BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield. From Egypt, to Palestine, Iraq to Lebanon, symptoms of democracy are breaking out all over the Mid East, and the political right is falling all over itself to take credit. [COLLAGE OF TV COMMENTATORS]
WOMAN: Many foreign policy observers are hailing the Bush administration's policies and saying the Bush doctrine of spreading democracy throughout the world - there's clear evidence that…
MAN: The president, in talking about freedom and democracy, is sparking a wave of very positive democratic…
WOMAN: …the predicate was doing what George Bush and this administration did in Iraq - the example of the brave Iraqis.
BOB GARFIELD: But what if the credit belongs not to American foreign policy? What if the major catalyst is a more elemental democratic institution, namely a fledgling free media, masked terrorists, anti-American screeds and all. What if pan-Arab satellite TV news, including the widely despised (in the West) Al Jazeera turns out to be the force that ultimately empowers citizens throughout the historically authoritarian Arab world? Hisham Melham is the host of the weekly program Across the Ocean on Al-Arabiya TV, and he joins me now. Hisham, welcome.
Hisham Melham: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you've witnessed this both as an insider, as an employee of Al-Arabiya, and as an outsider, as a reporter for various Lebanese publications. What is the concrete street-level effect that the satellite channels are having on Arab citizens throughout the Arab world?
Hisham Melham: Well, Bob, for many years, Arab governments managed to build artificial walls among various Arab societies, and it made it very difficult for Arabs to understand what was taking place - not only in the wider world, but also in their own wider culture. And, with the advent of the satellite phenomenon, Arabs from Morocco in the west to Yemen in the east are watching and listening to almost un-edited raw footage concerning, for instance, the popular movement in Lebanon, and they are quoting Lebanese, and before that, Iraqis and Palestinians, speaking in Arabic language that everybody can understand, and when you look at the limited elections in Saudi Arabia, the municipal elections, and if you look at the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, discovering for the first time the virtues of elections, which means there has to be more than one candidate - I would argue that one of the reasons could be that new public sphere that was brought about by the new technology and the new media, i.e., the satellites.
BOB GARFIELD: You work for Al-Arabiya, which I think is regarded here in the west as a more west-friendly version of Al Jazeera. Are Al Jazeera's critics, which by the way have included this program, are they missing the point that however inflammatory some of the rhetoric is, however incendiary some of the pictures are, that the democratic value of unfettered media far and away trumps the particulars of what is said on the broadcasts?
Hisham Melham: On the whole, if you want dynamic, vibrant societies, and that should of course include media, then you have to take the good and the bad at the same time, and that's why it was very disturbing when we hear Secretary Rumsfeld denouncing Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, and in broad brushes, without being a bit specific. You know, my thought is always that, okay, if you don't like certain aspects, you criticize them, challenge them, engage them - and that's the way to do it - not to lambast them and to support them when they do something that suits your interest and denounce them when they do things that you don't think are in your interest.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm curious to what extent the coverage of what's going on even reflects the idea that the American ousting of Saddam Hussein was potentially the, the key that unlocked democracy in the Arab world.
Hisham Melham: It is definitely a factor in the discussion, especially among intellectuals and academics, definitely. But the Arab media phenomena brought to the Arab certain realities about the outside world. One of them is that the Arab world is lagging behind every other region in the world, with the exception of sub-Sahara Africa. And for people who have old memories, for these states who are built on old cultures that contributed greatly in the past to world civilization, they look at their current messy malaise and led some people to say, look, maybe not all of our problems should be blamed on the Americans and the Israelis and this and that. Maybe our biggest problem is bad governance. Throughout the last few decades, there has been ferment in the Arab world for reform, for empowerment. People were chafing under the rule of autocratic, various autocratic regimes. Obviously, if conditions were not somewhat ripe in the Arab world for change, not even the invasion of Iraq or invasion of other Arab country would change anything.
BOB GARFIELD: The 20th and 21st Century of Arab media is that of states controlling the message to a very great degree, and in individual countries, there's very little free press. I guess Lebanon is excluded from that. One of the reasons, I suppose, for the flourishing of the satellite news channels is that they enable citizens all over the Arab world to get what they can't get from their home-grown media. Are the governments going to be able to get one step ahead of Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera and whoever else comes along?
Hisham Melham: Most Arab governments are not comfortable with this new phenomenon, definitely, because it is intrusive, and because it exposed them, and it exposed the bankruptcy and the limitations and ineptness of their own "national," quote/unquote, mass media that are controlled by government, and I think the genie is out of the bottle, and while, theoretically speaking, the government of Qatar today can silence Al Jazeera or sell it or change it or stop it, it is going to be extremely difficult for anybody to crack down on this new phenomenon.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you about the competition. Al Jazeera, by most measures, is considered the dominant channel. Then Al-Arabiya, your station.
Hisham Melham: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: But then, there's also Alhurra, which is financed by the United States government.
Hisham Melham: True.
BOB GARFIELD: Has it had any impact in the, the marketplace, the marketplace of ideas?
Hisham Melham: Nil to nothing. Really. Because it was seen by Arabs as, as a propaganda tool. Arabs, for a long time, did not trust, for good reason, any media outlet that was financed by a given government. And Alhurra did not manage to hire people who are very well known in the Arab world, and when you have an out-an outfit like this, to be seen as credible in the Arab world, you should act like the BBC or the way we look at NPR here. Maybe public money is behind it, but it has total editorial autonomy, which was the case of the BBC, and every Arab knows that. Alhurra did not act that way. It did not create that impression in the Arab world, and fair or unfair, most people don't watch Alhurra right now. Although your tax dollars and my tax dollars are behind it.