It cannot be denied that especially after 1990, there were two main ‘drivers’ of change which were the end of the Cold War and unquestionably the explosion of communications technology. While the former one put an end to bipolarity and endorsed states and people are better off standing by each other, the latter one -advanced telephones, video recorders, satellite televisions and internet- has expanded the scope of people’s imagination.As Alterman (2002) agrees that these changes have changed many things in our every day life. The way people dialogue, the way the governments act, the way we are taught at universities, the way we think the world and so forth have rapidly changed and the notion that we were on the brink of a new world order has already come true.
We do now talk about the influence and effect of these communications technology on spreading democracy and awareness around the globe and preventing the world from domestic and international conflicts. In order to consolidate my opinion let me enable you to think of Donald Chatfield’s statement: “New patterns of information dissemination follow highly decentralized networks rather than the old hierarchical structure. As a result, communication becomes more interactive, with less opportunity for governmental or corporate intrusion. The absence of ‘noise’ in new communication networks permit the flow of information with fewer ideological filters and allow citizen groups to grasp a more accurate picture of political events”.(quoted in Alterman,2002).
In this essay I will try to elucidate the current structure of media in the Arab world in terms of democratization. However, my point will be analyzing mainly Middle East and generally Arab World. In doing so, I will not evaluate all the Arab countries except one. Apart from this, you will be provided with the information about Al-Jazeera which has changed the structure of media in the Arab world. I will also evaluate the media in Saudi Arabia in order to reinforce my statements and finally conclude the essay by summarizing my recommendations.
Media in the Arab world
As Hafez (2001) states that the current structure of media in the Arab world has undergone massive changes since the beginning of the 1990s. The introduction of satellite television and the internet, which are seen as new way of communication, have undoubtedly extended, as I have mentioned above, the scope of people’s imagination and media spaces beyond the local, national and regional territory. He further argues that borderless flow of communication have provided some consumers, who have access to the new technologies, to interact with a global discourse and bypass to limits of authoritarian information control.
With regards to the impact of media on democratization, it can be said that during the past two decades there have been good communication campaigns which have assisted to educate the public on issues like health, family planning, AIDS, breast-feeding, agriculture, drug addiction, the environment and importantly literacy as Ayish(2001) state. However, Kazan (1993) demonstrates the reality by claiming that these developments are generally hindered by limited freedom of expression, poor integration overall development plans and low level ineffective communication with inhabitants. This situation is elucidated well in the report by the Arab League Commission that “There is a shortage of space and airtime in Arab media devoted to development either in terms of explaining its plans and strategies or stimulating dialogue on it… It is noted that the Arab mass media are very interested in reporting timely day to day activities in a propagandistic fashion rather that in presenting debates on comprehensive long term issues pertaining to development”.
There are significant elements such as the press, satellite television, the internet and educational system in terms of media. Let me expand upon this subject as clearly as I can. In his article in 2002 Ayish stated that some argue that the proliferation of satellite television in the region provides the people with easy access to their common culture in a visual form. It also contributes to formulate mutual goals and visions and this eventually accelerates a sense of cultural identity among the people in the Arab world. On the other hand, some people are not keen on looking at this side of the issue. To borrow the name ‘fragmentationists’ believe that television appears to have established a serious problem in the public sphere, making viewers think of alternative cultural frames of references which are visually superior to their own. They thus suppose that this creates a state of disorientation that deepens a sense of disintegration and fragmentation in especially local Arab communities.
At this point I feel compelled to point out that if we talk about democratization in the Arab world, there is nothing wrong with providing alternative cultural frames. On the contrary, this may offer an opportunity to the people to see the cultural differences between their cultures and the others. I anticipate that the more the Arabs are aware of other cultures, the more open they are likely to be. I do not think that people would feel inferiority complex because culture is inherited and the most significant treasure for people.
However, at this stage it could be useful to bring Sakr’s(1999) view on programs on Arab television that ‘cultural programs, for their part, are frequently highbrow in tune, while economic programs are complex and dull. News programs are heavily loaded with formalities (airport receptions, important persons meeting round a table) and most political programs are overtly propagandistic, conveying only one point of view, and are hastily produced and naively presented. There is also failure to appreciate the potential of television and lack of training”.
Could television be regarded as a tool of political and cultural disintegration in the Arab world?
Those who are especially against seeing foreign programs foresee that these programs cause the ‘erosion of local cultures and indigenous life patterns because the programs create consumerist attitude. However, as Ayish(2002) elucidates that some(integrationists) consider television as a source of cultural convergence and a kind of revival in the Arab world. As we notice that there are two totally different views on the issues but in terms of democratization in the region. It can be said that television plays a crucial role in creating awareness among the people about what is happening around the globe. However, there is a significant issue regarding media in the Arab world according to Iskandar(2006) that the most authoritarian , totalitarian media stations run by domestic governments, with institutional barriers of monitoring and censorship restraining their practice and ministries of information serving as ‘clearing houses’ for news. He is backed by Schleifer(2001) and he points out that in many Arab countries the minister of information made his offices in the same building that housed the national channel or channels and the news bulletins existed to a greater or lesser degree to glorify the leadership, be they left wing or right wing, socialist or monarchist.
From this point of view, can we really talk about free media in the Arab world?
Freedom or Captivity???
According to Universal Declaration of Human Rights Convention adopted the United Nations in 1948: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and
import information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. Whilst the Convention by all means claims the desirability of universal press freedom, this may, as Tatham(2006) argues, in fact be seen as elusive and unwelcome principle in many Arab Countries. From the viewpoint of freedom of the press survey in 2003, the region with the worst conditions for media continued to be the Middle East and North Africa. Similar to this report Arab Human Rights organization published a report in 1997 claiming that as far as the ability of media to criticize governmental practices was concerned, the 1990s were not much different from the 1970s and 1980s. The situation I believe is even not much different in today’s world if pay attention to the anger and hatred toward Al-Jazeera in the region. The fact is according to Ayish(2001) that the Arab world is still suffering from a ‘euphemism’ for uncritical, one-way flows of information, the repression of opposition views and reflecting usually(or only) the bright side of the issues.
Hafez(2001,p.9) observes a very true statement in terms of media freedom. He argues that in the Middle East and Arab World where most if not all governments and regimes resist the democratization of society, privatization of media ownership seems to be a ‘prerequisite’ for media freedom. Kraidy(2005) provides us with a reality of the Middle East by saying that it is highly unlikely that the son-in-low of the Saudi King would allow the television networks he owns to proceed with shows that contribute to undermine the structure of power in Saudi Arabia. He further goes that it is again highly unlikely that the owners of a Lebanese television channel would allow expression of political dissent that may end up striping some of the privileges going from his patronage of political class. what he means I assume is that Arab media are dominated by the same elites(statespersons, businessmen, governments) and these groups do not wish to change the political climate otherwise they would not be privileged if there were more transparent government procedures.
What about the undeniable supremacy of the leaders!!!
The Leaders versus The Media
I guess in the Arab world there is a desire of being in the centre of attention. What I mean by this is that for instance in may 2001, the Egyptian Parliament questioned the minister of information over what described as the receding Egyptian role in television production in the Arab world(Ayish,2002). As it is seen in the example that it can be noticed the effect of media here. Media can stimulate the parliament and communication becomes more interactive, hence everybody in the parliament can be questioned except one? The leader!
It could be seen a kissing moment on Arab television but when it comes to witnessing some criticism about the leader, that is not generally to be contemplated. Does anyone under illusion about media freedom??? Democratization seems to have a long way to show up in terms of media freedom. Perhaps the most critical view comes from Atwan(2006): ‘we should play for Arab nation, which become the martyr of the Arab leaders, deceiving channels and their poisonous money’. Despite the fact that government censorship is one thing, corruption and nepotism are another; I believe that media push people in the Arab world to interrogate what is good or what is bad for them.
By means of media, the people have critical perspectives and do not absorb everything that they see on television, nor they believe in everything that their political leaders point out. That is the smell of democratization that the current structure of media can tell us about. However, there is one thing that is so prevailing in the Arab media is that both the taste of individuals and their preferences are generally ignored and their perceptions are not as important as broadcasters ones. In the Arab world satellite televisions are owned by states or by those who close to states as Pintak(2006) argues. It means that especially stations are dominated by the clouts of the states rather than of publics. In this regard, Al-Jazeera and Saudi Arabia is worth evaluating to consolidate what we have seen so far.
Al – Jazeera
One of the most talked about subject of this decade in terms of media is undeniably Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite news networks which was established in 1996 in Qatar and has gained its popularity after 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. From humble beginnings it has grown in size and output, and today broadcasts 24 hours a day to an audience estimated at more that 35 million people. As Iskandar(2006) agrees that Al-Jazeera has obtained massive popularity in the Arab world by creating alternative news for western side. Campagna(2001) goes further and states that winning over viewers with its bold, uncensored news coverage, its unbridled political debates and its call-in-show formats that tackles a range of sensitive social, political and cultural issues have made Al-Jazeera different from what the Middle East has on its plate. Recruiting the staff from BBC Arabic Service by all means has provided this giant with an incredibly sophisticated studio look and approach that reflects the BBC world service tradition.
So the question is, is Al-Jazeera a force to promote democracy in the region?
The answer I believe is more yes than no, but how? It can be said that Al-Jazeera targets monarchical regimes, ‘Islamic Polygamy and Nepotism’, reveals political and economic corruption throughout the region and serves as a voice of dissent so much that it is the only Arab TV station that has made interviews with Israeli officials. In terms of democratization, as Iskandar(2006) states that Al-Jazeera creates ‘counter hegemonic’ discourses by covering opposition groups and dissidents, opinions. That is why it has a motto “the opinion and the other opinion”. that is the point where he distances Al-Jazeera from the ambitions of any particular social or political movements. According to Alterman (1998) it has made the definition of independent television journalism in the region. What really clarify Al-Jazeera’ s impact in terms of democratization is Esposito’s observation in his book Unholy War(2002). He genuinely states that the daily coverage from embattled Muslim frontiers has had a profound effect upon the everyday consciousness of Muslims around the world. What I think striking is that Al-Jazeera has added very important values like the growth of free expression, the expansion of press freedom, having Arab perspective, to the region as far as democratization is concerned. It has certainly opened the door for other news and current affair networks such as Abu Dhabi TV and Al-Arabia.
Just imagine a country where there are 25 million inhabitants, on array of newspapers and only one television station. Media in Saudi Arabia are regarded as one of the most heavily censored media and the biggest enemy of press freedom. For example, two journalists were dismissed in 2006 for going beyond the limits set by the dominant ultra-conservative religious authorities. As I mentioned above, there is only one major television news network which operates four channels and owned by the Saudi government. Any criticisms of the government, royal family or Islamic religious practices are strictly prohibited in the country. Under these circumstances what can the current structure of media tell us about democratization in Saudi Arabia? Being against political opposition, censoring everything including Israeli publications, having a very repressive regime but even Saudi Arabia cannot resist the improvement of technology and people’s demands because according to
one broadcaster, the Saudi media has already begun to report on more controversial topics such as women’s rights, terrorism and political, economic and educational reforms.
Before I conclude my essay, I would like to mention that when it comes to democratization in the Arab world we cannot omit the effects, impacts and benefits of the internet.
The Internet or the Irresistible Breakthrough
I personally believe that internet is one of the most significant discoveries as it is always willing to take democracy one step ahead in the world. It allows, according to Kirchner(2001), easy access to the information supplied by other countries. It has not only educational and commercial effects but is also politically controversial in countries with limited freedom of speech. Despite all limitations this demonstrates the potential for democratization that the internet has to offer. What I anticipate is that the employment of the internet in the Arab world has enlarged the scope of communication and information possibilities. It will reduce a ‘trickle down’ effect so-called illiteracy and increase electronic participation. By means of internet, the official media are not only ones utilize the opportunities provided by electronic publications but also increasing number of opposition groups makes use of these facilitations as well. It cannot be denied that the potential possibility of obtaining wide information from all over the globe without delay is a massive impact on democratization in the region. Despite the fact that it initially became an exclusive medium for the elite(Anderson,1997) because of computer literacy, a knowledge of English, reading and writing but gradually over the years it has absorbed by many people in the Arab world.
What I would like to do with this essay is to contribute the Arab World in terms of democratization as much as I can. I believe that there are many wrong assumptions about Islam and Arabs such as considering Islam and fundamentalism as essentially the same thing. In this case, why not media in the Arab world strive for reducing negatives thoughts such as its violence, primitiveness, atavism, and its threatening structure. This issue is well summarized in Said’ s book(1997) ‘Covering Islam’ that he argues that media must eradicate the image that what one reads and sees in the media about Islam represents the aggression as coming from Islam because that is what ‘Islam’ is. I also assume that media in the Arab world are mainly focused on Arabs. What I suggest is that there should be media in international language, which would be English, so that they can change the view of the people and the rest of the world by conveying the true teaching of Islam as well as the messages of this religion. Apart from this, something always prays on my mind that why there is not an organization like the European Union in the Arab world that can provide the Arab countries with speaking with one voice. With that connection, media should gather the Arab leaders around a table and make them think about the insufficient solidarity among them. However, the question is: Do the leaders of the Arab world really wish to unite? Media should also create programs which best reflect their social and cultural life. That does not mean that media should not be open to other cultures and lives but copying everything from Abroad will not allow people to judge the rest of the world through their own minds. Media raise awareness and endow people with objectivity as well as subjectivity.
It can arguable be said that media are altering notions of identity and provide the Arab world with solidarity because it enables people to stick to their own cultural heritage. What I think is that by means of communications technology(internet, satellite TV, mobile phones, electronic publications) the Arab world has been brought together. As James(2005) argues that Phrases such as the Arab Street’ or so are becoming commonplace, as changing structures communication allow a shared language and a reawakened sense of common identity to translate into a collective stance on the issue of the day. However, as far as the freedom of media, the supremacy of the leader, the repressive regimes, censorship and total control of media are concerned; there are more steps to be taken in the Arab world. A couple of them have been taken with the emergence of Al-Jazeera, more steps are very welcome.
* CAMPAGNA, J (2001), Between Two Worlds: Qatar’s Al-Jazeera Satellite Television Faces Conflicting Expectations. CPJ Press Freedom Reports, October. Also available at www.cpf.org.
* ESPOSITO, L, JOHN (2002), Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, New York, Oxford University Press, p.41
* HAFEZ, K (2001), Mass Media, Politics & Society in the Middle East, Berlin, Hampton Press.
* GENTZKOW.A.M and SHAPIRO.M.J (2004), Media, Education and Anti-Americanism in the Muslim World. Journal of Economic Perspective, Volume,18, Number 3, pp.117-133.
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* MCALISTER, M (2005), Epic Encounters; Culture, Media & U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945, California, University of California Press.
* SAID. W. EDWARD (1997), Covering Islam; How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, New York, Random House.
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* ALTERMAN, B,J (2002), The Effects of Satellite Television on Arab Domestic Politics, www.tbsjournal.com/Archives/Fall02/Alterman.htm. Access Date 06.04.09
* AMRBRUST, W (2005), Al-Jazeera is No a Medium!
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* ISKANDAR, A (2006), Is Al-Jazeera Alternative? Mainstreaming Alterity and Assimilating Discourses of Dissent, www.tbsjournal.com/Archives/Iskandar.html. Access Date 11.04.09
* JAMES.M.LAURA (2005), Whose Voice? Nasser, the Arabs, and ‘Sawt al-Arab’ Radio, www.tbsjournal.com/Archives/James.html. Access Date 12.04.09.
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* www.bbc.co.uk. (The page called Country profiles gives valuable formation about the Middle East.
* www.freedomhouse.org/research/presurvey.htm A Global Survey of Media Independence in 2004. Access Date 20.04.09.