The future of the Public Service Broadcasting Model
Muhammad I. Ayish 16 July 2008

This is the text of the speech held by the author at the Doha International Conference, organised in Qatar by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations on February 26th 2008.

Until the early 1990s, broadcasting in the Arab World had been dominantly State- controlled, operating as part of government information departments. By the early 1990s, the winds of change were already blowing on the Arab region. In response to these sweeping transformations, Arab governments initiated varying political, social, and economic reforms embracing the introduction of free elections, liberal constitutional amendments, and accelerated privatization economic programs. In the broadcasting sector itself, some Arab governments have introduced some sort of reforms either through enacting new audio-visual laws; creating more autonomous broadcast structures; co-existing with non-State broadcasters; or enhancing program offerings. But as the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies report notes, these developments have not marked substantive shifts in governments’ domination of radio and television broadcasters. In this fast-changing setting, government broadcasting has found itself rather beleaguered and incapable of coping with regional and global evolving trends. In one way or another, this situation has triggered an identity crisis in State-broadcasting arising primarily from its failure to generate a viable model that fit for Arabian communities in the new century.

The evolving conditions in the region’s media landscape have also induced the search for more appropriate models for radio and television systems, the most outstanding of which has been the public service broadcasting model. In theory, this model ensures broadcasters’ insulation from State interventions as well as from commercial pressures with a view to serving the public interest. Since the early 1990s, governments have sought to bolster their legitimacy by presenting their radio and television services as the best champions of the public interest. Audiences across the region have come to be exposed to a wide range of programs drawing on more open debates and interactive formats. In the meantime, non-state broadcasters’ have struggled to establish a foothold in the regional Arab media market by offering Western-style radio and television contents and formats. By 2007, there were over 400 satellite television channels available to viewers across the Arab region in addition to hundreds of radio broadcasting outlets, many of them with clear local community orientations. Academic and political discussions of the future of broadcasting systems have championed the institution of the public service model as a third alternative for the region’s radio and television services.

If the public service broadcasting model seems to offer Arab societies the best of broadcasting they could ever get, its institution is highly contingent on a set of conditions that draw on States’ willingness to refrain from intervening in the broadcasting sector. The community itself would have the final say in defining the mandate and composition of broadcast regulatory bodies. If government broadcasting in the Arab World is premised on serving the public interest as perceived by the State, the public service model would maintain this mission while placing visions of the public interest in the community itself. It is clear here that the issue is substantially political and relates to the distribution of power in society. If the community through its representative bodies harnesses its substantive legislative powers to produce balanced, transparent, and fair mechanisms for running broadcast structures as servants of the public interest, then broadcasting would be well-positioned to play an active role in community life. In the age of globalization, governments with high levels of legitimacy do not need to directly operate broadcasting services in order to promote their political and ideological orientations. Only the institution of good governance would ensure that politics is conducted in the most transparent and community-serving fashion. Broadcasting alone could never sustain bad government practices unless it is viewed as a public relations or spin-doctor machine, something that contravenes the basic premises of governance in the age of globalization.

The idea of considering the public service broadcasting model for the Arab World seems to have gained further impetus with support from international organizations and local civil society groups. In 2006, a comprehensive study published by the Cairo Center for Human Rights on broadcast reforms in the Arab World noted that the public service broadcasting model is the most appropriate for Arab radio and television systems. The UNDP’s Program on Governance in the Arab region (POGAR) promoted media reforms in the Arab States, including calls for creating more independent and transparent regulatory frameworks to run broadcasting bodies. In 2007, a UNESCO workshop on Public Service Broadcasting and Democracy in the Arab States noted that public service broadcasting is an important element of society and of citizen’s participation in the public life and sustainable democratic development. The Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) endorsed the recommendations of the workshop that sought to share experiences and expertise; to promote the concept of public service broadcasting (PSB); to study the legislative framework for the establishment and operation of PSB; to underscore the cultural and educational functions of these broadcasters and to promote strategic alliances and partnerships in favor of PSB.

In conclusion, government broadcasting the Arab World, as a legacy of the pre-globalization era, is here to stay, yet on totally different terms. Direct and indirect State interventions in radio and television’s operations, especially in news and public affairs sectors, are bound to undermine the legitimacy of broadcasting institutions for years to come. On the other hand, the negative cultural symptoms of commercial broadcasting practices and their politically-submissive attitudes seem to preclude the privatization of State radio and television structures. Serving the public interest is the prime defining concept for broadcasters across the region. To achieve this, Arab government broadcasters need to relocate re-position of the public interest outside self-prescribed and narrow State visions to embrace the community as a whole. This shift in the underlying parameters of broadcasters’ mandate dictates shifts in power politics at national and regional levels towards more participatory and egalitarian conditions where real power is vested in representative bodies rather than in executive structures. It is only in this situation that a sustainable public service broadcasting system would be instituted to serve the public interest in the region.

Muhammad I. Ayish is Professor and Dean of the College of Communication at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.