Discussions of the United States’ media outreach efforts in the Middle East have focused largely on American inabilities to cope with the world of international satellite television in the region. On the one hand, scholars such as Marc Lynch, Mohammed El-nawawy and Adel Iskander have bemoaned the American government’s myopic approach to Al Jazeera and other transnational broadcasting outlets. Whereas empirical analysis consistently shows a vibrant, if often sensationalist, mediated public sphere emerging in the region, American policy discourse still maintains that Arab satellite TV is wholly dismissive of unpopular or controversial perspectives. This misunderstanding has led directly to the second great American failure of the satellite era, Alhurra. A U.S.-produced satellite station intended as a direct competitor to Al-Jazeera, Alhurra has been criticized everywhere from the congressional testimony of policy expert William Rugh to popular forums such as 60 Minutes. The station has been accused of turning a blind eye towards human rights violations by American allies in the Middle East and has thus become a grand symbol of the hypocrisy embedded in the effort to “democratize” the Arab world.
Lost in this debate has been a series of lower-profile efforts aimed at improving the capacity of local, grass-roots media production in the region. It is from one of these efforts that this clip from Seriously Joking (Mazih Fi Jad, in the original Arabic) is taken. Produced by the Palestinian Ma’an Network and funded by the U.S. State Department supported NGO Search for Common Ground, Seriously Joking was created by exclusively Palestinian cast and crew. This external funding perhaps allows this Ramadan serial to take a critical approach towards Palestinian society and internal politics that is uninteresting to satellite channels and unlikely on Fatah-supported Palestine TV. Seriously Joking is one of many Ma’an productions that, while certainly critical of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories, focuses more on problems within Palestinian society (generational conflict in this clip) than the flashier elements of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This said, the piece also bears the markings of its funding sources in potentially disturbing ways. Search for Common Ground is an organization that promotes dialogue as the first and most vital step toward conflict resolution, a fact that comes out not only in the narrative of this program, but also in its shooting style. One wonders what sort of chance such a static production has in the ultra-competitive world of Arab TV. Furthermore, the media conflict resolution approach bears a potentially disturbing resemblance to outmoded modernization paradigms that posited simple cause and effect relationships between Middle Eastern media and society.
Still, the idea of empowering local producers instead of simply vilifying or competing with transnational broadcasters offers an appealing alternative for those who remain convinced that media intervention is a real option in moving the Middle East towards a stable, just peace. If you are interested in Ma’an, you can see their English news website at www.maannews.net/en or check out www.livefrombethlehem.com, a website for a documentary I have made about the organization.