With no fewer than five major areas of unrest/revolutions/regime changes going on in the Arab world, Arab satellite television, one of the mainstays of information dissemination in the Middle East, has been playing a major role in communicating news – or attempting, if not to suppress it, then at least to spin it.
For most Westerners (and Israelis), “satellite TV,” like cable TV, means a mix of entertainment and news stations – mostly entertainment. And with the decline of terrestrial TV in most parts of the world, families and individuals who want to watch television usually take out a subscription to a cable or direct satellite service. In Israel, these two services are provided respectively by HOT and YES.
In the Arab world, however, where government control – or at least domination – of the local media is the rule, most householders have a satellite dish, to pick up the hundreds of free to air (fta) television stations broadcasting around the Arab world. Many of these stations are sponsored by governments, and make no attempt to present a balanced picture. There are many religious-oriented stations, as one would expect,, with both Sunni and Shi'ite stations crowding the TV dial. For religious minorities in overwhelmingly Muslim countries, satellite TV broadcasts are often one of the few links to their religious brethren.
Not only do Arab governments use satellite TV to reach the Arab masses; the United States operates several stations in Arabic and Farsi, and has a whole TV station, Al-Hurra, dedicated to explaining its side of the story in Iraq. Many other countries, including Korea, China, France, Britain, and even Holland have their own satellite stations. Besides foreign, official and religious broadcasts, there are also dozens of independent stations broadcasting news, sports, and entertainment, in Arabic – and there are even a surprisingly large number of stations that broadcast movies and TV series originating in the United States.
With unrest, regime changes, or heavy protests threatening regime changes, taking place in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, and Sudan, a survey of the fta Arab satellite stations broadcasting on the two main satellites that serve the Middle East (Nilesat and Arabsat) yields what many viewers would expect – along with some interesting surprises – in the way the protests and uprisings are being reported. Here are some examples:
Tunisia: During the first days of Tunisia's “Jasmine revolution,” the country's broadcasting company, which had been tightly controlled by the government of deposed leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, all but halted broadcasting. Before Ben-Ali's departure, Tunisia's national TV (which had three channels) broadcast its usual diet of sports and entertainment shows, as did the country's private Hannibal TV channel. After Ben-Ali left the country, the national stations went off the air – while Hannibal continued to broadcast, urging Tunisians to recant their decision to overthrow the government. After the revolution, Hannibal TV owner Larbi Nasra was arrested for treason, but was freed several days later when an opposition minister in the new government intervened on his behalf.
All the Tunisian stations are now back on the air, but all the channels – including Hannibal – are broadcasting the same thing, an ongoing “open studio” with newsmakers, “man on the street” interviews, and accounts of the ongoing protests.
Yemen: Yemen's national TV station acknowledged that there were protests in the country Thursday – pro-government protests, that is. Yemen TV gave extensive coverage to what appeared to be a large group of pro-government demonstrators in Sa'ana, the capital of the country. People carried signs with pictures of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with slogans on signs that expressed support for him, decorated with a dusty pink insignia – which is apparently the color the government chose as its own, to differentiate it from the sky blue the opposition seems to have chosen to represent them.
If the tens of thousands of Yemenis who attended anti-government protests wanted to see themselves on TV, they would have had to tune in to broadcasts of Aden Live, an opposition station broadcasting from the United Kingdom directed at Yemenis. Here one could see the masses of government opponents demonstrating at several locations around the country, burning pictures of Saleh, and hoisting the opposition flag – which features the Yemen flag's red, black and white fields, with the addition of a sky blue triangle (but without a red star in that triangle, to differentiate the flag from that of the defunct People's Democratic Republic of Yemen).
Al-Jazeera video on the protests in Yemen:
Egypt: The most populous country in the Middle East also has the most diverse array of television broadcasts, ranging from government-run networks to independent news and entertainment channels.
On the government-owned Nilesat network, it was business as usual, as the stations continued to broadcast their usual diet of movies, cooking shows, kids' programs, and sports matches. The same was true on the government-owned Masr stations, although one of them, Modern Masr, went off the air. The Nile News channel devoted a few minutes at the top of its news hour to the protests, while devoting at least two hours Thursday to showing Israeli troops “persecuting” what appeared to be residents of a refugee camp. The English-language Nile TV station did not mention the protests against the government at all.
One Egyptian station that did break the mold was OTV, which is privately owned by businessman Naguib Sawiris, chairman of the board of Egypt's largest private employer, Orascom Telecom, the company with the largest market capitalization on the Cairo & Alexandria Stock Exchange. OTV's news channel broadcast lengthy reports on the protests and held discussions with various officials (not necessarily from the government); the network's financial featured worried-looking anchors and guests, discussing the freefall in the country's stock exchange in the wake of the protests.
Besides OTV, Egyptians could watch the protests on pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which devoted long stretches of time to on-the-spot reports by correspondents, as well as lengthy analyses on the situation.
A number of people in Egypt accused the network of fanning the flames with its broadcasts, and indeed, Al Jazeera, on one of its channels, broadcast footage of the violence, along with Facebook posts from protesters as they were posted on the internet. While protests had calmed by Thursday afternoon, broadcasters – as well as the authorities – were bracing themselves for what many believed would be a stormy Friday in Egypt.