Every time a foreign satellite channel steps into the crowded world of Arabic television, we are always tempted to overestimate its effects on public opinion in the region. But a new Turkish initiative may finally live up to expectations.
It all started in 2004 with the American Al Hurra channel, followed by a spate of foreign Arabic television broadcasts from countries like Iran, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and most recently China. But a few months into operations, they all realised how frustrating it is to make the slightest dent in the deep-running cynicism in the Middle East. As the American writer Marc Lynch has noted, it is unlikely that any of those broadcasters will ever capture much of a market share or shape Arab public opinion.
But earlier this week, as I watched the online launch of TRT 7, or Al Turkeya, the Arabic-language channel of Turkey’s national public broadcaster, I thought this newcomer might make headway where other international channels have failed. An emotional speech delivered by the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening ceremony stressed shared Turkish-Arab history, culture and faith in describing the channel’s mission. His use of Arabic idioms and poetic verses triggered standing ovations from his audience.
But as the experience of the past six decades suggests, shared political goals and cultural kinship cannot always effectively promote regional or global communications. As we teach our students in university media programmes, communication is not driven only by the compatibility of the sender and receiver, but also by the quality of content.
For Al Turkeya to establish a credible presence in this region, it needs to go beyond emotional appeals to history and faith and demonstrate the highest level of professionalism in its news, cultural and entertainment programming.
Initial reactions in the region to this Turkish initiative suggest that the channel will not have to face the same challenges as other foreign Arabic broadcasters. In the context of growing Turkish standing in the region, the channel most probably will attract remarkable attention, at least in the short term.
A recent public opinion poll, conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation in seven Arab countries, found that the image of Turkey in the Arab world is getting better. The findings suggest that as Turkey’s government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), plays a more active role in the Middle East, relations have every prospect of improving.
The incident at Davos last year, when Erdogan publicly condemned the Israeli offensive against Gaza, was a defining moment in Turkey’s relations with the region.
The Arab public, of course, is already very familiar with Turkish television. Viewers across the region have been galvanised by Arabic-dubbed Turkish TV series like Noor and Ayrilik.
Recently, however, dramatic shows produced by Turkish television on the Palestinian issue have stirred controversy on both the Arab and Israeli sides. An episode of The Valley of Wolves, which depicted Israeli soldiers as baby snatchers and war criminals, caused a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel earlier this year.
Another series called Scream of Stone triggered protests by Palestinians over the depiction of the murder of a Palestinian woman, just released from prison, by her relatives because she was supposedly raped by an Israeli soldier.
Previews shown on Al Turkeya indicate the richness and diversity of the channel’s programmes in areas like news, culture, gender, cuisine, tourism and art. While classical Arabic is the standard language of news and talk shows, other programmes are delivered in local dialects to reflect the diverse vernaculars of the region.
Images highlight Turkey’s multicultural outlook when it comes to women’s dress codes. Some women wear the hijab while others have their heads uncovered.
The grandeur of Ottoman history is depicted in majestic palaces and mosques, a motif that is hard to miss in most of the programme previews.
What has not been previewed is the type of political and cultural discourse that will be carried regarding enduring Arab concerns about Palestine, women’s rights, terrorism, cultural identity and global peace. I believe that Al Turkeya’s handling of these questions, more than its focus on cultural relevance, will define how it fares in this region.
Unlike other foreign Arabic channels – Al Hurra, BBC Arabic, France 24, Deutsche Welle-Arabic, and Arabic Russia Today – it is clear that politics and culture are real assets for Al Turkeya. The Turkish broadcaster does not find itself grappling with hostile or cynical public sentiments regarding Turkey’s relations with the Arab world. But in the stormy waters of this region’s media oceans, it surely takes more than cultural and political relevance for a foreign broadcaster to keep afloat.
Muhammad Ayish is a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah
The National ©