< Satellite Fight


Friday, February 12, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: A couple of months ago, the House passed Resolution 2278, aimed at Arab satellite TV networks like Al-Jazeera. It says that any network that incites violence against Americans will be censured by the U.S. It was largely unnoticed by the U.S. press, but it sparked a huge controversy in the Arab media. Satellite networks play a vital role in the Middle East because they can be received across borders, out of the reach of repressive regimes that would have shut them down. To Middle East media watchers, any effort to bear down on networks like Al-Jazeera, especially by a nation that regards itself as a free speech citadel, smacks of hypocrisy. Also, critics complain the bill is badly written. George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch says that when the bill tries to define “incitement” it ends up basically outlawing Arab journalism.

MARC LYNCH: It’s the act of persuading, encouraging, instigating, advocating, pressuring or threatening so as to cause another to commit a violent act against any person, agent, instrumentality or official of a representative of the United States. Simply reporting on something the United States does which makes Arabs angry could technically fall into that definition. Doing an interview with a political leader who criticizes the United States could technically fall into that category.

BOB GARFIELD: I gather some Arab leaders are against this, but others are maybe pretty happy with it. I'm thinking of Egypt, for example, and Hosni Mubarak.

MARC LYNCH: Yes, Arab governments really don't like Al-Jazeera. They don't like media freedoms and they want to control the media. They score some political points by telling the United States to back off, but I don't believe for a second that they would be sad to see Al-Jazeera muzzled. The strange thing is that the United States would put itself on the side of the muzzlers.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, that’s what’s so peculiar about this. It seems to me that if you wanted to do exactly the wrong thing in terms of the psychology of the Arab street, it would be to appear hypocritical and suppress press freedom, where it’s only beginning [LAUGHS] to flourish.

MARC LYNCH: Well, especially in the context of Hillary Clinton’s big speech about Internet freedom, this is all over the Op-Ed pages in Arab newspapers. Now, this resolution just comes out of the House, and I wouldn't be surprised, and I quite hope, that it'll simply die in the Senate and won't be heard from again. It’s not administration policy. But as it’s reported in the Middle East, those distinctions aren't really drawn. And so, I think it’s because it’s gotten so much attention in the Arab media, the U.S. is already paying a cost for it.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, we've discussed Al-Jazeera, but what about the other pan-Arab satellite channels, have they anything to fear?

MARC LYNCH: Again, it really depends on how broadly it’s defined. And here’s where the political interest would likely come in. Take something like Khalid Meshal, who’s the political leader of Hamas. No self-respecting Arab TV station can afford to not interview him. So if they're going to define any contact with Khalid Meshal as incitement to anti-American violence, then pretty much every TV station would have something to fear. More likely you'd end up seeing distinctions between television stations which are pushing a pro-American agenda, where they might say, well, yeah sure, they interviewed Meshal but on balance they're basically sending a pro-American message, versus other stations where they wouldn't get the benefit of that doubt.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, it is understandable that the U.S. Congress is not happy that satellite TV channels, especially in countries that are nominal U.S. allies or receive U.S. aid, are broadcasting actual incitement, you know, to kill Americans, and so forth. Historically, what kind of channels have been used to get the message to the host countries to get things under control?

MARC LYNCH: I mean, I think that this really came to the fore about Iraq, where American officials and the Bush administration were really unhappy with a lot of the coverage on the Arab TV stations. And I think a lot of that was displacement. TV stations weren't creating the incidents and they weren't creating the anger, but they were getting that story out, and it was very, very frustrating to American officials. So, for example, the Iraqi government, back when the Americans were still more or less running the place, they closed down the Baghdad offices of several TV stations, including Al-Jazeera, and also Al-Arabiya, the Saudi station. They shut them down for various stretches of time. But I think at the end of the day these Arab TV stations are covering reality, and if they are asked to, for example, not pay a lot of attention to Israel’s attack on Gaza, they just can't take that advice because they'll lose all of their credibility.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Marc, as always, thanks so much.

MARC LYNCH: All right. Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a blogger for Foreign Policy Magazine.