myth of Bin Ladin".

"Any news of Osama Bin Ladin is always covered in a news context - and we are not unique in reporting Bin Ladin's pronouncements," Mr Sheikh argued.

Media revolution

The message from the News Xchange conference is that the Arab broadcasting revolution is now going through a phase of consolidation.

"Professionalism" is now the key word for all the major pan-Arab broadcasters.

Some analysts even believe the pace of transformation in the Arab media in the last decade has been so fast that audiences have yet to catch up.

As Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab wrote in October 2004, "it will take some time to get the Arab public that has grown up in undemocratic cultures to deal with such sudden change".

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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