A Mideast Media Revolution

Hala Sarhan deplores the rise of extremism in her country, Egypt, and throughout the Arab world. "Everybody is getting veiled," says the longtime broadcaster and talk-show host. "What we want to do is unveil the society, unveil the ideas."

Sarhan is part of a media revolution in the Mideast, a revolution giving voice to the aspirations and frustrations of the region's middle class. Yet while they express the yearnings of moderate Muslims for freer expression, these new media players certainly are not toeing a Western line. That's especially true of the coming war. "No one is pro-Saddam, but no one is pro-America either," says Nashwa Al-Ruwaini, Cairo bureau chief of Middle East Broadcasting, the biggest independent channel.

As vice-president of Dream TV, Egypt's first private satellite station, Sarhan has beamed programming throughout the Arab world, often with dramatic effect. A recent hour-long discussion of masturbation caused an avalanche of viewer complaints and elicited a sharp warning from the Cairo government. "I don't know whether I can satisfy the censors," she says. "Sometimes the subject material is so attractive, you can't resist it." It's not just Egyptian authorities she angers. The U.S. State Dept. tried unsuccessfully to block the broadcast of a Dream TV serial that American diplomats thought was anti-Semitic.

Stations like Dream TV have proliferated as Middle East governments launched commercial satellites and leased access to private channels. In fact, the governments of Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan are creating so-called media free zones--areas where the government donates land and offers tax incentives to encourage private media companies to move in--complete with state-of-the-art studios, stars, and lucrative jobs. Policymakers have promised not to interfere--most of the time. "If we're going to succeed, we want as much freedom of expression as we can get," says Sarhan. Her boss is wealthy businessman Ahmed Bahgat, who founded Dream TV in 2000 so he could move his companies' electronics and appliance advertising to an outlet he controlled.

Dream TV isn't making money yet, but it's making its mark. In November, Dream TV caused another stir with a commentary on President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal and his political ambitions, a hitherto forbidden subject. "All the taboos have been broken," says editor Hassan Ragab, a columnist for the government-controlled Al-Akhbar newspaper in Egypt. They can be criticized, however, for "oversensationalizing," he adds. For example, Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based channel, has broadcast vivid images of the violence between the Palestinians and Israelis. That has helped inflame anger against both Israel and the U.S. But the channel has also taken on the powers that be in the region, prompting Kuwait and Jordan to close down Al Jazeera offices. How these media outlets portray a probable war on Iraq will profoundly influence public opinion in the Arab world.

By Susan Postlewaite in Cairo

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