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Arab TV feels the pinch of new broadcast limits

The Arab League has adopted new restrictions on satellite broadcasters warning them not to insult Arab leaders.

By Liam StackContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2008

Nader Gohar, Cairo News Company director, stands by the backdrop he uses for taping interviews.

Liam Stack

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Spread across the top of this city's crooked skyline like a field of mushrooms, satellite dishes absorb signals beamed from across the Arab world to send images of pop stars and politicians to the throngs of families living below.

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Throughout the Middle East, where governments have long had a powerful grip on the media, satellite broadcasting serves as an important source of information – and entertainment – that has been beyond the traditional reach of the state censors.

But now, according to rights groups and media observers, Arab governments are slowly moving to extend their control of the media to satellite broadcasters, as well.

In February, the Arab League adopted the Satellite Broadcast Charter, a new package of tight guidelines for broadcasters, at the instigation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which own two of the region's main satellites, Nilesat and Arabsat.

The document urges TV stations to "uphold the supreme interests of the Arab countries" and warns them "not to insult their leaders or national and religious symbols" or "insult social peace and national unity."

Weeks after adopting the charter, Egypt's Nilesat dropped Al Hiwar, a London-based network seen as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's main opposition group. Following that, Egyptian police confiscated the transmission equipment of the Cairo News Company (CNC), a syndicate that news agencies such as Al Jazeera and the Associated Press rely on to broadcast their footage live from Egypt.

Nader Gohar, CNC director, says the government raided CNC in April because it blames it for images broadcast by Al Jazeera of protestors destroying portraits of President Hosni Mubarak during two days of food riots.

Although Mr. Gohar says that his company did not broadcast the images, and that Al Jazeera correspondents bypassed him and sent their footage directly to their Qatar headquarters from their satellite phones, he says a service provider such as CNC is an easier target than a major network.

"The government doesn't like what Al Jazeera says in their broadcasts, but at the same time it won't shut down their office," he says. "So they bother people like me because I give Jazeera the technical facilities they need to broadcast. It is an indirect way of limiting Al Jazeera's work."

Both the new charter and the seizure of transmission equipment from the CNC are part of the same repressive trend, says Lawrence Pintak, director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo.

"It is all a symptom of the same reality, that this government and others in the region refuse to back away from the big brother mentality when it comes to the media," he says.

Egypt's media is freer than most in the Arab world. A number of independent newspapers and television channels have flourished here over the past several years, many of which were at their peak during a brief period of political openness that accompanied the 2005 presidential election.