A Serious Alternative to Media Outreach

Curator's Note

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.


Obviously US involvement in Palestinian politics and media takes on a range of different forms, as it has for decades.


First, I do wonder, as you point out, whether this kind of show can stand against the competitive onslaught of higher-quality and more popular programming from the range of Arab (including some Palestinian) media available to Palestinian audiences. It would be interesting to find out the extent of the show’s audience size and hear audience reactions to it.

Second, it seems that even ‘empowering local producers’ still falls under the rubric of an outdated but not yet extinct media and modernization platform. In this model, rather than have the ‘knowledgeable’ Westerner produce and export the content, the responsibility and skills are transferred over to the local population. It’s the same with respect to journalism and reporting, Internet growth, and other media practices in the Palestinian case as well, where Western government entities, NGOs and for-profit groups descend on the Territories in order to improve the chances of ‘peace’ and ‘democracy’ (of a specific kind of course, which will not result in Hamas victory).

Despite the new administration in the US (and Israel too), media intervention in the Palestinian Territories will likely continue. It will be interesting to see if interventions get updated to a 21st century model, rather than continue in the same vein as the failed enterprises of Al-Hurra. And, perhaps more importantly, a recognition that democracy and peace need to be secured politically, economically and territorially in conjunction with, if not even prior to, media changes.

Helga brings up some excellent points. While any kind of cultural producer is always receptive to funding, I wonder what kinds of expectations the US government would have upon funding Palestinian producers? Even the word "Palestine" is so loaded in American political discourse that I'd imagine that those in charge of funding would be so scared of producing something that could be labelled as "terrorist" that the restrictions might be stiff.

Tarik, Matt’s new and excellent documentary Live from Bethlehem (www.livefrombethlehem.com) addresses the questions you raise about the distinct pressures on U.S. funded Palestinian media.

About the issues of media quality, I wonder if Palestinians or others are willing to overlook simple production qualities for the sake of having a local or independent national media.  Indeed, might these production values also somehow signify independence from U.S. and other funders, at least in some instances?  Is there ever talk about this on camera?

Regarding the idea that Seriously Joking addresses social problems and also the occupation, I wondered if it does so in ways that integrate a critique of the occupation, the PA, and social problems.  It seems there is a history of such work in Middle East theater, and I wonder if that tradition comes through here as well.

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