States attempt to reassert control with charter

LONDON While Arab governments try to reassert state control over the ever-mushrooming regional satellite TV industry, most TV execs are shrugging their shoulders and adopting a business-as-usual attitude.

A charter, dubbed “Principles for Regulating Satellite TV in the Arab World,” was near-universally adopted following a Feb. 12 meeting of information ministers from the Arab League in Cairo.

The nonbinding charter calls on Arab satcasters to refrain from offending, among other things, “leaders or national religious symbols in the Arab Word” as well as “from broadcasting anything which calls into question God, the monotheistic religions, the prophets, sects or symbols of the various religious communities.”

Other no-no’s include content that is erotic, obscene and encourages smoking or the consumption of alcohol.

Qatar, where newscaster Al-Jazeera is based, has refused to sign the charter, however, with Al-Jazeera execs quick to blast the attempted curbs as a risk to freedom of expression in the Arab world.

“Any code of ethics or governance for journalistic practices should emerge, and be governed, from within the profession and not be imposed by political institutions,” said Wadah Khanfar, director general of the Al-Jazeera Network in a statement. “The region has seen the recent emergence of many media institutions, and every attempt should be made not to hamper, but to facilitate an environment to encourage their independence and freedom.”

Execs at other leading Arab satcasters have been more dismissive in their response.

“It will have no impact on us,” says Dubai Media managing editor Ali Jaber. “These ministers of information are a dying breed, near extinction. They’re trying to come up with measures that can’t be practically applied. How can they rein in any media outlets that aren’t state-owned? This is all a whirlpool in a coffee cup.”

Ever since the 1991 launch of MBC, the first privately owned pan-Arab satcaster, the region’s TV biz has enjoyed booming fortunes.

There are more than 250 free-to-air satcasters catering to a population of some 300 million people. Many of these channels exist as little more than vanity projects or political platforms for their wealthy benefactors to get their points of view heard across the region.

Arab governments, which had previously maintained tight controls over state media, have often struggled to come to terms with the growing media presence, particularly unrestricted news reporting.

Al-Jazeera and MBC’s Al-Arabiya newscasters have variously found the plugs pulled on their reporters after upsetting Arab governments. Al-Jazeera has also found itself subject to an unofficial blacklist from Saudi ad coin — the single most lucrative in the Arab TV market — due to tense relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The charter’s effect has also led to the launch of webs some have accused of supporting terrorism.

For example, Syrian-based television channel Al-Zawraa, owned by disgraced former Iraqi politician Mishaan al-Jabouri, was blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in January for allegedly fueling insurgent activity in Iraq and was a consistent thorn in the side of the Iraqi government.

While most Arab TV execs agree that some form of regulatory body would be advisable, all agree that power should not be in the hands of Arab governments or their ministers of information.

“Those who should decide what should and should not be aired are the viewers and the viewers only,” says Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s director of marketing, PR and commercial. “There is no need for the intervention of governments if you believe in the free flow of ideas, content and a knowledge economy. It is time for what is in our heads to be more valuable than what is under our soil.”

For other TV execs, simply keeping their operations running in the face of political strife is enough of a challenge without added interference from the region’s governments.

Lebanon, for example, has been wracked by political deadlock, with the country split between supporters of the pro-Western government and pro-Iranian and Syrian opposition. Execs at LBC, one of the most popular entertainment webs across the region, are more concerned with the potential spillover of violence in the country than the effects of the Arab League charter.

“So far, we’re managing, and there haven’t been any real problems in producing our shows,” says LBC chief Pierre Daher. “But we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

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