Bahrain TV station struggles as signal blocked
- 15 November 2011
- From the section Business
Rim Abdolah delivers her news bulletin with admirable gusto for a woman who knows hardly any of the target audience is watching.
The Lualua TV presenter has been with the station since its launch in July.
Aimed at people in Bahrain, it carries news and talk shows about the country.
But since its inception, it has only managed to reach to televisions in the Gulf kingdom for four hours - before the signal was blocked.
"As a broadcaster I'm very upset and frustrated because we try to work hard to put our work out to let everyone see it, especially in Bahrain," Miss Abdolah says.
"But it's very disappointing, no-one in Bahrain can see us."
Reports from the satellite provider show the signal is being blocked from within Bahrain.
While not officially blaming the country's government, station management say it is hard to see who else would intervene.
Miss Abdolah's pink headscarf stands out brightly against the blue backdrop of the news studio.
And while it was intended to run the channel from Bahrain's capital Manama, it failed to get a licence there.
So instead, it operates thousands of miles from the Gulf, in a two-storey industrial unit on a drab north London estate - with cables running through the front door to a satellite dish in the car park.
The station was formed in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests earlier this year, which ended after Bahrain called in the Saudi military to crush the uprising.
Several people were killed in clashes with security forces, while hundreds of people were detained including doctors, teachers and opposition leaders - many of whom allege they have been tortured and now face military trials.
Thousands of demonstrators had gathered for several days in the centre of Manama, inspired by the popular uprisings which toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
They demanded a greater say in government and an end to what the majority Shias said was systematic discrimination against them in jobs and services.
Lualua TV is named after the roundabout where the protesters had gathered and its logo is an image of the structure that sat on that roundabout until it was destroyed after the protests.
Station manager Yasser Al-Sayegh says the station aims to promote peace in Bahrain and champion the causes of democracy and freedom of expression.
"We are genuinely independent, we class ourselves as independent but unfortunately the Bahrain government classes us as an opposition because we don't show what state-owned TV shows," he says.
"We listen to the Bahraini authorities and we listen to the opposition. We have direct contact with people on the ground in Bahrain, journalists, doctors - and we have talks shows where they can talk, and they don't have that on Bahraini TV."
Lualua's decision to broadcast to the region from London was not unique, says Ben Smalley, editor of the Middle East and North Africa Media Guide.
There are several opposition television stations broadcasting from abroad and dozens of stations that broadcast to the Iranian market from abroad, particularly Europe and the USA and also a couple in the UAE, he adds.
One of the more high profile in recent months was Libya TV channel, run out of Qatar - a country which threw its weight behind Colonel Gadaffi's opposition.
It had far deeper pockets than Lualua - backed by Libyan businessmen and with facilities provided by the Qatari government.
And the fact it was able to broadcast into Libya - just as other non-state channels were able to be beamed into Egypt and Tunisia - makes the situation with his own channel "laughable" says Mr Al-Sayegh.
"Mubarak didn't block the satellite signal, Ben Ali didn't block the signal and even Gadaffi didn't block the signal," he says. "But in Bahrain they have. It's crazy."
To try to get round the problem, the station has turned to other technology.
There is an app for the iPad and iPhone, though relatively few Bahrainis are accessing either.
And it began broadcasting online through the Live station website - attracting thousands of viewers in Bahrain until it too was blocked after a week.
Even though that feed is still getting thousands of viewers in other parts of the world - and episodes of its news programmes are being uploaded onto YouTube which can be seen in Bahrain - the station is not gaining enough of an audience and that scuppers its business model.
"Our station is a commercial TV channel and we tried to generate money through documentary making and advertisements," Mr Al-Sayegh says.
"But because of this blockage we have a real problem generating money to run this business. When we get going again, we will be able to stand on our feet."
Its overheads - from hiring the studio and paying staff to utility bills - are funded by individuals including Mr Al-Sayegh, though he is coy over who else is backing them except to say that financial support comes from across the Gulf and Middle East.
But there are some who are sceptical whether such ventures will ever provide a lucrative source of advertising revenue.
"What you will generally see is a wait-and-see attitude from advertisers," says Hermann Behrens, chief executive of marketing experts The Brand Union Middle East.
"Then as the awareness of the station and credibility grows, you will get early adopters who see good value in the offer and as the station builds history and viewership then the figures will speak for themselves and more advertisers will come on-board."
But with the prospect of Bahrain allowing the channel to be broadcast by any official means seeming remote, it looks set to be some time until that theory is put to the test.