Satellite TV, not social media, was the driving force behind the Arab Spring
Kurt Johansen, Executive Director of SAT-7, Christian satellite TV for the Middle East, earlier this week visited the international headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), in Königstein, Germany. ACN communications official Maria Lozano conducted this interview.
How long have you been involved with SAT-7?
SAT-7 is 17 years old now; we are still a teenager. We grew out of this awareness that this was the first time in Church history that we could go into more than half the homes in the Middle East because everybody has a satellite dish. It was a very difficult beginning; back then, we had television only one hour per week and even producing for that was very difficult. Now we have five channels and are broadcasting 24 hours a day—so we've grown a lot.
17 years doesn't seem like much and yet it is a lot in the context of media development, especially when you think about the powerful tools linked to the internet today. Is the internet an important force in the Middle East?
The internet is not very widespread in the Middle East. The number of Internet users is between 15 and 20 percent of the population. The Middle East is the least wired region in the world. It also has to do with literacy—30 percent of the population cannot read and write. How can they use the internet? So the internet is there and it's used by many, but the majority do not have internet and cannot use it. For the majority, especially the poor, satellite TV is the preferred if not the only media.
And yet many consider social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to have been the driving forces behind the revolutions experienced in the Middle East today?
That's partly right, but not the whole truth. Very few have access and you have to keep in mind that Facebook and Twitter are also used by the military or the security agents and so there was a lot of false information—a lot of information about people being killed that were documented by photos, but in the end these photos were shown to have come from other countries—so you can manipulate a lot. The revolution was driven mainly by satellite media. It started in Tunisia and in the beginning none of the bigger networks believed that there was something going on; then Al Jazeera started showing it, and then Al Arabia, and then CNN, and so on. Because so many stations started showing it, people started believing that this was the truth. So I think it's fair to say that Twitter and Facebook played a role not the only one—to mobilize those millions needed could not be done by Facebook alone, because too few people have Facebook and so it had to be done through satellite television.
In the Middle East some of these networks are showing scenes that in Europe we are not used to seeing: live images of the war; very bloody and cruel. What are your thoughts about the power and the influence of these images on the children who are watching this violence—almost the whole day long and often carrying messages of hate?
Yes, TV in the Middle East is very different from the news channels that we have in Europe and the US that present both sides of the story and where there are certain limitations and rules that you follow. This is not the case in the Middle East. Most of the channels are propaganda oriented. Organizations like Hezbollah, or Hamas, or the Muslim Brotherhood who have their own channels, speak for themselves and against others. Very few talk with each other; very few try to be balanced. A lot of TV stations promote hatred: hatred against the Jews and against others, hatred against Christians and so on.
How does SAT-7 respond to this?
We have decided right from the beginning that we are not here to criticize any religion, we are not here to promote hate or violence—we are here to present Christ and his teaching, to represent the churches of the region. We teach love and forgiveness, to love your enemies and so on, and of course we are just one voice out of many but, what else can you do? You have to begin somewhere and I think our Kid’s Channel, for example, has become very popular because there is no promotion of hate, there is no violence, it is all about good values. There's also no half-naked western girls promoting Coca-Cola or whatever, it's very safe. In fact, the SAT-7 tagline is: “Where your children can be safe.”
That's why I think we have a lot of Muslim viewers watching our programs. In fact a recent study said that one out of four children in Saudi Arabia are watching SAT-7 Kids and one out of three children in Iraq are—of course with the permission of their parents. Here they can find good educational and inspiring programs that are opening the minds of children.
So there is a visible impact of this philosophy, promoting these kinds of values?
Sure, if not, the people would not watch it. There are 600 other channels to choose from so, yes I think we are making a difference.
Muslim and Christian values in some areas of life are similar; of course there are fundamental differences, each community has its own ideas. But there are common values?
Yes, every Saturday night we have a live program and the viewers can call in and comment. In these programs we have Muslims and Christians discussing common issues because everybody is interested in security: how to survive, how to find good schools, how to build a good future. We have things in common and at least we should try and live peacefully together. We disagree on things but we should live together as they have done in Egypt for so many years. It's only recently that problems have arisen and so we should come back and live peacefully, protect each other and respect each other. Coming together and having an honest dialogue with the understanding that we are different, that we have different views on the Prophet, on the Church and so on—but at least we can talk and show what we're doing.
One of the areas with significant differences has to do with the role of women. You have programs speaking about women and for women. Do you have problems with this kind of message in a world where the dominant vision of the role of women is perhaps different?
We have many problems. And there are a few Fatwas issued against us but this is something that we take for granted. If we speak about women's rights we will have a lot of problems. The local understanding of women's rights is very different from the Western vision. Women have a very difficult life in most of the Arab countries and don't have equal rights. In a court case, the testimony of a woman is less valued than that of a man, so we talk about that. Also we talk about the fact that the rate of sexual harassment in Egypt, for example, is almost 100 percent. There's a lot of rape, and unwanted and improper touching of women and we talk about that as well. Indeed, there is a lot of pressure that even Christian women should wear the headscarf and not wear jeans and so on. We talk about the serious problem of women as head of households: in Egypt perhaps 30 percent of women are divorced, and to be a divorced woman is a traumatic experience; you're a victim of gossip, you have difficulty surviving financially and raising your children. In many countries men can get a divorce easily but for women it is impossible.
Do you mean women are divorced not because they want to, but because the man can leave his wife at will?
Yes, the man can just leave her and take a new wife. We show women what they can do to overcome their problems. We don’t want to treat them as victims, we want to show positive role models who say: “Yes, I'm divorced, yes it's very difficult and yet I just started a small stall in the market...” We have live programs with call ins from women talking about how they have overcome their problems and in fact a lot of men have called asking forgiveness saying: “On behalf of all men of the Middle East, I did not know that this was a problem, that the culture was like this—it was a part of my upbringing, but I can see, now that we are talking about this, that this is a terrible way to treat women.”
I suppose that it is important that the people producing these programs are not people from the West - because our ideas on marriage and family are very different and that these are programs are produced by people from the same culture?
Yes, 80 percent of the programs we broadcast are produced in the Middle East by Middle Eastern Christians; we from the West can only support them. We are not producing the programs. We have three Arabic channels all staffed by Arabic Christians: we have one channel for Iran and all the staff are from Iran, and we have one channel for Turkey and again all the staff is from Turkey.
Some of the countries you mentioned, like Iran and Turkey, do not allow religious freedom—at least not full freedom. How do Christians deal with this situation because they are a minority and have no full rights?
Yes, in Iran we do not have a studio. We send the programs in from outside of Iran due to the severe lack of religious freedom. In Egypt, Lebanon and in Turkey the governments allow us to have studios because it is a fact that there are Christians there and we are representing the local Christians. We are not criticizing Islam, we are not criticizing any denomination at all—we are here to improve society, to talk about social problems. These governments understand that and they see us not as a tool of Western missionary activity but as a truly local ministry or TV station that serves the local Christian community.
Is it forbidden to watch SAT-7 in Iran?
It is forbidden to own a satellite dish, a ban not aimed specifically against SAT-7; they don't want anyone to watch any outside programs. However, although there is still a ban on the ownership of satellite dishes in Iran, many millions have a satellite dish anyway. There are many paradoxes in this country and one of them is that the government turns a blind eye but that everybody knows it's done.
You are interested in speaking to Christians living in these countries but also to those Christians who originate from these countries but live abroad—as there is a lot of emigration from this region for both security and economic reasons.
Right, SAT-7 also covers Europe so that the 12 to 14 million Arabs, Persians and Turks living there can also benefit from SAT-7. In a way we are a free gift to the Church in Europe. We provide 24 hours of quality programming for the immigrants living there. In the case of Iran, because we don't have a studio in Iran, we are cooperating with the many Iranians who are living in other countries and who love to give their time to SAT-7 and so we can produce almost 24 hours of programming daily.
Are you worried about the situation in the Middle East?
I try to be an optimist but it is difficult to be so at this time. Then again, Christianity has survived 2000 years in the Middle East; there have been worse times and still the Church has survived. I am very inspired and very impressed by the local Churches and how they have been salt and light during their long history. I speak to the Christians in Egypt and Lebanon and they say they are committed to stay, they see their calling to be there in spite of the security issues, in spite of persecution and discrimination and in spite of all the negative things going on.
What is your biggest difficulty—financial or dealing with people’s attitudes?
We visited all the churches in the region and they all thought it was a very good idea but impossible: how would you find the finances? How would you find the local talent willing to be exposed on television? How to get all the churches to work together—and they are often from many different countries—and how would you find local studios? How would you get air time on satellite? So there were many obstacles, but somehow God wanted this to continue.
Do you still fight these same problems or have they changed?
The problems we have now are mostly financial problems. We have a lot of missions and we always want to do more; we have accomplished a lot, like having a Turkish channel and we have been allowed to broadcast on Nilesat, which is a satellite platform controlled by the government of Egypt. So we have two channels on that platform. Unfortunately our income has been flat for five years now so we had to downscale a little bit and lay off staff in this difficult climate. 2012 was a very difficult year, but thanks to the support of our partners 2013 has been much better. Financing is always a problem, however. We just lost five editors from Egypt to a major television station based in Dubai but in a way we are proud of that because our staff is so talented that they are sought after by other stations. And we have this dilemma: we do not know how long we can continue - what is happening in Egypt can stop us anytime - but for the time being we can do it - so let's do it. This is the mentality we have and that is very important.
Has the support of Aid to the Church in Need been effective?
Aid to the Church in Need came to us at the very beginning and has been very, very generous and very faithful since our start so many years ago. I think that you have given us more than $250,000 through the years and it is not only that, but we work together hand in hand. You have a lot of contacts all over the world that you give us and you have come to see us and you pray for us. You're not just a donor, you are a partner and that's very important for us to have partners; we love donors but we love partners even more because it means that you pray for us, you give us advice and critique and try to help us any way you can. Aid to the Church in Need is a role model of what we would like our supporters to be, so thank you for that.
It is the mission of ACN to respond to the vital material and spiritual needs of priests, religious, and laity in more than 145 countries—in many of which they suffer severe persecution, with Syria and Egypt grabbing the headlines at present. In 2012, ACN spent more than $85M on some 5,000 projects around the world.