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An Essay

Satelite Dishes

Artwork source Al Jadid

by Salam Kawakibi. Since the onset of the “Arab Spring,” and through the development of revolutionary phases, with their violent consequences, Arab satellite TV stations, which reach millions of viewers, persistently devoted themselves to broadcasting interviews with “analysts,” “academics,” and “experts” on the issues surrounding various national uprisings.

As events continued to unfold, the demand for these types of guests increased, despite a structural supply shortage of serious and professional experts. Subsequently, some stations resorted to “manufacturing” their experts, inviting virtual unknowns and bestowing upon them supreme titles in an attempt to artificially qualify them for their roles as news analysts without having to go through the vetting process of reviewing their actual scientific or practical credentials.
As a result, many true experts – including those knowledgeable about the subject matter in question – simply refused to participate in the charade. Respect for the viewers, and their intelligence, as well as the experts’ own self-respect made them unwilling to be misrepresented.
Other groups chose to strictly confine their TV appearances within the limits of their expertise, avoiding pretensions, or the temptation to make claims of knowledge in areas outside their specializations or practical experiences. Nonetheless, a majority of the guests did willingly plunge into the maze of spotlights, exploiting the qualitative and quantitative shortage of truly qualified experts. They emerged as “stars” of the screen, triumphing at the expense of the viewer, regardless of the simplicity of his understanding and the shallowness of his knowledge.
The interviews varied from individual commentary on a specific event to confrontational conversations between two or more speakers. The moderator often actively stirred up the atmosphere, inducing shouting matches and raised voices in order to attract the largest number of thrill-seeking guests. Arabic-language satellites distinguished themselves in producing these types of talk shows, justifying the final product as a form of vigorous debate and diversity of opinion. Some of these programs gained wide popularity with many viewers anxiously awaiting their broadcasts, like people lining up to watch a street fight.
As the Syrian slaughter continued unabated, these talk show programs became profitable. Those searching for calm and deliberate analysis instead found guests engaged in shouting matches punctuated with harsh, reckless words, and thoughtless gestures. Originally exclusive to Arab TV stations, this practice was soon imitated by the new Europe-based Arabic stations. A majority of those managing the diasporic media still embrace a share of the authoritarian Arab media culture which they carried with them as they migrated to the West, releasing hidden desires to exercise power in doses of professionally unjustified aggressiveness. The image of the winner and the loser becomes clear in these conversations: whoever has the louder voice and the greater skill in mocking their opponent will emerge as the victor.
According to the old economic market doctrine, demand creates supply. On Arab satellite talk shows, this means a vast market of loud-talking “specialists” in the Syrian conflict who have just strolled into TV studios after practicing in other arenas. Both Syrian regime representatives and supporters start to psychologically manipulate their counterparts even before taking the stage. The regime representatives, polished, and professionally made up, face the opposition’s spokesperson as if to impart to him the ability to facilitate his “return to the homeland,” or they continue to make gestures that question his patriotism and nationality. Utilizing the Stasi method – according to the horrific East German intelligence service – he succeeds in aggravating the atmosphere, pushing the opposition debater to fall into the trap of entrenching himself in a defensive position, and resorting to verbal violence which causes him to lose control over his thought processes. On the opposite side, the loyalist guest, carefully trained, remains sufficiently calm when necessary, and adequately raises his voice when he becomes vindictive.
However, others, not just regime loyalists, find themselves guilty of hollow speech. The “revolutionary” voice or opposition falls into the trap of populism, and an empty rhetoric devoid from meaning, often reverting to repetition of already-stated sentences which they think, erroneously, will enable them to preserve their credibility and popularity. Ultimately, they distance themselves from actually delving into the subject, or properly analyzing it.
The first and the last victim remains the Syrian viewer who searches for intellectual assistance, or even truthful news assistance, to aid his own personal understanding of daily issues. The Syrians, and other Arabs, who live with great pain and deep wounds, constitute the real losers far more than all these guests on the satellite screens who are presumably considered “strategic experts.”
Edited translation from the Arabic by Elie Chalala. The author has granted Al Jadid magazine the right to translate and publish his essay. The Arabic version of Mr. al-Kawakibi’s essay appeared in

This essay is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 20, no. 71 (2016).

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