The Impact of Arab World Satellite Television on the Democratisation Process in the MENA States

Term Paper, 2006

9 Pages, Grade: 1,7



The Arab world is considered to be currently undergoing a great change. A new generation of leaders (for example Bashar al-Asad in Syria, Absallah II. in Jordan, Hamad bin Isa in Bahrain) has to face the urgency of social, political and economic reforms, which have been retarded for a long time.[1] Yet despite a perceivable higher degree of tolerance towards discussion and dissent in some Arab countries, despite the aspired renewal and modernisation of economy and politics in their countries, the young leaders did and do not intend any far reaching change of the political system. Nevertheless a public sphere is awakening in the countries of the Middle East, expressing discontent with the present political situation and claiming more political participation and economic freedom. The kifaya movement in Egypt[2] might be a good example for this course of events, which actually is taking place throughout the Arab world.

Yet the public sphere in the Arab countries is not very organised. Strict media laws have hindered the formation of a vital civil society in the past decades. The rise of private-owned satellite television channels in the past 10 years has raised the hope that these new media will contribute to the evolving democratisation process, which is perceivably taking place throughout the Arab world. Considering the vital role of mass media in consolidated democracies, the question arises, what contribution mass media, especially television channels, can make to the democratisation process in the countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA States). Television is considered as a very capacious instrument in this process, because illiteracy is still very widespread, thus audiovisual media embody the most accessible source of information for large parts of the population. Especially satellite television is regarded as a possibly potential player in the democratisation process, because of its transnational range of broadcasting, which evades national media laws.

Yet it is difficult to measure the impact of satellite television, because there is hardly any audience research covering data about viewing habits. Thus precise and capacious data is hardly available and the few statistics that exist cannot claim full validity and aren’t sufficient to confirm a comprehensive theory. As Kai HAFEZ, an expert in Arab media, put this problem: “Whereof is the function of the New Media in the context of political transformation to be measured?”[3] Are there links between television programming and democratisation? What impact does satellite television in particular have on this process? To what extent and under what conditions can satellite television channels contribute to the democratisation process? Are media freedoms necessary prerequisites for a democratic transition or do these freedoms evolve during the democratisation process? These are the main questions which I am going to follow up in this essay.

Therefor, I will at first explain the functions of modern mass media in consolidated democracies according to contemporary media theories, highlight in the following paragraph characteristics of Arab Television Channels and difficulties in the Arab media landscape, which I will briefly portray in this section. The next paragraph will point out the development of television broadcasting in the Arab World and give a rough survey on the contents of Arab Television channels. Moreover, this paragraph will deal with the missing connectedness of Arab media[4] and the civil society in the MENA States and the causes of this problem. The last paragraph summarizes my findings, describing potentials and prospects, and highlighting once more the crucial problems.

The role of mass media

As information is seen as the crucial precondition of a working (democratic) civil society, free, pluralistic and democratic media which provide objective and neutral information are indispensable for a democratic, pluralistic society. Media, and especially mass media like television, provide information and interpretation of events, with large-area coverage, shaping and structuring the public agenda and thus adopting the role of a mediator between state and society. By providing interpretation of events media also give a reference framework for information, explaining connections of social, economic or political phenomena, putting information in a greater context. Another task is the function of cultural reinforcement, which contains the provision of information about a society and its cultural background.[5] This function is very distinct in Arab media (esp. in the Gulf States), which stress their cultural background and try to assert themselves (and oftentimes the governments behind them) against “western cultural invasion”, thus seeking to protect Islamic values and the Islamic view of life.[6]

Advertising and entertainment are also functions of mass media, but these tasks are more or less irrelevant to the subject here and therefor shall not be subject of further consideration.

In underdeveloped countries, the functions of media slightly differ from the functions media have to fulfil in consolidated democracies. In such countries, as well as in democratic countries, media have to provide information and knowledge about political, social and economic issues, but moreover, they face the task of educating the people towards more participation in politics and social life. The adoption of tasks and functions of political parties is seen as the probably most important function of media in underdeveloped countries.[7] In many countries of the Arab World, political parties are not allowed or controlled by the government, thus the political sphere is monopolized by the ruling parties, excluding all other elements of society from the political process. Thus no institution or platform exists, where programmatic alternatives to the ruling regime can be discussed and set up, where dissent and critique can be voiced. This led to a political apathy, which is noticeable throughout the Arab world. Media, especially mass media like television, are regarded as potential agents of transition, if they are willing and able to criticise the ruling regimes, commit themselves to democratic values and to set up a democratic agenda. These conditions must be fulfilled, even against censorship and strict media laws, only then media might become an instrument of social change.


[1] Cf.: PERTES, Volker: Geheime Gärten. Die neue arabische Welt; Bonn 2005; pp.33

[2] See LEHMANN, Lennart: Neues, altes Afghanistan nach den Taliban

In: Das Parlament, Jg.55, Nr.32/33; 2005; S.16

[3] HAFEZ, Kai: Arabisches Satellitenfernsehen – Demokratisierung ohne politische Parteien?

In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte; B48/2004, p.17 (own translation)

[4] The use of the term „Arab media“ seems to me appropriate, because the observations made concerning television apply largly to other types of mass media as well. Yet; to avoid any obscurity concerning the definition of my subject, I speak here of Arab satellite television channels.

[5] Cf.: RUGH, William A.: Arab Mass Media. Newspapers, Radio and Television in Arab Politics;

Westport 2004; p.14

[6] Cf.: Al-HAIL, Ali: The Age of New Media: The Role of Al-Jazeera Satellite TV in Developing Aspects of Civil Society in Qatar; p.2

[7] Cf.: HAFEZ, Kai: Arabisches Satellitenfernsehen – Demokratisierung ohne politische Parteien?

In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte; B48/2004, p.17

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The Impact of Arab World Satellite Television on the Democratisation Process in the MENA States
University of Freiburg  (Seminar für Wissenschaftliche Politik)
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Impact, Arab, World, Satellite, Television, Democratisation, Process, MENA, States
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Marius Sauter (Author), 2006, The Impact of Arab World Satellite Television on the Democratisation Process in the MENA States, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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