In the Mideast, TV, Internet Spur Change but Losses Stalk Newsroom

Satellite television and the Internet have spurred Middle East media operations to become more critical and investigative but financial losses could catch up with some of the pioneers of this change, say regional media experts.

“The Arab media have changed a lot in the past 10-15 years,” says Hala Ghanem, a former information ministry official from Kuwait. “You can say there has been a revolution.”

While government-run newspapers and television stations remain largely unchanged, they are losing influence to the Internet and to competitors backed by private finance or funded but not directly controlled by governments.

The consequences of this shift include more extensive coverage of local and regional developments once played down by state-controlled media.

“In the past, they used to only cover international stories and we heard nothing about local stories,” says Ghanem.

But now, Ghanem adds: “The Internet has been pushing the pro-government media to cover more local stories and cover them openly. Newspaper editors have started realizing that if people cannot get the truth from their papers, all they would have to do is use their computers.”

Much of the lead in transforming the media outlook in the Arab world has been pioneered by satellite TV channels.

The field is decidedly mixed, says Rami Khoury, editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper.

“Some are more daring, more professional, and more frank,” Khoury says. “This media tends to be political and reflects public opinion, as is the case with (U.S.-based channels) Fox, MSNBC and CNN. They’re a combination of commercial interests and ideology.”

Two of the major satellite stations – al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya – are sponsored by governments or individuals closely associated with the state in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, respectively.

Although the two stations have spent millions of dollars each month covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the invasion of Iraq, their objectivity in covering their own sponsors has remained questionable, says Khoury.

“They tend not to report on the people who pay them. The countries that fund them directly tend to be off the list. So there is a problem there in terms of objectivity and credibility,” he says.

“Stations funded by Saudis tend not to say embarrassing things about Saudi Arabia; stations funded by Qatar tend to treat Qatar with kid gloves.”

The focus on Iraq has won the networks international recognition, however. Washington and London have objected strenuously to Arabic satellite channels’ coverage of the Iraq war but nevertheless have lent officials to appear on these stations in a clear acknowledgement of the networks’ importance.

Even so, the future of satellite stations is very much in question, according to media experts, because few of them have proven profitable.

“When will the investors pull the plug? That is the million-dollar question. Some people will have to pull the plug. At the end of the day, the capacity to absorb the losses will reach an end,” says Anwar Gargash, a board member of Emirates Media. The company runs several government-owned television channels and newspapers in the United Arab Emirates.

“If you look at Arab advertising spent, so far it has been mostly in print, not in satellites. You will see that satellite and TV stations are the ones losing money,” Gargash adds.

That means that newspapers are not dying, contrary to what many have thought.

“I am a believer in print media for several reasons. We have to admit it has been challenged by the satellites and the Internet and lost some of its younger readership but, on the other hand, the depth that it requires to cover a story, the print media is really covering it. That area is still very relevant,” says Gargash.

Khoury, editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon, says there is another reason why newspapers will never be extinct.

“Most people still read them for columnists, editorials and local news. People read newspapers for local information and go to satellites for regional and international news,” he says.

Inter Press Service