Western preconceptions of Arab media paint an image of populations force-fed a daily diet of bland news, aimed at maintaining the status quo.

Bad habits do persist, but the industry is changing. The past two decades have seen a revolution in the media, with the proliferation of pan-Arab satellite television and the internet. Satellite technology has transformed access to international news, while the internet has opened up new forums for debate beyond the control of state authorities.

There are now 315 satellite TV channels serving the Middle East, with a variety of new media inviting public debate on issues that traditional media kept firmly under wraps. Arab audiences can now vote for their favourite singers via SMS, engage in debate with TV clerics or blog to their hearts’ content about their daily lives, politics and culture.

This is a far cry from the days when access to news was carefully controlled by a handful of state-backed newspapers and TV stations, churning out unappetising news stories about local dignitaries. However, content still leaves much to be desired.

“As with most TV, there has been a race to the bottom,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Washington based Centre for Strategic & International Studies. “There is huge inconsistency in every satellite TV channel involved in news reporting, and little notion of what is suitable to air and what is not.”

And press freedom is still the exception, rather than the rule. In 2006, Reporters Without Borders, a French non-governmental organisation, published a league table of 167 countries ranked according to their degree of press freedom. The only Arab country in the top 100 was Lebanon.

Censorship was hard-wired into the system from an early age. It was only in 1908 that the Ottoman authorities began to lift restrictions on ownership of newspapers, allowing an independent press to develop in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Arabic-language newspapers and radio stations proliferated as political leaders realised the potential for propaganda.

After the second world war, the press became a valued tool in the fight for national independence. This early politicisation of the media still has consequences. The Information Ministry survives as an entity of state control of the media across many Middle East states.

Overt censorship is becoming difficult to sustain, however. Governments across the region still routinely harass and imprison journalists. Websites can still be blocked. But the armoury of state control has been severely dented by the advent of new technology. Pan-Arab news channels, such as Al-Jazeera, pose a direct challenge to the ability of governments to restrict access to information.

Over the next few decades there will be a shift in the way the mass media is controlled. Experts predict a migration from direct control towards more subtle methods such as restrictive press laws, licensing regimes and taxation. The UAE was the first Gulf state to rid itself of an Information Ministry in 2006. But the new National Media Council will ensure a tight lid is kept on the local media.

Self-censorship and cultural norms will also limit how far the media can develop. The Danish cartoons crisis of 2006 set out clear red lines; some newspapers have even called for curbs to preserve cultural sensitivities. “It used to be said you could not do these things in the Middle East,” says Alterman. “Now people say you can do it, but it means looking over your shoulder and seeing what you can get away with this week.”

Despite these restrictions, business is booming – particularly for the print media. Advertising revenues are bucking global trends. GCC advertising expenditure is estimated at $3,000 million and regional media reported a 40 per cent increase in advertising revenues in 2006. The opportunities for further growth are prodigious. Advertising spending will grow 15 per cent a year for the next three years.

The lure of ad revenue is drawing in outsiders. In late 2006, the UK’s Associated Newspapers stumped up $7 million for a 60 per cent stake in the English-language newspaper 7 Days. It announced plans to spread the brand across the rest of the region, ultimately aiming to have more than 1 million copies rolling off the presses by 2011. A rash of new English-language dailies, many freesheets, have rolled off the UAE’s presses in the past year and more are likely in the coming decade.

Audience figures will need to grow to justify this spending in the longer term, however, and there are challenges from other media. Future generations of Arabs will demand much greater control over the images flashing across their screens, and the words staring at them from print and screen.

Traditional lines between broadcasting and telecoms are already becoming blurred. In the wake of liberalisation, media entrepreneurs are looking to fuse the two strands and build one of the world’s fastest growing communications industries. SMS has filled a vacuum left by inadequate internet infrastructure and poor telecoms connectivity.

Interactive technologies are also transforming revenues. Some SMS-related services already generate as much revenue as traditional television advertising, and could overtake advertising as a cash generator for TV networks. With this backdrop, smaller, nimbler media companies are expected to proliferate across the region.

As a result, countries with the most advanced and open democracies – such as Kuwait and Lebanon – may emerge as the regions’ main media centres, though Dubai, which has pioneered the free zone concept of Media City, will prove a strong challenger. Cairo, once the Middle East’s media hub, could regain its old status if political conditions improve.

Al-Jazeera and its competitors have transformed the way Arabs see themselves. And these new entities will be at the forefront of change as money, power and technology merge to transform the media sector over the next 50 years. But, as in China or even the US and Europe, censorship will survive in the new era of liberal economics. The prime censor of the media will be the people who own it.