Satellite Television and Public Sphere in Egypt: Is There a Link?

Article excerpt

Introduction

Among the most salient developments in present societies are fundamental and rapid changes of mass media. Public discussions and academic literature are speculating on the societal consequences of these changes. There is a concern that media changes contribute to a deterioration of the political process in general and to a fragmentation of the public sphere and an increase of political cynicism in particular (Schulz, in Splichal, 2001). Research on this area has mixed conclusions on how communication technologies affect the public sphere. More importantly is that political and communication sciences literature on democratization offer little guidance on the hypothesized relationship between electronic communications and public sphere and the level of democracy within a nation. This is of course not surprising; given the novelty of the Internet, e-mail, direct satellite broadcasting and even the widespread availability of fax machines. (Hill & Hughes).

On the other hand, we should not read the ongoing broadcast transformation as a linear process leading to a truly independent and critical political role for television in contemporary Arab societies. The emergencies of commercial television and the restructuring of government-operated systems are in no way conducive to political pluralism and diversity in Arab societies dominated by authoritarian political systems (Aysh, 2002). I argue that most of questions about the impact of satellite television on the public sphere in the Arab world have not been answered yet and what has been written on the subject reflects individual understanding of the hypothesized links between developments of satellite television and that of public sphere. It is unlikely to find an empirical research project in the Arab region focusing on the possible impact of communication technologies on public sphere. It is also evident that most of what has been written about the public sphere is mainly based on the writings of Habermas and mostly reflects the Western perspective on the public sphere. Mass media including satellite television have been referred to in writings of Habermas and many other Sociologists, Political Scientists, and Philosophers as mere instruments and not as a legitimate force in defining and shaping the public sphere.

This paper adopts the "media constructed public sphere" approach originally developed by Winfied Schulz (2001) in his article" Changes in Mass Media and Public Sphere". The main idea of this approach is that media are regarded as constitutive of a public sphere. This does not ignore the fact that there are some other social arenas in which persons interact face-to-face in order to exchange information and opinions, such as, coffee houses, club meetings, and party conventions.

This article discusses how satellite television introduces a new public space for Egyptians to engage in and debate relevant sociopolitical issues. Since the programs of any Arab satellite television channels can be received by Egyptian audience, it is difficult to separate the impact of Egyptian satellite channels from that of non-Egyptian channels. Arabs share the same Arabic language, culture historical background and many other characteristics that made it possible for any Arab audience to easily receive and interact with the programs of all Arab television satellite channels.

The article is based on the argument that the revolution that has been taking place in Arab satellite television since the mid-1990s introduced a new public space to the Egyptians with new political programs, with different style in news coverage and different style in talk shows. The Arab satellite television revolution has also positively affected the original government-controlled terrestrial television in Egypt. The new public sphere made it possible for Egyptians to engage in political debate completely different from the kind that was presented on government-controlled television. …