Blocking Satellite Channels A New Form of Censorship

As more Arab satellite channels are being suspended or cancelled, Zainab Hawi explores who and what is behind the phenomenon. Some speculate that it may be a Gulf effort to control channel programming for political ends.

al-monitor Technicians work during the first live broadcast of Sky News Arabia, a 24-hour Arabic channel in Abu Dhabi May 6, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Jumana El-Heloueh.

Topics covered

nilesat, national media council, arabsat, arab satellites, arab league, arab, abdel hadi mahfouz

Jun 5, 2012

Some Arab satellite channels have been threatened or pressured to suspend satellite broadcasting. This is especially the case for those operating through the Arabsat satellite, which is owned by 21 Arab League member states, and Nilesat, which is owned by an Egyptian satellite communications company. These decisions often require an immediate implementation and cessation of broadcasting, thus preventing the affected satellite channel from reconsidering or making any possible amendments to its performance. The Arab League Ministerial Council recently made a decision to stop broadcasting Syrian satellite and ground channels. This general issue raises questions about how these satellites work, and the power they possess in implementing their decisions.

Head of the National Media Council Abdel Hadi Mahfouz told As-Safir that Arab satellite channels follow the law that Arab information ministers issued in Cairo in 1998, which allows Arab governments to control satellite broadcasting companies and to suspend any channel on these satellites without prior warning or justification. The affected satellite channel cannot appeal or even legally object to these decisions. Still, Mahfouz believes that such decisions are impossible to implement because the satellite channels that are registered on these satellites are not subject to the laws that are enacted after their registration date. Therefore, they do not have to abide by the Cairo Document, which violates their independent decisions.

Notably, the Cairo Document also completely violates international audio-video laws. Western satellites grant those institutions affected by this decision the right to object to it, and the satellite company’s decisions may be accepted or rejected, since they require a judicial ruling in order to be implemented. Mahfouz recalls what happened with the Al-Manar channel in France, where the satellite company refused to implement the decision against the it until the court authorizes it.

Mahfouz explains the details of this document: he says that it aims to place media institutions indirectly under the tutelage of the Gulf State regimes, and to confiscate any remaining independent channels. Furthermore, he adds, this document does not distinguish between media broadcasting companies (the Arab states that make the decisions) and broadcasting service providers (the satellites). The latter are, by law, not subject to the Arab League, but Gulf State financing forces them to comply with their decisions. Thus, they lose the freedom to either reject or accept such decisions. This document also ignores any acquired rights for the country where the affected channel originated, or any judicial reference if the decision is contested or appealed.

About the Arab League’s recent decision to stop broadcasting Syrian satellite channels via Arabsat and Nilesat, Mahfouz says that it is purely political. He says that, at the time, the council objected to the document issued by Arab ministers in the Arab and international forums on which the Arab League depends to implement such decisions, but the council’s objection went unheeded.

Mahfouz says that such decisions always wait for world public opinion to react, which would pressure the Arab League and subsequently the satellite companies for violating basic media freedoms.

Regarding Iran's reported willingness to put one of its satellites at the disposal of the Syrian satellite channels, Mahfouz says, “This would weaken the Arab League, not to mention the potential benefit from the information sent over these satellites by non-Arab countries, which is a dangerous thing." He concluded: “The Arab League’s recent decision has damaged this, as it took the Arab media a step backwards instead of moving it forward.”

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