Sunday, January 15, 2012

MTV Arabia, Al-Jazeera, and the issue of Arab media censorship

The study abroad program that I am interning for in Rabat offers two different types of housing for students: homestays in the old medina and independent dormitory-style. While female students have the option of living in a single-sex university dormitory, there is no viable alternative for male students who do not wish to live with a homestay. As a result, the program rents out a large 3-bedroom apartment that is a ten minute walk from the study abroad center. Last semester no male students requested the apartment living option, so we were able to live there pro-bono. Although it was sparsely furnished, we relished the ample amount of living space and safe neighborhood surrounded by foreign embassies and government buildings.

Unfortunately for us, we were notified in December that several male students requested the apartment for the spring semester, which meant that we were relocated us to a nearby apartment in a very nice neighborhood. Though I am grateful for the free housing and am happy that this apartment is much better furnished, the size of the apartment took some getting used to, as it is a small fraction of the size the apartment that we used to live in. Downsizing from an apartment that allowed enough space to do ten cartwheels between the kitchen and the living room to a one-bedroom/one bathroom studio is never an easy task.

One big perk about this new apartment, however, has been the satellite television. I realize that this may sound trivial, but after living in Morocco for about a year collectively, it is impossible to ignore the cultural importance that satellite television has in Moroccan society. Even in the most desolate and impoverished areas of the country, perched atop mud huts in the mountains or in the slums outside of Casablanca, satellite dishes sit like huge flocks of migratory birds. I have learned that to live like a Moroccan is to have a television.

Sitting in Café Viking in the city center of Rabat writing this blog post, there are two large flat screen televisions facing me. The choice of broadcasting usually depends on where you are. When there isn't an important football game on, this particular café enjoys showing the National Geographic channel. (From my peripherals, I am watching vultures feeding on a carcass on an exotic beach.)

Since moving into our new apartment, we have explored the vast and numerous channels on our television set: Quranic channels; international news broadcasted in Arabic, French, or English; dubbed over American and Asian cartoons; local channels from Chad or Bahrain; American film channels; Bollywood; international soap operas.

One of the most fascinating channels to watch has been MTV Arabia, which broadcasts a hand-picked line-up of MTV programs (some old, some new, some British) with Arabic subtitles. While the channel shows mostly familiar reality-based programs, such as True Life, Made, and Real World/ Road Rules, the main difference between American MTV and MTV Arabia is the level of censorship.

While most American viewers are accustomed to hearing a few "bleeps" during reality programs when characters use exceedingly vulgar language, it shocked me when watching an episode of True Life and realizing that the channel decided to blur out the faces of a teenage couple sharing a kiss.

Along with public displays of affection, MTV Arabia also censors words like, "sex", "breast", and "butt", but still allows footage of female Arab pop stars wearing bustiers and gyrating in glittery music videos. To me, this level of censorship only seems to promote an unrealistic notion of sexuality that encourages fetishization and objectification of the female body and Western culture. Frankly, I don't understand the logic.

Arab pop star Dominique Hourani

After doing a bit of research on the subject of Arab media censorship, I learned that up until the 1990's almost all television channels in the Arab world were strictly owned and monitored by the government. This changed in the 90's with the boom of satellite television. A perfect example of this change cited by an article from the online publication is the al-Jazeera network, which is owned by the Qatari government. In the mid 90's, al-Jazeera became one of the first channels to broadcast in-depth live news broadcasts from all over the world, including Israel. Its discussion-based programs that presented dialogues on previously taboo subject matter promoted a, " atmosphere of increased freedom and competition" in Arab media.

With the much of the Arab world in the midst of socio-political crisis, Morocco is being looked to both within the MENA region and the West as a beacon of progress and hope for a brighter future of the entire Arab world. As Morocco continues down this road to modernization and transparency, will media censorship and regulation lighten up, or will the presence of the PJD, the moderate-Islamist party holding majority in Parliament keep a tight leash on media rights?