Alberto Fernandez, vice-president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), spoke to participants in a July 13 Middle East Forum webinar about Arabic satellite TV channels in the Middle East.
The most influential Arabic TV channels fall into three main categories: media outlets funded directly by authoritarian regimes in the region that “generally mimic the[ir] foreign policy goals” (e.g. Saudi-funded Al Arabiya, UAE-funded Sky News Arabia, and Qatari-funded Al Jazeera); Islamic religious channels (including Salafi and pro-Muslim-Brotherhood Islamist outlets); and channels funded by actors outside of the Arab world (e.g. the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, Iran, and Turkey).
Turkey has developed a “very aggressive” Arabic media footprint in the last six years, said Fernandez, with over a dozen major Islamist channels broadcasting to the Arab world. Since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2013, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has established numerous Turkey-based channels, which disseminate anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-Western content across the region. Qatari financing plays a major role in their operations. While there are smaller Salafi channels in Egypt that preach anti-Semitic and anti-Shia content, Turkey has become the “new promoter … of radical [Sunni] Islamist media content in Arabic to the Arab world.”
Qatar’s Al Jazeera, begun in 1996, is the “most notorious” of the Mideast channels. Its audience appeal is based upon its in-depth coverage of significant news events since the late 1990s, especially the rise of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel, Israel’s 2008 Operation Cast Lead against Hamas, the 2011 “Arab Spring,” and the civil war in Syria. Its coverage was uniformly anti-American and anti-Israeli, and then increasingly biased against rival Arab governments in keeping with Qatar’s foreign policy agenda. “There’s a … near 100% correlation between Al Jazeera’s editorial line … and the foreign policy line of the state of Qatar,” said Fernandez.
Al Jazeera’s ideological bent is Islamist and pan-Arab. It owes its success to taking the discourse about Islamist politics already occurring “off-screen” in Arab societies and “mainstream[ing] the discourse. … Al Jazeera put it front and center and made it credible and … respectable.”
In 2015, Qatar established Al Araby, a television network broadcast out of London to service the “secular, progressive or left-wing Arab audience.” Thus, Qatar has “two irons in the fire,” one Islamist and one secular.
During the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. government’s concern over Al Jazeera’s coverage of regional events led to the formation of an Al Jazeera monitoring group in which Fernandez served along with members of the White House, State Department, and other federal agencies. However, “aside from that very brief attempt to hold the official media outlet of an ostensibly friendly state to account,” little has been done in Washington to combat Al Jazeera’s anti-American content.
According to Fernandez, even media outlets “influenced or controlled by [other] countries that are ostensibly allies of the United States,” such Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, and Turkey, “promote poison on a day-to-day basis.” Anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-Christian, and anti-West media content is pervasive wherever authoritarian regimes hold sway. So-called “friendly” governments are “using anti-Americanism as a … way to legitimize [themselves] to populations that are anti-American or anti-Western.” This “extraordinarily dangerous” disconnect fuels the broader narrative used by ISIS and al-Qaeda supporters. In “trying to protect themselves or immunize themselves from criticism,” these governments “are basically doing some of the spade work for our enemies and kind of poisoning the broader media environment against the United States and against our interests.” Fernandez acknowledged, however, that Israel’s growing ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent years have “broadened the perspective of media in those countries,”
Fernandez sees the impact of Arab broadcast media increasingly being supplanted by the growth of social media platforms, especially among the Arab Gulf states. “The percentage of Saudis or Emiratis who use Twitter, who use Facebook, is higher than even in the US.”
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.