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Volume 36, Number 2March/April 1985

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Arabsat - the Impact

Written by John Christie and Patricia Moody
Additional reporting by Douglas A. Boyd
Additional photographs by Julian Nieman

Initially, the Arabsat satellite system will improve and extend regional communications and the transmission and receipt of data: telephone calls, Telexed messages, cables, faxed documents and drawings, and computer-to-computer interchanges. But at some point the new satellite will undoubtedly expand the reach and influence of intra-Arab television and Arab news agencies and newspapers too. In fact, it was Arab information ministers - rather than communication ministers - who first pressed for an independent Arab satellite.

Right now it is unlikely that the television capacity inherent in the Arabsat system - intra-Arab telecasts, for example - will be utilized. For one thing, Arab League countries would have to have ground stations, and few of the league countries have even begun construction of stations. For another, most governments will hesitate to open up airwaves and television channels to material that might be offensive or objectionable.

Unquestionably, some intra-Arab programming will be encouraged. During the Olympics, Arab countries with athletes competing in the United States were openly upset when telecasts of events in which Arabs participated were either ignored by American producers or edited severely by regional producers who were sharing taped telecasts and satellite time with Arab countries. With Arabsat, any of the 22 Arab League countries would have been able to telecast and broadcast as much as they wanted of any event in which Arab athletes were competing.

Similarly, Arabsat will permit Arab countries to cover live on a pan-Arab scale the Arab Games and - an event of supreme importance to most Arab viewers - the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca).

To some observers, however, the real value of Arabsat's television channels is that they offer alternatives to present arrangements. One UPITN editor compared the launching of Arabsat to the establishment of a national airline.

"Most Arab countries could get along nicely using the international services of, say, Pan Am or British Airways. But if for any reason those airlines declined to fly into Jiddah, or Amman, or Bahrain, what would the Arab countries do? And with Arabsat the same argument applies. Yes, they can get along nicely by using satellites like Intelsat, but what if the Western owners of Intelsat decided for any reason to shut it down, or use all its capacity themselves? What could the Arabs do? Arabsat is an alternative."

Arabsat, furthermore, will offer the 22 league countries the chance to utilize television's influence for science, research and education, since the existing networks and organizations, at least in the countries by the Arabian Gulf, have already charted a responsible course for television's growth.

During the 1970's, for example, Gulf-state ministers of information began regularly to discuss all aspects of the electronic media from frequency utilization to programming policies. In this spirit two organizations financed by Gulf governments were set up to foster specific aspects of broadcasting. One, Gulfvision, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and set up in 1977 coordinates television activities by organizing news exchanges, program competitions, and special studies.

The other organization is the Arabian Gulf States Joint Program Production Institution. Headquartered in Kuwait, this group's main task is production of such programs for the region as the Arab version of "Sesame Street," Iftah Ya Simsim (See Aramco World, September-October, 1979). Other programs produced focus almost always on educational themes, dramatizing such culturally sensitive topics as the adjustment of a non-Arab wife to local conditions and the problems of a Gulf resident in the West.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's indigenous television programming had expanded swiftly so now, on all main channels, the trend recently has been away from European and American programming - and away from films and video taped programs from non-Gulf Arab countries. One reason is that most contemporary Western programs are unacceptable for Muslim viewers. Another is the belief that many of these productions do not explore problems relevant to the Gulf and do not use a dialect common to the area.

TV's technical standard for five Gulf countries is the Phase Alternating Line, or "PAL," system invented in Germany, and though Saudi Arabia uses the French Sequential and Memory (SECAM) color system internally, the kingdom also transmits in PAL color for viewers in neighboring countries.

In the early 1980's, furthermore, long before Arabsat went up, the Gulf states had already made a new commitment to radio and television broadcasting. Radio broadcasting, for example, had become more sophisticated in terms of both technical quality and programming, and each country had begun to present programs of both Western and Arab music, drama, public affairs and news. In most cases, Gulf states also transmit programs in both Arabic and foreign languages via short wave for listeners in other parts of the world. (Conversely, there is widespread international radio listening among Gulf residents: 44 international broadcasters transmit to the Arab world in Arabic.)

Television, introduced in the 1960's, has also developed rapidly - in both technical and programming terms. In Kuwait - one of the forerunners of television in the Arabian Gulf - for example, television had reached an advanced state of technical and artistic quality by 1978, while the new Saudi Arabian television complex in Riyadh, completed in 1982, is probably one of the most spacious and modern in the world, with state-of-the-art equipment that is unmatched in most Western countries.

With those facilities and that experience, the Gulf countries are obviously prepared to take advantage of Arabsat's capacity when the completion of ground stations and solutions to administrative and technical problems permit Arabsat's full potential to be realized.

Arab news agencies are also well placed - now - after a decade of intensive development - to make good use of Arabsat-A to further reduce the influence of international new agencies in the Arab world.

For many years the coverage and dissemination of news about and in the Arab East has been largely in the hands of outsiders. News agencies such as the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters, Agence France Presse (AFP) and the Soviet News photog-(TASS), plus correspondents, photographers and cameramen for the major newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television networks in America and Europe, provided 90 per cent of the world's day-to-day news. AP, UPI, Agence France Presse and Reuters alone send 34 million words a day chattering over teleprinters in newspaper offices, banks, boardrooms and brokerage houses, TV newsrooms and government offices.

But since these agencies tend to reflect the interests of their readers rather than the interests of the areas involved, coverage of many parts of the world tended to be incomplete, oversimplified, often inaccurate and, therefore, distorted.

Critics charged, for example, that by dwelling on crises, corruption and confrontation in the Third World, the international agencies make it difficult for poor countries to secure foreign capital and economic aid. Furthermore, it is argued, since AP, UPI, AFP and Reuters usually look at everything through the eyes of the Americans, British or French, Third World nations get little chance to get their views across - even to their own peoples.

In the late 1960's and the early 1970's, Arab governments in particular came to believe that they needed more accurate and reliable dissemination of news and information about events in their own regions. Simultaneously, a rapidly increasing domestic demand by the Arab media for foreign news began to develop. Because oil-based affluence had triggered a publishing boom in the Arab states, local newspapers, journals and magazines proliferated, and both television and radio networks were extended throughout most countries in the Arab world.

In response, Arab agencies began to push hard to fill the gap. Egypt's Middle East News Agency, for example, was transmitting 185,000 words daily to 25 countries. But none was able to muster the resources to rival the "big four" and despite growth, domestic demand still could not support a commercial news agency. Existing international press agencies were not only able to provide the local media with most of the overseas coverage they then required, but could do it inexpensively. Individual governments, therefore, began to set up their own national news agencies.

In setting up national news services, different Arab states, of course, had differing objectives in mind. The Saudi Press Agency (SPA), for example, covers Saudi Arabia for the world and covers the world - or key parts of it - for Saudi Arabia, particularly developments with any bearing on Saudi Arabia and its government.

SPA has overseas bureaus in Beirut, Sanaa, Cairo, Tunis, Ankara, Karachi, London and Washington - all filing news to SPA headquarters in Riyadh - plus staff correspondents in other Arab cities and countries. SPA's output for both its domestic and overseas subscribers originates in, and is transmitted twice daily from, Riyadh in Arabic and English to subscribers abroad - several thousand words a day, covering every aspect of the kingdom's day-to-day development considered newsworthy.

Formed in 1960, SPA now has a staff of about 400 and its output is required reading for anyone who writes, broadcasts or comments on Saudi Affairs.

The Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) is another example. Following a highly professional news policy of balanced and objective reporting, KUNA's output is characterized by precision and speed: an average of 600 news items every day in Arabic and English, plus special reports and analyses and a separate bulletin sent daily to all Kuwaiti embassies and missions abroad. The agency's total daily output averages around 50,000 words - one of the largest volume-output among the Arab agencies - and is transmitted on its own communications system throughout Europe, the first such system to be set up by an Arab wire service.

KUNA, which began its operation in 1978, opted from the first for the most sophisticated means of communications available. The agency already uses 16 direct satellite lines to carry and transmit its newscasts abroad and 24 high frequency waves to beam its English and Arabic services. KUNA has 15 foreign bureaus and its Kuwait headquarters, manned by 39 editorial desks, has exchange arrangements with 45 foreign news agencies. KUNA's plans for the immediate future include extension of the present 10-hour English overseas service to 18 hours a day and the local Arabic transmissions from 16 hours to 24 hours a day.

The smaller Arab agencies are not to be compared with the scale and scope of such larger operations as those sponsored by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, some have carved out reputations recognized outside their domestic borders. WAMPRESS, the official newsagency of the United Arab Emirates, for example, has won an acknowledged position for its expertise on the oil industry in the Gulf; its stories and coverage in this field are prime source material. And the Qatar News Agency (QNA), reaching far beyond its national horizons, was, some months ago, a leading sponsor of a major international conference in Paris concerned with media and information matters in the Middle East.

With regard to news, creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), comprising the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar (see Aramco World, January-February 1984), has given an added dimension to the importance of local news agencies in the region. The council's vigorous efforts to promote economic integration and political coordination among these countries has heightened international interest in the area. The annual summit conference of the six GCC heads of state, for example, now attracts a large contingent of foreign journalists from all over the world - and increasingly they are ruining to national news agencies, not only for information and news stories but also for organizational and service support: translations, photographs and background briefings. Bahrain, Doha and Kuwait have already hosted such summit meetings and this year it will be the turn of the Sultanate of Oman to host a summit. Thus OMAN-PRESS, the sultanate's official press agency, will find its resources at full stretch during the GCC conference next November.

Another news agency with extensive links with the Arab world - and one of the more interesting operations - is OPECNA. Though this is a specialized news agency of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries covering the activities of all 13 member states, OPECNA closely monitors the affairs of the Arab world too. OPECNA takes dispatches from correspondents in the national news agencies of all the member states as well as from such institutions as the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD), the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), the OPEC Fund and various United Nations agencies.

An international group headquartered in Vienna, OPECNA was launched November 14, 1980, the 20th anniversary of the founding of OPEC itself, and is, according to Gonzalo Plaza, the Venezuelan head of OPECNA since its inception, "perhaps the most extraordinary initiative in communications in the last few years."

Because OPECNA must always consider the diversity of viewpoints and approach in 13 separate countries - seven of them Arab countries - OPECNA coverage obviously must be balanced, Plaza went on.

Originally, Plaza said, the decision to set up OPECNA arose from OPEC states' dissatisfaction with coverage by international journalists. To OPEC members, Western journalists seemed to misunderstand or misinterpret OPEC-states goals and moves, and to apparently favor the oil consuming countries.

What OPECNA does is provide newscasts, special features and reports; as of January 4, 1985, the agency had distributed 10,696 news stories - a total of 1,753,469 words written by its 12 reporters and editors in Vienna from dispatches filed by correspondents in member countries.

The OPECNA service is free and is sent to more than 800 direct subscribers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post in the United States and The Times and Financial Times in England, as well as West Germany's Die Welt and France's Le Monde. Altogether OPECNA serves 83 countries.

According to Plaza, one of the most important functions is to clarify facts. "If, for example, a news agency's report on OPEC or one of its member countries contradicts another agency's report, OPECNA can supply a clarification."

The agency also plays an important role in exchanging news among member countries - which will be a function of Arabsat too. But though OPECNA informs the world on OPEC's behalf, it is not part of the Public Affairs Department of OPEC. OPECNA, moreover, is not the "spokesman" for OPEC. It is a news agency with a unique mission that was spelled out recently in an annual report: "to act as an effective counterweight to all-pervading news agencies of the West."

Although each national news agency does tend to stress the interests and points of view of its mother country, there are also genuine efforts to distribute good, accurate coverage of Arab affairs. Arab news agencies, moreover, through the Federation of Arab News Agencies (FANA), are building up a research capacity to supply background material, statistical data and information studies, in addition to news. In October 1984, FANA began a new service to Europe, through the Kuwait News Agency - which compiles news and reports from all FANA agencies and then transmits them through its Vienna bureau to 23 national European news agencies for FANA.

With respect to Arabsat, the first impact of the satellite will be technical; it will provide agencies with faster local links - and enable newspapers to print different editions simultaneously in different parts of the Arab world, the way the International Herald Tribune does now in Europe and Asia and U.S.A. Today does throughout the United States. In addition, the satellite will enable television newsrooms to send and receive direct pan-Arab telecasts of such events as the Hajj - the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca).

The president of FANA, Barges Hamoud al-Barges, who is also chairman and director general of the Kuwait News Agency, told Aramco World that Arab news agencies are eager and receptive to any new developments in the communications field which improve the transmission and dissemination of news to different parts of the world. The FANA president thought it very probable that Arab news agencies currently using other means of satellite communications would switch to Arabsat. The federation, which currently has 16 members, has functioned for just over a decade and has achieved considerable progress in helping to develop individual Arab national news agencies.

As Barges al-Barges told Aramco World, "Any consolidation of Arab efforts is a sign of strength. As such, the Federation of Arab News Agencies is one of the steps towards unification of Arab ranks and objectives. It also works as a preventive measure in the face of biased Western media, particularly the American one."

Since 1956, when Middle East News Agency was founded, Arab agencies have begun to establish themselves as an integral part of the 20th-century miracle of mass communication. The launch of the Arab satellite, Arabsat, and its utilization by regional news agencies gives a nice technological underlining to a classic Arab tradition, even now, not entirely lost: the inevitable question of the desert traveler, "What news?" Through the space-age electronics of Arabsat, the Arab news agencies will now be answering the question, with greater alacrity and a more substantive authority.

John Christie, O.B.E., served 17 years as a British diplomat in the Middle East and now edits Middle East Newsletters.

This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the March/April 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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