What is the purpose of television? Is it to entertain? To inform? To disinform? To push an agenda? To sponsor terrorism? To make money? To act as a jamming signal? To give broadcast engineers jobs? I've seen it used for all those things in different parts of the globe.
The fact that it is a powerful medium goes without saying (although some things are more effective when presented well on radio). The Taleban in Afghanistan ban television because, well, who knows the real reason… but under their version of the Sharia'h Law of the Quran, perhaps? Chechnya, the run-away Russian province, does not ban TV even though their version of the Sharia'h is not a timid one. They do, however, ban the reception of a couple of channels from Moscow. Other countries, like Lebanon's Manar TV, use the medium to show how the Palestinians are poorly treated by Israel.
Fortunately, we have not seen the need for a TV police force in the West, and instead leave viewers to decide what they watch or do not watch. Some stations that are in the information business, like CNN and MSNBC, have been repetitively spreading good news, bad news and rumor for the last few months. No government censorship is the preferred situation for me.
If the BBCs of the world are there to entertain and inform, and the Manar TVs are there to push an agenda and misinform, what of other motives? The new Muslim TV services in north Nigeria are pushing an agenda that is anathema to the constitution of their own country, making both religious and political statements at the same time. Every country that follows the Wahabi version of Islam also practices a version of the Sharia'h Law — but some of those countries also try to protect themselves from the zeal of their neighbors.
I installed a number of transmitters in Saudi Arabia, both radio and TV. Some of those installations were for entertainment/information purposes, but many were not. The Quran is recited 24 hours a day in Mecca and its use as a jamming signal is incredibly effective. The level of modulation is almost constant, and on TV service the APL is quite high due to the way images are set up. Such transmitters are available in Saudi in both fixed locations and in portable shelters: complete transmitting stations with their own air-conditioning. The medium-wave shelters are all easily retuneable, so if one of your neighbors decides to bombard your people with information you don't want them to hear, you take a shelter to that border, set up a re-broadcast receiver and jam them — on their channel — with the Quran. But what do you do about satellite TV?
Saudi has not been able to block one signal: al-Jazeera TV in Doha, Qatar. This 24-hour news station has been little known in the West except to those whose business it is to track these things, but it is now known to most as bin Laden's mouthpiece. al-Jazeera (the Peninsula) started broadcasting in 1996 using a “loan” from the Emir to set up in a prefabricated building virtually in the courtyard of the official Qatari TV. It started after a short-term relationship between the BBC and the Saudis collapsed when that country realized it could not live with the BBC's interpretation of news.
al-Jazeera broadcasts very freely about its neighbors' sins, weaknesses and virtues. Its ex-BBC Arab Service employees will air any point of view from any nation, and the criticisms it receives, particularly after its debate programs, show it equally reports (and annoys) all its neighbors. It broadcasts on satellite to a potential audience of 35 million people and is also widely available as streaming video on the Internet. It is estimated that 40 percent of the Palestinians, for example, watch only this service. This is an incredible amount of influence for 200 employees in little Qatar. Saudi retaliated with its own service, into which it poured a fortune for talent, look and equipment. It has failed to make even a dent in al-Jazeera's audience.
But, as always, that is not the full story. The Government of Qatar will tell its complaining neighbors that it has no control over what al-Jazeera says or reports on, as it is a private company. But there is one rule that the station does not break, and that is that it does not report on events in Qatar. The station is available to Qatar on cable, but satellite receivers are forbidden in the country so Qataris cannot receive competing stations critical of events in their own emirate. Qataris still have to rely on the government's version of events.
So, what's al-Jazeera TV's real purpose? One of the above…or something entirely new?
Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.
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