TV Still Leads the Media Revolution in the Middle East

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Lawrence Pintak, author of The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil, talks about his new book, and the role of Arab journalists in the recent uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere.

According to Lawrence Pintak, there's a strong connection between the revolt in Egypt and the Arab media revolution launched 15 years ago with the start of Al Jazeera. Talking with Brian Lehrer, he said satellite TV is still playing a huge role in journalism in the Middle East. Until the formation of Al Jazeera, all Middle Eastern broadcasters were controlled by the government. That's no longer the case.

Along comes Al Jazeera in 1996 and suddenly there is a semi-independent, shall we say, voice that is charged with a mission of taking on the autocrats.

In fact, the media was so restricted back then, he said the news wasn't getting out at all.

In 1990, Iraq invades Kuwait. If you're a Saudi, you probably don't know about it because for three days, the Saudi media did not mention the invasion. I mean, that's the equivilant of Canada invading Massachusetts and people in New York not knowing about it.

Pintak said now there are more than 500 Arab satellite channels, not just the two big ones — Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia's El Arabiya — that represent views all across the political spectrum. The level of revolt that's going on in the Middle East now could not have happened without satellite television, he said.

If you go back a few weeks ago to Tunisia, all these isolated protests going on in various parts of the country, well certainly social media played a big role in that in terms of getting footage on You Tube, etc., but much of that footage was being fielded by an activist working for Al Jazeera posting it on You Tube, then Al Jazeera picked it up and broadcast it around the region.

Pintak went on to say that these TV channels don't come without a bias. For example, El Arabiya is known to be more conservative on their coverage of issues, including the protests in Egypt.

The bottom line is that there are no news organizations in the Arab world that are not susceptible at some level to government pressure. The issue is, how susceptible?

Al Jazeera on the other hand, has been described by critics as anti-American, but Pintak said they've toned it down in recent years, and what we see now is more a defensiveness of the Arab World.

Arab TV and Arab journalism, in general, is very much Arab. It looks at the world, and this is the great revolution in Arab journalism, the fact that Arabs suddenly, once Al Jazeera was launched, were seeing a relatively independent view of the world, of what was going on around them, but through the prism of an Arab camera.

He gave an example from the Iraq war:

During the siege of Fallujah, American journalists were embedded with the Marines around Fallujah, Al Jazeera was inside Fallujah with the resistance and with the civilians. So where the American coverage was showing...the outgoing fire, the Jazeera coverage was showing the incoming. Now you can argue...whether or not they focused too much on the civilian casualities...but the bottom line is that they were showing the Arab world a completely different view of the conflict than Americans were seeing, and that naturally led to a different view of American policy.

In Egypt, young activists have become very adept at using social media, Pitak said, and it played a crucial role in galvanizing the masses for the protests, but when the government shut down the internet, satellite TV is what people were left with.

Even though you couldn't send an SMS to someone, everyone was sitting at home in Cairo, in Alexandria and watching these events unfold on the streets outside, on television. On Al Jazeera, on El Arabiya, etc., and that just energized people and got many many Egyptians out on the street, got the Arab world riveted and now we're seeing the copycat demonstrations in various capitals.

Whether it's on television or in social media, Pintak said, it's impossible to shut this massive movement down.

Today, cell phone coverage apparently has been cut again, but up until last night, I was exchanging twitters with one of the Egyptian bloggers and what he was doing was phoning someone in Jordan and dictating to them, so there is no way in the 21st century that a nation of 80 million people can go off the grid. It is not going to happen.