WHEN a fire broke out during the annual Muslim pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, many Saudis were glued to their televisions. They wanted to learn what might happen to about 2 million Muslims visiting Mecca.
But only those who tuned in to a foreign satellite broadcast learned the whole story: The blaze claimed three lives.
''Saudi TV announced there was a fire, but we knew they'd try to downplay it,'' says one Saudi woman who requested anonymity. ''The BBC [television broadcast] had the whole story: how bad the fire was, how many people died, and why the fire started.''
An increasing number of Gulf Arabs are turning off state-run television in favor of foreign satellite channels that offer everything from open political debate to movies with explicit sex scenes. ''We watch the satellite news channels to find out what's going on in our own countries,'' says one Saudi media analyst.
''I watched [US Commerce Secretary] Ron Brown's visit on CNN to see how the United States would reschedule our debts,'' the analyst adds.
Local television channels are limited to running religious programming; wildlife documentaries; American series, such as MacGyver; and specially commissioned, sanitized Egyptian soap operas.
''Governments could control what their constituents watched up to five years ago,'' says Daniel Binns, network media director at an advertising agency in Bahrain. ''That's no longer true.''
The satellite invasion means Gulf Arabs can choose from 38 channels -- from rap music on MTV to international news broadcasts.
Where only the wealthy and influential once had access to the satellite channels, around one-third of the Gulf's population of about 23 million tunes in now. Prices of the satellite dishes have fallen from about $25,000 three years ago to $1,000 today.
The first of the Arabic satellite channels, MBC, was launched in 1991 by Saudi businessman and brother-in-law to King Fahd, Walid al-Ibrahim.
Mr. Ibrahim noticed the vast difference between the programming on US television and what was available in Saudi Arabia while studying at the University of Oregon in Eugene. ''I knew there was definitely a market to be exploited here,'' he says.
ARAB Radio and Television, owned by Saudi entrepreneur Saleh Kamel, was started last year because its owner wanted to combat the Western satellite invasion. ''There is a Western media campaign to undermine our Arab culture and traditions,'' he says.
The lineup on ART's five channels conforms with Islamic values, Mr. Kamel insists. ''I don't allow anything on ART that I wouldn't want my children to watch.''
Orbit, the latest addition, started transmitting 28 television and radio channels to subscribers a year ago. Its programs include live coverage from the three major US networks and the BBC World Service broadcast in Arabic.
Despite the freedom most satellite channels operate under, many stations are fearful of the conservative Gulf governments and apply self-censorship.
When a BBC debate on the Saudi succession to the throne was aired late last year, Orbit was banned from selling its decoders for months in Saudi Arabia, its most lucrative market. Some fear the BBC will now censor itself in order to avoid such problems. Though the BBC has assured their employees and Arab audiences that editorial control lies with them, some employees claim the BBC already handles Saudi issues with extreme sensitivity.
Gulf states, though, have started to crack down on the satellite channels.
Satellite dishes are illegal in Saudi Arabia, but the authorities have not enforced the ban. That could change early next year with the development and installation of a state-owned wireless cable system that will not require the use of a satellite dish. About 20 channels will be transmitted through the new television system, but only after the authorities screen programs for any politically sensitive broadcast material.
Observers believe that Saudi authorities will start enforcing the ban on dishes once the new system is up and running. ''This is backdoor censorship,'' says one Saudi academic. ''The Saudi authorities want to reassert control over what we watch.''
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar have already started work on similar networks.