Modern history


An immense change, comparable in magnitude and impact with the invention of both writing and printing, was the advent of broadcasting and the immense new opportunities which it gave for the dissemination of propaganda by the spoken word.

The invention of radio telegraphy—transmitting written messages by radio over long distances—dates from the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. The first trans-Atlantic message was sent from England to Canada in December 1901. During the years that followed, radio telegraphy was both developed and expanded. Its use for propaganda purposes dates from the First World War, when the Germans, caught between their Russian enemies in the east and their British and French enemies in the west, used radio extensively to communicate with the outside world. From their powerful radio transmitter at Nauen they also sent communiqués and other news bulletins to the press in neutral countries. These propaganda messages were sometimes effective; but sometimes they were picked up and given prominence by the Allies as objects of ridicule.

Broadcasting in the modern sense did not begin until after the First World War. Its initial development was in the United States, where prescheduled and preannounced news broadcasting began in 1920. This was followed by Britain and France in 1922, Germany in 1923, Russia in 1924 and Italy in 1925.

The first regular transmissions in the Middle East were started in Turkey in 1925, only three years after London. In the Arab states, most of them under foreign rule or influence, broadcasting began later, in Egypt in 1934. In Iran, for different reasons, the national radio broadcasting service, Radio Iran, was not established until April 1940.

But while local stations were still few in number and broadcast only for relatively short periods, the Middle Easern listener had at his disposal a wide range of mostly propagandist broadcasts, in his own language, from abroad. Broadcast propaganda, on the grand scale, came to the Middle East from the late 1930s and continued through the Second World War and the long Cold War that followed it. During these years, the countries and peoples of the Middle East were the target of an intensive, unremitting barrage of propaganda from rival outside powers—first the Axis versus the Allies, then the Soviets versus the West.

The first foreign country to broadcast in Arabic was fascist Italy, which began a program from Bari, in the southeast of the country, in 1935. Britain followed in January 1938, and Nazi Germany later in the same year. At about the same time Paris began broadcasting in Arabic, and during the war years both the United States and the Soviet Union inaugurated Arabic services. A report in 1966 listed 45 states directing broadcasts in Arabic to Arab countries, 20 in Persian to Iran.

The purpose of these broadcasts from abroad was overwhelmingly propagandist. With the ending of imperial rule and the withdrawal of the former imperial powers from the region, Middle Eastern governments, too, developed their own systems, broadcasting to their own peoples and, on occasion, to those of their neighbors, for information, guidance and, sometimes, subversion.

The first Arab state to organize large scale external broadcasting was Syria, during the period of the Shishakli regime, 1950–54. It was followed by several others. Revolutionary regimes and others established by violence are of course in particular need of propaganda to justify their seizure of power and the overthrow of their predecessors and to protect themselves against the same treatment at the hands of others. And even more traditional, more legitimate regimes find it necessary to resort to propaganda in order to defend themselves against such onslaughts.

The electronic technologies of the twentieth century brought changes at once more profound, more extensive, and more intimate than ever before, reaching, in one form or another, the entirety of the population. This impact is constantly being increased by such technological innovations as the satellite dish, the fax machine, the Internet and e-mail, all of which have vastly expanded the opportunities of the propagandist and at the same time enormously increased the difficulties of those who try to censor or control him. We are approaching a time when even a monolithic political order will no longer be able to control debate and when, in effect, all propagandists will have to compete on equal terms in a global arena. This should give some advantage to the more truthful of the contenders.

In this respect, an interesting contrast is provided by the differing attitudes, during the Second World War, of the Axis and the Western Allies. In Axis countries, it was a criminal offense to listen to Allied broadcasts, liable to the severest punishments, even to death. In Allied countries, there was no objection at all to listening to Axis broadcasts. On the contrary, some British newspapers printed the times and programs of Axis broadcasts in English, alongside those of their own stations. Apart from those whose duty it was to do so, there were few who troubled to listen to English language broadcasts from the Axis. When they did so, it was usually with a mixture of curiosity, amusement and disdain. In a sense, people were even encouraged to listen to enemy broadcasts—the ranting and palpable falsehoods which they put out evoked, among listeners with access to other information, contempt rather than response.

At first, television broadcasting in Arab countries tended to be rather formal and ceremonial, consisting largely of official pronouncements and descriptions. One exception in the region was Israel, which, by broadcasting in Arabic as well as in Hebrew (both are official languages in Israel), was able to reach a certain public in the immediately adjoining countries. As in other open democracies, Israeli television presented many different, often clashing points of view. For Arab viewers this was a revelation, and one at the time remarked what a rare pleasure it was "to see great and famous people banging the table and screaming at each other."

The Arabs were quick to learn the lesson, and the situation was transformed after 1996, when the ruler of Qatar permitted the establishment of Al-Jazira television station. There for the first time Arab viewers could watch, on an Arab station, the exponents of different points of view and different interests, arguing with one another. A second station, Al-'Arabiya, followed.

Since the Second World War the development of television and its introduction to the Middle East has enormously increased the scope of propaganda. Television is not only verbal; it is also visual, and here too it builds on old established traditions in the region.

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