The Billy club, the whip and Arab satellite televisions | Daikha Dridi
The Billy club, the whip and Arab satellite televisions Print
Daikha Dridi   
The Billy club, the whip and Arab satellite televisions | Daikha Dridi
Maroccan comedian Bziz
“Praise the Lord! This is the first time that Ministers gathered in a summit of the Arab League take a decision!” , reeled off the famous Moroccan comedian Bziz some days ago while facing a laughing host on the Al Jazeera channel. However, the historical decision evoked by Bziz, which blew a breeze of good humour on the usually very serious TV stages of Al Jazeera, is far from being good news: it’s a flood of new rules and regulations that Arab satellite TVs will have to follow, written in a highly official chart ratified by 21 Arab states. This is nothing but direct governmental control on the contents transmitted by satellite chains in the Arab world, though euphemistically described by the Arab Ministers for Information as an “organisation chart for TV and radio satellite diffusion and broadcast within the Arab region”.

The ministers for Information of 22 Arab States met during two days in Cairo on last 12 February for a chat on censorship, within the seat of the Arab League, following to an initiative lead by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. An exceptionally consensual spirit reigned throughout, spoiled only by Qatar’s withdrawal.

In fact, only the Minister for Information of Al Jazeera’s country refused to sign the chart, arguing that some of its articles where in contradiction with Qatar laws guaranteeing freedom of press and speech. These Ministers, headed by Egypt’s Minister for Information, Anes Al Faqi, have in fact prepared a genuine wall of silence. In a very offensive tone he immediately called upon his colleagues to be firm “in facing the dangerous changes that Arab information was going through” . Some satellite channels, he said, “have sidetracked their original mission. We are witnessing constant excesses which call for firm and responsible action from our part in order to put it to an end” . Therefore to end these “excesses” evoked by Anes Al Faqi, “we must ensure that the information industry in our Arab world may progress, evolve and develop balanced economies while respecting the values of the religion and traditions of Arab society” . Whereas the chart starts off by underlining the importance of preserving “the respect of the right to freedom of speech which constitutes one of the main pillars of Arab information” , it also specifies that it must at the some time “prove to be responsible and mature in exercising such freedom”.

Therefore, what does this chart stipulate? That it is “forbidden to spur hatred and religious, ethnical or sexual discrimination” and calls for the “respect of the values of the religion and traditions of Arab society”. The document cautions against any diffusion which might “attack the dignity of monotheist religions, of prophets and of different religious symbols”.

Then follow the other paragraphs that stir up the biggest fears in the world of satellite media, decreeing that the latter are due “to accomplish their mission with objectiveness and integrity, to respect the dignity of nations and their national sovereignty and refrain from attacking the dignity of their leaders or their national or religious symbols”. The document underlines, among other things, that only the State hosting the radio and TV channels, can grant them authorisation to operate on its territory and that no satellite channel may broadcast without such authorisation. Furthermore, satellite channels must also be submitted to the specific rules that each Arab State should judge sound to apply. All this should make the joy of those satellite channels that have had an unparalleled success among the Arab public, weaned by the national broadcasting system, which has quite rightly tuned on to them in search of more credible information but also of more appealing entertainment compared to the unattractive programmes of official television channels. When satellite diffusion started off in the Arab region, i.e. at the start of the 90’s, Arab satellite channels were no more than 13; today there are more than 400 and that explains the Egyptian Minister for Information calling them “TV-slums”! And just as their success and the total desertion from the governmental TV screens could have spurred some reflection on how to make the latter less repulsive, the representatives of government reached the opposite result: to make the Arab public desert all Arab televisions.

In Egypt, the paradise of satellite television, probably bound to become its graveyard, the press has resented this project, though cautiously, and debates have been marked by the mistrust in governments but also by several appeals to the “moralisation” of Arab TV space.

Al Jazeera, one of the main target of this good conduct chart, has decided to laugh about it; it chose to break with its usually sombre style to debate on the chart and invited Moroccan comedian Bziz, famous for his political sarcasm and for that matter banned since more than 20 years from his country’s transmissions. The hilarious broadcast opens up with Bziz tied and muzzled by his host threatening him with a Billy club and a whip: “this is what you’ll get if you dare criticise Arab leaders”. Finally freed by some hooded muscle men who suddenly reach the stage, Bziz cries out: “Are these the Arab Ministers for Information?” No, replies Al Jazeera’s journalist, “these are the guys from the Home Affairs Ministry, they’re specialised in torture” … What a show.

Daikha Dridi
(28/02/2008)

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