A Satellite-Dish Revolution in Middle East TV, Once under Tight Control in Syria, Elsewhere, Airs Everything from Politics to 'Baywatch'

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In the "old" days not too long ago, the average Syrian would sit in front of the television and see the world - exactly as it was according to the Syrian authorities.

There was no need for a remote control then, because the choices were so few.

But today the average Syrian TV set is an altogether different instrument. Connected to satellite dishes, Syrian remote controls surf across scores of channels, revealing things live that local politicians dare not even mention: There is the programming of archenemy Israel; the gluttony and glitter of the West in the form of programs such as "Baywatch"; the disintegration of the once-powerful Eastern bloc, Syria's long-time allies; even pornography. "Nobody watches official Syria TV anymore," says one Syrian matter-of-factly. "Why should they?" Satellite dishes are technically illegal in Syria, where one of the most insular one-party, one-leader regimes of the Mideast has held power for decades. But a glance at the Damascus skyline shows that this rule is not only ignored, it is positively abused. Satellite dishes clog the rooftops of every building in the capital, Damascus, be they big or small, rich or poor. The ocean of concave channel-catchers stretches from President Hafez al-Assad's hilltop palace to the grimiest makeshift hovel in the impoverished southern suburbs. Syria's internal security police, the Mukhabarat, estimates that there are half a million satellite dishes in Damascus alone. Every day those dishes pipe into Syria - as they do into homes across the Arab world - an uncontrollable mishmash of increasingly irreverent Arab politics, fashion, and values East and West. In a region where public opinion has been largely marginalized for generations by dictators and monarchs alike, the satellite dishes reveal another reality. It is where people from Indonesia to Quebec, Canada, are fighting for national and democratic rights, sometimes violently, and where leaders from Yugoslavia to Chile are held accountable for human rights abuses. Throw in a mix of what traditionalists call a "dangerous" freewheeling moral attitude, and the result may be nothing less than the seeds of a spreading revolution, germinating across the Middle East at the end of millions of satellite cables. "Satellite dishes are doing wonders to people, and linking them to the outside world willy-nilly," says a Syrian academic. "They have created an aggressive, thirsty younger generation that is less tolerant of authority, political or social. In the end, this creates some trouble for the regimes, which are used to controlling everything." Only Iraq, locked into its own isolated timelessness by the tough grip of Saddam Hussein, so far seems impervious to this trend. But elsewhere, the image of outside freedoms and efficiency is colliding, Arab commentators say, with a daily fare of local, long-term stagnation. Collision of values "There is a complete lack of fit with modernity," says Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "Lately society tries to be hip and modern, and feels the need for change. But the political systems are ossified, and there is a kind of Arab bewilderment as to why they can't reinvent their political container," Mr. Ajami says. "Hapless people are caught in the middle, caught between the regimes they disdain and the opposition they fear." That view is widely echoed across the region, where once-endless evenings of communal chatting are giving way to TV time. Strict regimes once feared the Internet, but its use is limited: You must have a computer, speak English, and be able to afford a server subscription and phone line costs. Cheap satellite dishes and smuggled reception devices, however, are inherently more democratic and can be understood even by those who are otherwise functionally illiterate. The state monopoly on broadcasting has eroded, and along with it the ability to serve as the sole, measured guide to the masses. …