Do National political systems still influence Arab media?

Issue 2, Summer 2007

By William A. Rugh

Photograph by Kim Badawi.

Photograph by Kim Badawi.


This essay is intended to revisit the thesis I advanced in a study of Arab mass media first published in 1979, and updated in 1987 and 2004, that the most important variable influencing the political role of media channels in the Arab world is the national political system in which they operate. Recent changes in information technology, especially the growth of satellite television, have had an impact on Arab media, making national borders more porous, but I would argue that existing national political systems are still a dominant variable affecting the structure and behavior of Arab media. Just as changes in Arab domestic political circumstances in the past have brought about changes in the media systems that operate within their borders, the domestic political factors that exist today still have a major influence Arab newspapers, radio and even television, which in turn remain the most important means of mass communication.


In introducing the relaunch of this journal, Co-Editor Lawrence Pintak borrowed a refrain from a popular Bob Dylan song.  In the media world of the Middle East, Pintak observed, the times are “a’ changing.’”  He is not wrong: across the Arab World new media are unsettling old structures, practices and institutions more profoundly than in the many years I have been studying and commenting on the Middle East.  But it is my contention that important themes of continuity overlay this rapid change—themes which will no doubt endure for many years to come.  In my view, national politics still play the crucial role in shaping the media environment of any given Arab country. 

My line of thinking on this issue is not new. Since the late 1970s, the primary focus of my research has been on the relationship between Arab mass media—defined as newspapers, radio and television—and the political environments in which they operate. Over that time, I have published three books analyzing the relationship between politics and media in the Arab world. [1] By means of interviews with many experts throughout the region, I have sought to discover how media editors are affected by the political system they live in. I have explored to what extent they, as Arabs and as citizens of their various countries, are subject to the constraints and imperatives that come from Arab governments, laws, cultural values and economic realities. How do political and other factors influence the way Arab newspaper editors make decisions on writing headlines and presenting news, and how they write their editorials? Overall, I am less concerned with the non-political content of the mass media, although in my books I have devoted some attention to that as well.

My research has consistently confirmed to me that the most important causal variable affecting the political role of the mass media in each country is the underlying political system that prevails in that country. Other factors such as geography turned out to be not very important. The mass media system in Lebanon, for example, seemed less like the media in neighboring Syria and more similar to the media in Morocco. Morocco, in turn, was quite unlike the media in its neighbor Algeria.

In my books, I have tried to look at Arab media on several levels, discussing regional characteristics that are common throughout the Arab world, and also looking at each Arab country, as well as selected individual media channels. In addition, I have developed a “typology” that classifies several countries into groups that seem to have similar systems. Over the course of the three decades in which I have studied Arab media, one thing has become abundantly clear: that on all of these analytical levels, the most powerful factor influencing the structure and functioning of the media in the political process is the actual political reality that prevails in each country at a given time.

Between the publication of my second book (The Arab Press, 1987) and my third book (Arab Mass Media 2004), very significant changes have taken place in Arab media. Since 2004, important developments have again altered the nature of Arab media, changes to which this journal is testimony. So it is pertinent to revisit my main thesis, and to examine whether it is still valid, given all the changes that have taken place recently in the information environment. This essay is intended to do that.[2]

Essentials of the thesis

In a classic study of the press, Siebert, Peterson and Schramm presented four theories of the role the press plays in society. [3]  In the study, they reported that the media could be classified in a typology of four distinct types, namely authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility and Soviet communist. However, their study dealt only with media systems in the West and the Soviet Union, and the authors themselves recognized that their analysis did not apply outside the political context in which the media systems they described had functioned. They said that their main assumption was “that the press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates.” [4] 

As I examined the role of the media in each Arab country, this assumption increasingly struck me as valid and useful. The media in each country could only be understood by looking at each country separately and examining its unique political realities. At the same time, there seemed to be some similarities between groups of countries in the functioning of their media, and I developed a typology that divided the Arab world into first three, and later four, sub-categories. But it was similarities in their political systems that ultimately led to this division of Arab countries into a typology of categories of media types.

How did the typology work?[5]

I called the three original media categories in my typology the mobilization, loyalist and diverse types. Following are the characteristics of each type, in brief.

Where the mobilization type of media system exists, the political process in that country is strictly controlled by a small, aggressive ruling group that faces no significant opposition. There are no competing political parties or elections. The regime has a monopoly of power and makes sure that press does not criticize the national leaders or the basic policies of the government, either in news play or editorials. The regime not only prevents the media from expressing any opposition or deviation from the official line on politically sensitive matters, but it actively uses the media as a tool to mobilize popular support for its political programs. That is why I have called this a “mobilization” media system. At first glance, the media appear to be “nationalized”, but in fact ownership is not the key, since the regime or its agents may own some newspapers but it does not necessarily own all the media directly, and may allow newspapers and magazines to remain in private hands.[6]  But the regime exercises strong controls over all media, whether direct or indirect. It is able to do so through agents of the regime such as a single political party that is the only one allowed. The regime also controls the press through personnel it appoints, and guidance it issues through a single national news agency; moreover, its control is facilitated by self-censorship in the very restricted political environment that exists.

The countries in the “loyalist” media group also have political systems in which there are no political parties or competitive elections, and the political environment also does not encourage dissent to be expressed against the government. But the regime adopts a more passive attitude toward the media than is the case in mobilization systems, and does not seek aggressively to exploit the media to mobilize the public for specific political purposes as the mobilization system does. It leaves the print media in the hands of private owners, but it does insist that all media refrain from criticizing the most important policies of the government. It achieves this by using indirect means, such as by having laws passed that strictly circumscribe what the media are allowed to do, as well as provide penalties for non-compliance, and give government agencies such as the information ministry the authority to monitor the media and enforce regulations. Laws typically prohibit media criticism of the head of state or the military, or of religion or even of friendly governments. As a result of these political and legal restrictions, the media are consistently loyal to the regime in power, hence the label “loyalist” media systems. Newspaper editors and reporters may occasionally criticize lower-level bureaucrats, but as a rule they are very careful not to go too far, because of the prevailing political environment and the laws that discourage dissent.

In the third group of countries, a very different political environment leads to a “diverse” media system. Contrasting and competing political parties or groups can express their views relatively freely. Some restrictions on freedom of expression exist in the laws, but they are relatively minimal or not strictly enforced. All newspapers are owned by private individuals or political parties, and they diverge substantially in their editorial policies. Many newspapers openly criticize the government from different angles, although some newspapers tend to defend the policies of the government. In this more open political environment, therefore, the press as a whole is rather diverse in its editorial policies affecting news play and commentary, and therefore I have called this a “diverse” system. Citizens all have the opportunity to be exposed to a fairly wide variety of opinion and interpretation as expressed in their newspapers, so that even if the only information they have access to is local papers, they are exposed to a diversity of viewpoints.

Political changes cause shifts in categories

It is important to note that these media categories are not static, because they are fundamentally rooted in existing political systems. When a political system changes, a transformation takes place in the media system.

In the past, during the second and third quarters of the twentieth century, the most dramatic changes in media systems have occurred in those countries that ended up falling eventually into the “mobilization” category. Looking at Egypt, Iraq, Syria, the Sudan, and Algeria, I identified four phases of media development, namely the colonial, factional, non-partisan and mobilization phases. After emerging from foreign colonial rule, these countries all had political systems (for different periods of time) that involved a  competition among political groups that was reflected in the press, and the government at the same time was restrained in its attempt to suppress freedom of expression. Then when competition among parties and groups declined and the government asserted more controls over public expression, the nature of the press system changed. Finally, when a ruling group took over that was able to suppress public dissent, the press system changed again.[7]

The basic political conditions inside individual Arab countries remained fairly stable during the 1980s and into the 1990s, and as a result the media systems did not change very much during that period. During the past decade, however, significant political changes have taken place in a number of Arab countries, and this had the effect of modifying the media systems in those countries. As a consequence, some media systems shifted categories.

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[1] The Arab Press, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1st edition 1979, 2nd edition 1987, and Arab Mass Media, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. The first two books used the term “Arab press” in the title, by which I intended to mean print media and broadcasting, but to avoid giving the impression that I was only talking about print media, in the third book I changed the title to “Arab Mass Media”.

[2] Noha Mellor’s book, The Making of Arab News, has devoted a chapter to taking issue with my typology, and although its author has unfortunately misunderstood many of my main points, I do not intend to devote space in this essay to correcting her errors but instead will try to summarize and reevaluate my basic approach.  For her criticisms, see chapter 3 in Noha Mellor, The Making of Arab News, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. At the request of a journalism class at AUC, I wrote a detailed paper correcting her misreading of my book, and I shared it with her, but I have not published it.

[3] Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm, Four Theories of the Press, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1963, chapters 1-4.

[4] Ibid., p. 1

[5] Readers interested in more details of the typology can consult the extended descriptions in the books.

[6] Mellor, op.cit., pp. 59, 70 misunderstands this point on ownership.

[7] Arab Mass Media, op.cit, pp.43-38 see especially table 3.1 on p.44

[8] Arab Mass Media, op.cit., pp.116-17, 170, 209-10, 243-44

[9] Interview with the UAE Information Minister

[10] Mellor, op.cit, pp. 51, 61-63, 70 includes émigré newspapers.

[11] See the special section on reality TV in the TBS print edition, vol.1, no.2, pp.7-84, especially Marwan Kraidy, “Reality Television and Politics in the Arab World”, and Marc Lynch “Reality is Not Enough”; also  Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005

[12] Idem.; for details of the Bahrain story, see Transnational Broadcasting Studies, vol. 1, no.2, pp. 14-17, 33, 56-57

[13] See Kraidy and Lynch, cited in footnote 11.

[14] E.g. Habib Battah: “SMS: The Next TV Revolution”, TBS 2006, and see Lawrence Pintak and Marc Lynch in Arab Media and Society, March 2007

[15] This was a technique I had used in the 1960s when I wrote my PhD dissertation on “The Politics of Broadcasting in Germany”, and it seemed to work well enough to give me a reasonably accurate picture of the role of the media in the political process.

[16] Marc Lynch, Voices of a New Arab Public, passim., and “Reality is Not Enough” op. cit, pp.35-43

[17] Marc Lynch, “Reality Is Not Enough”, pp.29-45