The most single famous television outlet in the world in the first few years of the 21st century belongs to the Arab World. Al Jazeera, first praised, then lambasted, then bombed by the United States, is simply the best known of over 100 satellite TV channels that have appeared in the Arab World in the last decade. But while there is no question these channels, and the arrival of the Internet, have brought change, much of it positive in the information landscape of the region, this article argues there is a danger they create an unrealistic rosy image of the Arab media world.
Media reform and political reform in the Arab world should go hand in hand. It is nonsense to talk about democracy when citizens are denied their right to speak without fear. Democracy cannot be established without freedom of speech. Freedom of expression in turn rests on four foundations: access to information; access to communication; freedom of association in the form of trade unions and professional organizations; and a fair and independent judiciary.
In all four areas, the 22 countries of the Arab world suffer serious deficits. The professional standards and ethics of journalism accordingly mirror these deficits in all countries, without exception albeit to different degrees. The need for media development in the Arab world based on freedom of expression is a priority and should be given a lot of attention by media practitioners, donors (governments and others), NGOs and international organizations.
The status of freedom of expression and quality media is not even across the Arab world. Loosely, we can define three categories of information environment in region: semi-open, semi-closed, and fully closed.
We can do this considering a number of factors. First, there are the major externals such as the available degree of access to information, communication, professional organizations and an independent and fair judiciary. Then, there are other factors more directly related to the activities of the media sector, such as the integration of ICTs into production, the degree of competition, market transparency, models of ownership and administration, training, media laws and policies and ownership concentration.
- No Arab country can claim to have a fully open media system. Even in the best case scenario, the media system is restricted by a degree of state or private sector monopoly or oligopoly, a degree of restrictive media laws and a degree of media policy dedicated to glorifying the country’s rulers.
- The media discourse in most Arab countries mirrors the aspirations of the ruler at the expense of the people’s, who in most cases fall victims to the political discourse delivered by the media.
Among countries with semi-open media systems we can count Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and Palestine. The semi-closed group includes the six countries of the Arab Gulf - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, as well as Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania. The last group of entirely closed systems includes Syria, Libya and Sudan.
Somalia and Iraq cannot be judged easily because of the chaos of war. The collapse of the central government in Somalia has resulted in the emergence of dozens of new media outlets protected by warlords, religious groups and tribal chiefs, as well as an entirely deregulated telecommunications industry which has to count as one of the more successful in Africa.
- The situation in Iraq is very similar with regard to the fragmentation of broadcast media, as the destruction of the central state has left the country with a diminished capacity to produce good journalism, due mostly to the lack of safety. Consequently, the professional standards, ethics and industrial relations of the media in both Iraq and Somalia are very poor. This is no reflection on the quality of individual journalists and their great courage in doing their work.
- Media training and development
One question that is often asked is whether to provide assistance to media organizations in closed media systems, such as the one in Syria. This needs to be examined against the experience of organizations such as the BBC World Service Trust and the Thomson Foundation that have provided media training and development assistance to Syrian state controlled newspapers, radio and TV stations. The question will arise from time to time, even in countries that enjoy a semi-open media system such as Egypt or Morocco.
Journalists who receive training in areas such as investigative journalism often complain that what they have learnt from training cannot be used in the workplace because of restrictions. But the counterargument exists that donors should not wait for democracy to arrive and freedom of speech to be implemented in order to embark on serious plans to build a good base of professional journalists. The experiences in Egypt, Morocco and Jordan show that good journalism is best positioned to fight for freedom of the press. Bad journalism has always been a tool in the hands of political power.
Technology is neutral. New and advanced Internet and satellite technologies may be used for progressive or regressive ends. The new age of satellite TV stations has brought to the fore some liberal thinking – just as it has revived conservative and regressive thinking. In the same manner, the Internet is used as a vibrant tool by extremists as much as liberals.
Media development in the Arab world can be interpreted in two ways. The first is a modernist superficial sense of providing better material circumstances in terms of technology, machinery and salaries, in isolation of the surrounding political, social, economic and cultural environment. The second is deeper and more meaningful and looks at the wider process around media, trying to ensure that media development creates free, independent, plural and efficient media capable of engaging the general public in political reform and providing a solid base for national dialogue about democracy, social and cultural change.
Rich Arab Gulf states, loaded with money to spend on media development, have followed the superficial interpretation. They provide their media with the latest technology and machinery and pay their staff well. But none of that is related to political reform or democratic change.
Ailing media organizations in countries such as Syria or Libya, by contrast, suffer from low IT and technological standards, as the state is not spending as much because of budget constraints.
One of the main features of the Arab world is the high rate of illiteracy. This is a fact well understood by Arab governments and has a deep impact on media policy in the region. Because of the high illiteracy rate, radio and TV stations hold the main power within the media, and are accordingly heavily regulated and mainly under state control. Even in cases that allowed private radio or TV stations, news and political programs are prohibited unless news are bought or borrowed from the state radio and television (examples found in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan).
By contrast, Arab governments in their policy of regulating the media show far less concern about what can be described as ‘elite media’, newspapers and magazines for example which by definition engage only the literate, at the same time as doing everything to prevent the spread of technologies with populist potential, such as radio.
The spread of satellite dishes and Internet cafes is posing a serious threat to this traditional policy, as both cross sovereign boundaries easily with media that has the potential to reach the masses.
Media concentration in the Arab world is slowly replacing the aging state monopoly. Oil money, privatization programs, satellite technology and the decay of state - controlled media have opened the way for new media conglomerates. The Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990 and the collapse of the national media structure, in what had been the Arab World’s most advanced media landscape, encouraged the Saudis to start a huge media drive based physically outside the Arab world. In a matter of just over a decade, the Saudis found themselves in control of an overseas and transnational media empire that consisted of more than a dozen of newspapers, satellite radio and TV stations, an international news agency and huge production and distribution facilities across the world.
By the start of the 21st century, the Saudi royal family, their affiliates and front people and companies had gained control of Orbit News Network, Arab Radio and Television (ART), MBC Network, al - Arabiya News Channel, Saudi Research and Marketing, Tihama Advertising Agency and a distribution network. In addition, the overseas Saudi media expansion reached out to Lebanon through partnership agreements and stocks (Al-Mustaqbal TV, LBC, Al - Nahar newspaper).
They also bought into Egypt (an ART deal with state-owned television to buy out specialised satellite TV channels) and Morocco (Othman Omeir’s deal with the Moroccan Othman bin Jelloun to buy Marroc Soir Group). The Saudi Omeir also launched the first Arabic language daily online paper "elaph.com" in 2001.
- The Saudi expansion in the Arab media is geared for the promotion of Saudi foreign policy and Saudi culture, protecting the Saudi royal family and regime from opposition and launching attacks on countries hostile to Saudi policy. In short, Saudi’s media empire has been built to buy political influence in the Arab world.
- Impact of satellite media
A deep culture divide has emerged from the spread of satellite media in the Arab world.1 On the one hand, conservative and religious TV channels such as Al - Majd network, Al - Haqiqa, Iqra’a and Al - Anwar are driving the hearts and the minds of viewers towards social and political conservatism. They are making serious efforts to re-establish a culture of authority and obscurantism. On the opposite side other radio and TV channels are promoting sexualised video clips (amongst youth hungry for sex), gay culture, dance and Western music.
The result is the creation of a deep divide between two large groups of audience, one is being largely westernized and another is being driven aggressively towards a very particular interpretation of what traditional values are. Any trip to the countryside in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan or even in the Gulf region, will reveal this striking divide. One group self-consciously grows beards and adopts dress that is ostentatiously Islamic, in contrast to the second group who sport fashioned hairstyles and wear modern Western - style clothes. One group is dedicated to listening to tapes of the Holy Quran, religious speeches and fatwas, while the other is fond of watching video clips, listening to Western pop music and reading gossips about pop stars.
Media reflect this fractured and antagonistic social space, damaging prospects of the growth of democratic polities and civil society, both of which at some level rely on a base level of consensus about deep cultural norms to underlie and frame debates, difference, and diversity at higher levels. Whether it is genuine Public Service Broadcasting, built carefully out of state control to reflect and integrate different strands of society, community-level media to encourage bottom-up involvement, genuine and honest competition in the commercial space, or a combination of all of these and other initiatives besides, media in the Arab world currently fail to fulfil their social and political remit.
New money, new media
Saudi oil money was not alone in seeking political influence through acquiring media power. The Emirates most influential ruling families, Al Nahiyan and Al Maktoum showed strong desire during the 1980s to become regional media players. This desire was later translated into satellite TV networks (Abu Dhabi and Dubai) and huge media projects (Dubai Media City). Once they felt they had enough money to compete regionally, the Qataris followed suit. In the mid-1990s, they went into partnership with the BBC World Service and bought half of the stocks of the monthly Almushahed magazine. The aim was to develop the BBC Arabic language magazine into a weekly edition, part of a bigger project to buy out the BBC team that previously worked in the joint venture (BBC - Orbit) satellite TV station.
It was against this background that al Jazeera was born in 1996, controlled financially by the Emir of Qatar. His entrusted man Sheikh Hamad Bin Thamer is the Chief Executive of Al Jazeera and his old teacher Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradhawi, generally thought of as a conservative cleric, is the real force behind the editorial team. In fact, Kuwait is alone among the oil-rich Arab Gulf states that has not joined the drive to buy political influence through building its own media empire.
Meanwhile, running in parallel to the media controlled by oil money, the totalitarian regimes in Syria and Libya are still in control of most of the media in these two countries, in both print and broadcast. The Egyptian state occupies a slightly softer position of control over its media, as a service provider (the Nilesat satellite) and a facilities house (October Media City), rather than exercising direct control as a market leader in the media competition.
Saudi Arabia is by far the leader with its media empire. But they are being aggressively challenged by AL Jazeera, AL Manar and the Iranian Arabic language Al - Alam television station. Once the real mirror of the Arab world, the Lebanese media has fallen victim to political influence and oil money. Saudis have a lot of influence on the Lebanese media, as have the Syrians.
This new kind of media concentration has started to supersede the old state monopolies of media – but they should both be fought against. They both play against diversity in the media, against fair competition and distort the process of creating a healthy public sphere. The Arab world needs anti - trust laws prohibiting monopoly and encouraging competition.
Growing freedom of expression
Satellite radio and television stations and overseas-based Arabic language newspapers and magazines have presented the old local Arab media with a double challenge: the advanced technology and the degree of freedom exhibited in published or aired materials. One has to realise, however, that this degree of freedom of speech is mainly dedicated to dealing with pan – Arab issues or issues relating to ‘other’ Arab countries rather than dealing with issues of concern to the people at home.
- For example, Al Jazeera will deal boldly with the situation in Lebanon or Palestine, where Israel stands in the court of international public opinion. But it will keep a blind eye on what may be happening inside Qatar, its sponsor state, with regard to corruption, power struggles within the ruling family, or Qatari foreign policy, which is often controversial within the Arab World.
- In cases like this, we can see that the deficit in freedoms in mainstream media is compensated for by the use of chatrooms and debating saloons which text streams
that appear on satellite TV screens.
The margin of freedom of expression could never have stayed as low as it was before the satellite age. Satellite and Internet technologies have provided advocates of freedom of expression and media professionals alike with tools to break the old barriers and to open a new horizon for freedom of speech. That is not to deny the positive role of the cross-border Arab media, both print and broadcast, but to put this role in the right context.
Furthermore, the rise of democratic political forces opposing Arab regimes has encouraged local forces to provide the independent media with a new spirit. So, it is not only the technology, but also the social and political struggle that has pushed the line for more freedom in Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon and even in Saudi Arabia, which is inevitably mirrored in the media.
- Print outlets at the national level which are genuinely independent, such as the Algerian daily Elkhabar, the Egyptian daily Almasry al - Youm, the Moroccan daily Assabah, and many other titles in the print sector need to be developed to be able to compete with cross-border print titles, such as al-Hayat and al-Sharq al – Awsat
- So what does this mean?
To develop these newspapers, journalists and media management should provide a list of priorities and urgent needs. They need to develop their advertising and subscription business models, on the editorial side develop foreign language skills, and train their editorial staff to access different sources of information. Journalists need to learn the skills of objective reporting and investigative journalism. Marketing staff need to develop their professional skills.
There are many other areas of concern such as editorial management, models of management and administration, and fighting through tough market conditions in order to sustain success
Arab radio and TV stations are mostly owned by governments and their services are run on policies and basis drawn up by government officials. Although some of them have undergone some relatively drastic operations to develop their performance, they still suffer from genuine inability to win public support. There are many reforms that need to be introduced to develop the broadcast sector in the Arab world.
The first and the most urgent reform is to take this sector out of government control, not easy since some governments will resist as long as possible. The alternative is to open the broadcast sector to fair competition. The right to broadcast should not be restricted by law to big companies or by an unfair licensing system. At the moment satellite uplinks are allowed in some Arab countries via the so - called free media cities but terrestrial transmission is prohibited. This restriction should be removed in order to encourage advertising agencies to advertise with independent radio and TV stations.
Independent media organizations should be financially transparent, editorially objective and managerially efficient. Foreign donors should look at developing the media hand in hand with the broader process of encouraging political reform. International support of regimes known for their violations of freedom of expression puts donor foreign policy in question and casts doubts about the real objectives of foreign donors.
Originally published in Media Matters: Perspectives on Advancing Governance & Development from the Global Forum for Media Development (2006). Republished under creative commons using a non-commercial attribution 2.5 deed. For further information see www.gfmd.info
1. The establishment of the Saudi Research and Marketing in London 1978 marked the beginning of the new Saudi media empire. Then, the televised war of Iraq in 1991 brought with it the idea of establishing the first Saudi satellite television station, Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC). The Saudis also bought the ailing American news agency United Press International (UPI) around the same time.
Ibrahim Nawar is Chief Executive, Arab Press Freedom Watch (APFW). See http://www.apfw.org/