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Middle East: Better Communications Stoking Desires For Greater Freedom (Part 3)

The rise of satellite television and the Internet are challenging the traditional information order in the Middle East. In the past, reports of events like the recent anti-Syria rallies in Lebanon or Iraqis freely voting in January would have been censored in many Arab countries. But today, with satellite television, the images are available to a broader public. In this third in a three-part series on democracy in the Middle East, RFE/RL reports that observers are drawing parallels with the situation in Eastern Europe two decades ago.

Prague, 23 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In the 1980s, cross-border television and radio broadcasts, fax machines, and advances in computer technology all contributed to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

It became harder and harder for communist leaders to hide their societies' relative backwardness from their increasingly restive populations.

The result was region-wide revolution.

Some see a parallel in today's Middle East. Arabic-language television stations are exploding, and the Internet has led to a flood of cross-border communications.

Jihad Khazen is a former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper "Al-Hayat."

"After the introduction of satellite television, [Arab authorities] could not control the news anymore. It's not that they saw the light or that they became reformed. It's that they couldn't control it, so they raised the ceiling of liberty for everyone else," Khazen said.
"We live in a time where everything is in the open on satellite television. All of the Arabs everywhere can watch what's happening in Lebanon daily on TV."

Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Britain's Oxford University, agrees.

"Ten years ago, you needed a license [just] to have a fax machine in Syria. Now everybody there has a satellite [dish] and mobile phones," Shehadi said.

Earlier this month, nearly a million people took to the streets of the Lebanese capital Beirut to demand that Syria withdraw. Emotional images of the protest were carried instantaneously across the region.

Shehadi says such images have a powerful effect on people living under stricter regimes.

"We live in a time where everything is in the open on satellite television. All of the Arabs everywhere can watch what's happening in Lebanon daily on TV. They can see that everything is debated. They can see that a government has been brought down," Shehadi said.

He says the implications are obvious and that governments are living in the past.

"The regimes that are built on the principle of controlling information -- on the old Eastern Europe-style of controlling information and controlling thought, if you like -- are not sustainable anymore. They are in a time warp," Shehadi said.

No one is predicting the immediate fall of repressive regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Still, several countries have recently made moves to open up their political systems. These have been prompted at least in part by improved communications.

The leading Middle Eastern satellite television station is Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. Since its launch in the 1990s, Al-Jazeera has developed a huge following across the Arab world for its independent reporting -- amid a sea of state-controlled media.

Hania Refaat, a Cairo-based businesswoman in her late 20s, says she relies on Al-Jazeera and similar stations almost exclusively for her news.

"I really admire the way the Arab channels -- the Arab media -- has been dealing with all of this, because it's really very objective. It's giving the sides of the story in a very, very proper way," Refaat said.

Al-Jazeera is frequently criticized outside the region for what some perceive as an anti-Western bias. What's often overlooked, though, is how critical the station is of governments within the Middle East.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw suggested earlier this month that stations like Al-Jazeera are making a difference.

"We may not have always agreed with the editorial line of Al-Jazeera. This is what is called freedom and democracy, and long may that continue -- that we have television stations and radio stations and media where people like me don't happen to agree with them. I'd say the process is really interesting," Straw said.

Nadine Ghanem, a Lebanese lawyer in her 30s, is a frequent viewer of satellite television stations.

"Even if some channels are not objective and did not report objectively and maybe took sides -- despite this there are so many channels reporting and so many opinions being heard that this has really had a positive influence," Ghanem said.

For her and many others, it's not so much the content of the broadcast that matters. It's the fact that they are reporting and speaking openly.

(RFE/RL correspondent Peyman Pejman contributed to this article.)


Are Washington's Efforts To Promote Democracy Bearing Fruit? (Part 1)

Can Democracy Succeed In The Region? (Part 2)
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.