A pan-Arab censorship effort threatens TV industry


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- From the shining new skyscrapers of the big cities, to the small huts in the baron lands of the desert, almost every home in the Middle East has a satellite TV dish. The rapid growth of the industry means, of course, that TV is big business, and the almost 500 channels available in the region support that notion.

Programming is a mixed bag, from local soccer matches to 24-hour news shows and live, catch-it-as-it-happens broadcasts of religious festivals in Mecca. Western shows and films score high with viewers, with many channels showing a staple of syndicated network programs, featuring familiar faces from "Frasier" and "Seinfeld," as well as would-be American Idols grinning cheerfully into Arab homes every evening.

Despite the inclusive, international flavor of local programming, viewers are never left in doubt about one thing: This is the Middle East, where a glimpse of stocking is still considered quite shocking.

In February, the annual meeting of the Arab League -- the organization that represents the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries -- passed by a majority a new media charter. The code set out a list of edicts that forbid broadcasters from transmitting any material that could "damage social harmony, national unity and public order of traditional values."

It also empowers Arab governments to make "necessary legislative measures to deal with violations," while allowing signatory countries to "withdraw, freeze or not renew the work permits of media which break the regulations."

The measures were proposed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, own the satellites responsible for Arab broadcasting -- Nilesat and Arabsat. The charter was approved by 20 of the 22 nations in the Arab League. (Lebanon voted nay, while Qatar -- the home base for independent news network Al Jazeera -- abstained.)

But the charter received intense criticism from some media commentators, who accused it of giving governments carte blanche to shut down any broadcast that criticizes the regimes.

"We feel very sad about the new code of conduct," says Wadah

Khanfar, director general of Al Jazeera, the controversial Middle East news broadcaster that became a globally recognized brand after Sept. 11. "While the world is moving forward and we are thinking about open spaces, the ministers of information in the Arab world are trying to bring us back."

Nevertheless, edgy programming -- by Middle East standards -- manages to exist, such as popular Egyptian talk shows like Dream TV's "10 PM," Orbit's "Cairo Today" and AlMehwar's "90 Minutes," which often feature outspoken speakers engaged in lively discussions about topical issues -- a sharp contrast to government stations that routinely ban any opposition figures.

But the new code has prompted many to fear this will change and that free political expression on the airwaves will disappear completely.

Salah al-Din Maawi, director general of the Arab States Broadcasting Union, the organization that will administer the code, strongly denies this.

"I do not think that the charter is posing any risk to the freedom of media in the region," al-Din Maawi told Qatari TV. "The rules set by the document adopted by the Arab information ministers are not intended at all to curb freedom of expression, media or deny access to the information. It only seeks to establish a system of professional and ethical standards for the Arab satellite broadcasters."

The director general went on to claim the code was a general mechanism for protecting the region against the invasion of the Western media, especially sexually explicit material.

Zee TV, an Indian-based satellite channel, has managed to walk the line in the region since the early 1990s in order to tap into the large expatriate community from the Asian subcontinent.

In addition to 25 channels featuring sports, news, Bollywood films and entertainment, Zee also produces two news programs in Dubai -- the general news show Gulf News and a property and investment production called "Habitat."

Manoj Mathew, vp marketing and corporate communications, takes a practical approach to state censorship, arguing that it is a reality in the region and simply has to be accepted.

"Censorship is a problem in all our markets," he says. "There are strict guidelines over here, but I do not think they stop us from being creative. Our news shows do not cover local issues; they cover stories back in the Asian subcontinent. So the issue of criticizing the local government does not affect us. You come to a region to do business -- so you have to follow the rules and regulations. India, South Africa, the U.S. and the U.K. all have their own rules and regulations -- you just have to accept them."

Muna Ismail, a Canadian-born producer and presenter at Showtime, who has been working in Dubai for two years, agrees that despite the strict censorship laws, challenging and stimulating TV can still be made.

She points to a recent broadcast of a comedy series called "Axis of Evil," which featured three Arab-American comedians whose act revolves around challenging the stereotypes that Americans have of the Arab World and vice versa.

"There are boundaries here, but you don't have the creative freedom to do and say a lot," she says. "But we did push the boundaries with 'Axis of Evil,' which was really refreshing to see. When we were interviewing artists, some of them -- like (reggae singers) Shaggy and Sean Paul -- have quite a sexual image, so we had to be careful about what we asked them. You could ask them about dating, but you couldn't really go into it in any depth."

Perhaps the area where the new code of conduct will pose the greatest limitations will be news broadcasting. Despite this, new news channels continue to appear -- perhaps best illustrated by the launch of the BBC's new Arabic TV channel.

BBC Arabic was first launched more than a decade ago in a joint venture with Orbit, but then collapsed in 1996 due to a lack of funding and the broadcast of an episode of the news analysis documentary "Panorama," which criticized the Saudi royal family. It was relaunched last month, at a cost of $50 million, which will be footed by British taxpayers.

And BBC bosses are hoping the company's international reputation and its lengthy association with the region will break the trend. The institution is even planning a further expansion into the sector later this year with BBC Persian, broadcasting in Farsi, a language spoken in parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan.

Al Jazeera's Khanfar says he is "not at all concerned" about the BBC's decision to start a news channel in the region.

"We have always said that the region needs more news channels to introduce different points of views," he says. "We are passing through very difficult and complicated times in the Arab world, and as many people reporting on the issues as possible has to be welcomed. Also, we welcome competition as well, and we respect the BBC and its professional culture."

But whether BBC Arabic is a success or not, it will find itself under intense scrutiny from Arab governments. It seems the future of television in the Arab World reflects the issues affecting the region as a whole. Despite a huge growth in recent years, those working in the industry claim there is still a lack of skilled professionals and equipment. But if governments seem intent on cracking down on freedom of expression, then the people it needs to attract will be deterred from coming to work in the region.

"The Arab world needs to have a dialogue with itself, so there is a great amount of dialogue where people can express their views freely," Khanfar says. "It is a dynamic and vibrant society that we are living in because of the political and economic transformation in the Middle East. Therefore, this is the moment where networks should take the responsibility of guiding and participating in the huge debate which is taking place in the region. We don't believe in 'we' and 'them' -- the audience and the professionals. ... The regimes in the Arab world are not welcoming the free media. They are trying to manipulate it and frame it, but it is too big to be stopped."