Television: Syrian Crisis in Orbit
By: Wissam Kanaan
Published Tuesday, June 5, 2012
The Arab League has called on the region’s two major satellite operators to stop broadcasting pro-regime Syrian channels. Some Syrian expats are entertaining the idea of launching their own satellite to get around the ban.
The public watched on Sunday as Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi read a statement after the extraordinary meeting of the Arab foreign ministers, asking the two main satellite operators in the Arab world, Arabsat and Nilesat, to stop broadcasting Syrian private and public television stations.
The precedent-setting move comes after a series of sanctions that the US and the European Union took against the state-run Syrian TV and Ad-Dunya TV owned by businessman and MP Muhammad Hamsho.
The decision was welcomed by parties within the Syrian opposition, who were quick to laud it. They have forgotten that this method of exclusion now being employed against the Syrian media is the same as that used by the Assad regime against journalists for a long time.
It was not enough to block pro-regime Syrian channels from the European satellite Hot Bird and to pass sanctions against state-run television. These measures were followed by a recommendation for a new ban on both public and private Syrian satellite channels on the two Arab satellite operators.
It is worth noting that the decision did not exempt non-political channels such as Syria Drama, which broadcasts soap operas and entertainment programs around the clock.
This step raised concerns among the stars of Syrian drama series about their industry, because it will likely prevent their work from reaching its broad audience in the Arab world.
It is true that the Syrian channels’ approach to the crisis in their country was sometimes comical as they desperately tried to defend the regime and attack its adversaries. Not to mention the superficial and often provocative way that the semi-official Ad-Dunya TV has dealt with the events.
However we cannot ignore the role that some of these channels play in exposing the lies, excesses, and professional mistakes committed by important channels like Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, and BBC Arabic.
We all remember the embarrassing mistake committed by BBC Arabic a week ago when it put a 2003 picture from Baghdad on its website claiming it was of the Houla massacre in Syria.
The station immediately apologized after the Italian photographer Marco Di Lauro, who had taken the picture, objected and said on his Facebook page that he was surprised by the channel’s failure to check its sources.
The BBC’s “mistake,” however, is insignificant compared to what journalist Rafik Lutf showed after the regular Syrian army took control of the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs.
Lutf broadcast reports showing activists, like Khaled Abu Saleh, getting ready to film fake scenes that appeared later on Al-Jazeera, in addition to other incidents that prove the involvement of the Qatari channel in distorting the facts.
Such attempts to deceive the public might have never been exposed had it not been for some of the pro-regime satellite channels.
The Syrian Journalist Federation described the move as “unprecedented, unjustified, and in violation of all norms and principles.”
It considered the decision of the Arab League Foreign Ministers Council to be “an attack on freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and a danger to human culture and the human rights of Arab people.”
Syrian Minister of Information Adnan Mahmoud, in an interview with Al-Akhbar, wondered why similar steps were not taken against some incendiary Arab channels whose incitement is punishable by law, be it sectarian tirades on channels that hide behind the guise of religion or misleading reports by professional news channels.
Mahmoud said that since the US war on Iraq, “there has been a trend among some Arab satellite channels of using doctored images instead of real ones. This trend has reached its climax in the media campaign waged against Syria.”
When asked about the repercussions of this decision and whether the two Arab satellite operators will abide by it, Mahmoud said that his ministry is in contact with all concerned parties and with the management at Arabsat and Nilesat.
The minister is counting on the independence of Nilesat to prevent it from taking any measures against Syrian channels adding: “Syria is one of the founders of Arabsat and its management has no right to take any illegal action against our media.”
Regardless of the nature of the channels targeted, this decision is basically a scandalous violation of freedom of the press. But will the two satellite operators comply with it?
A Satellite of Our Very Own
The Syrian Ministry of Information has not yet verified the news that spread on Facebook that some Syrian expatriates and businessmen intend to launch a satellite in support of the national media in response to the Arab League’s call for the ban of pro-regime channels on the two main regional satellites.
Even though the issue is still in the realm of conjecture, a Syrian businessman living overseas told Al-Akhbar, “I am working on the idea seriously but it requires creating a special company and many other procedures. It will probably face obstruction by parties that are able to do so. But we will try our best.”
The businessman, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “Even if the Syrian media is not professional, audiences should be allowed to see it if they wish, and they will ultimately be the judge of its content.”
When asked about the recommendation of the Arab foreign ministers to stop broadcasting Syrian channels, the Syrian expatriate said that “the Arab League demands freedom for the Syrian people, and simultaneously attacks the freedom of the press. This behavior is exclusionary and it is unacceptable.”
The Syrian side has vowed to broadcast through other satellites that cover the region, especially Iranian ones, if the recommendation of the Arab foreign ministers is implemented.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.