13 March 2013

Satellite Television on the West Bank

Living under Israeli occupation can be quite boring at times, especially during lock downs and blockades such as those commonplace on the West Bank and in the Gaza strip. But have no fear, satellite television is here to 'occupy' all 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. The oldest and most popular is 'ArabSat,' which offers about 20 channels of broadcasting from various Arab countries. ArabSat has not included channels from 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 privatization of the airwaves on the rise, satellite TV caught on big in the late 1980s and ArabSat expanded. In the early 1990s, King 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 or another have their hands in many of the offerings on ArabSat, they also weigh in with two channels of official state TV that often resort to state propaganda, 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 learn Arabic, a jubilant roving reporter asks a number of nervous looking guest workers from Turkey, South Asia and the Philippines questions like: 'Are you being treated well by your sponsor here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?' 'Do you receive 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 rock concert. Of course, the giggling and singing is briefly but dutifully interrupted for the Saudi state televised prayers.

While some stations are clearly state run TV, the origins of others are not so clear. The slickly produced 'Future Television' (al-Mustaqbal) was thought by many people here to have been owned by Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi-made multi-billionaire Rafiq Hariri. Likewise, 'Arab Radio and Television' (ART) is believed to be owned by a Saudi businessman, while the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) is said to have links with Nabih Berri. But whatever their ultimate funding source, all three share a commonality: they are promoting an American consumerist way of life with an Arabic cultural gloss. In fact, ART, whose motto is 'on every satellite around the globe,' also has branches broadcasting to Arab Americans via various cable networks.

ART often features fashion shows, sometimes with French models and Arabic voice overs (folks on the West Bank chide LBC with the Arabic pun 'ilbisi,' the feminine imperative meaning 'get dressed'). Along with live music shows and MTV-style music videos, LBC features a host of American style game shows. However, 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 pop medical reports, and Arabic 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 can be followed by veiled women selling laundry detergent. Anything goes, one must suppose, in the corporate driven advertising drenched '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. On the West Bank, people are treated to CNN International, which has colonized most of the satellite services. CNN is also a major force in preparing the way for the consumer culture that long ago 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's freedom of the press only for those who own one, as some one once quipped. It should not be confused with the kind of freedom of speech associated with, for example, political freedom or the right of 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 are some glaring omissions. 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 Syrian president Hafez al-Asad visited Iran in July of 1998, he met with outgoing Iranian president Rafsanjani, incoming president Khatami, and the leader 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, including religious programming, are carefully filtered from all satellite services, Gulf Arab stations broadcast official news and Wahhabi doctrine in Persian nightly.

News on the Gulf oil sheikhdom stations is generic and always begins with the innocuous doings of 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, sultans and emirs, the news is ironically somewhat better than in the USA, especially on international reporting. Even CNN seems to take itself a bit more seriously in the region, less they come to look bad on the 'Arab street.' Occasionally, for example, Syrian TV will show an American diplomat in an embarrassing moment, being asked real (as opposed to staged) questions and half-heartedly defending another indefensible Israeli policy. United Nations oriented news, non-existent in the US, also pops up occasionally on various ArabSat stations. But all this is faint praise for the regional satellite fare, since Americans are among the most propagandized people on the planet, and anything in contrast will likely seem more informative.

Satellite movie channels are also available on the West Bank, often featuring film festivals of Hollywood's latest. In the summer of 1998, purportedly to commemorate a visit by American actor Robert De Niro to Ramallah, the Satellite Movie channel 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 stories are strictly circumscribed in the American corporate media. This is probably because 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 Palestinian meal of malfoof and mutton with his friends on the West Bank, perhaps the media moguls would 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 American TV industry making its way to the region is the proliferation of 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 home fitness contraptions to an array of kitchen implements and cosmetics 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 TV fare doesn't say much for the 'information revolution' that is supposed to revolutionize global communications; the majority of what one finds is the same old infotainment, 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 of humanity who actually have access to computers and internet connections), the internet is little better. According to a tally at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which monitors daily global internet traffic, the largest volume of internet activity to date in the summer of 1998 is the transmission and receipt of pornography 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 individualized self-gratification in a region where one would hope people may know better.

[This is a slightly edited version of an article by J. Progler that was originally published in Third World Resurgence (Vol. 90-91, October 1998).]

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