Formerly TBS Journal

ISSN: 1687-7721

Do National political systems still influence Arab media?

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For example, a very significant transformation in the Yemeni political system in the 1990s, involving the emergence of multiple political parties and freer elections, led Yemen’s media system to move from the mobilization to the diverse category. And in 2003, when the national political situation in Iraq changed dramatically after the US-led an invasion and occupation of that country, the Iraqi media system as a result also changed dramatically. Because the new Iraqi media system that emerged was quite diverse, in part because of U.S. and British policy, I have included it in the diverse category with some caveats.[8] 

And changes in the national political systems of four countries—Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia—during the 1980s and 1990s created new conditions for the media in these countries. Because of these political changes, the four countries did not fit well in any of the three media categories described above. In many ways the national political systems and their media systems of these four in fact turned out to be similar, so I created a fourth media category. I named this fourth category “transitional.” The crucial similarity was that the media systems in these countries were being debated publicly and likely to change.  But it was not easy to foresee how they would develop in the future because the political systems themselves were somewhat unsettled. Moreover, unlike the three original categories that had fairly straightforward rules, these systems were quite complex, containing strong elements of government control and influence, alongside elements of freedom and diversity. Some newspapers, typically the larger circulation ones, tended to be more supportive of the government, while others, typically owned by private individuals and political parties, had more limited circulations and were more likely to criticize the government. Their freedom was reinforced by the existence of multiple political parties. But the regime had some advantages in the explicit and implicit taboos and red lines that existed, plus laws and economic incentives and disincentives.

The other twelve countries have remained in the media categories that they have occupied for some time because the political conditions there have not changed substantially. The fact that media systems change as a result of changes in the political environment validates the basic premise that national political realities are a major variable influencing Arab media. And in the future, if political conditions do change anywhere, it is likely that the media systems will also be subject to change. This may happen, for example in Iraq, when the American presence there ends.

Radio and television

It should be noted that the structure and functioning of Arab radio and television has always been somewhat different from print media. Nearly all Arab governments (Lebanon being the most obvious exception), directly controlled all radio and television, with no private broadcasting allowed. There were differences between countries that to some extent mirrored the mobilization/loyalist/diverse breakdown of the print media, but they were not as pronounced because all Arab regimes wanted to control broadcasting directly and not permit private ownership.  So I separated out broadcasting from print media, since the latter required more detailed and nuanced analysis. Broadcasting has changed recently, but fundamentally the state still regards radio and television as more sensitive politically than print media, and therefore tends to give it more attention.

Clearly, the most dramatic changes in broadcasting have occurred during the past decade because of the emergence of Arab satellite television, and also the impact of the Internet.

Several studies have been made of Arab satellite television with particular emphasis on the Al Jazeera effect. There is no question that Al Jazeera has had a major impact on Arab media and on the Arab discourse. Subjects that were once taboo in Arab media are now openly debated not only on Al Jazeera but to some extent on other Arab media. Al Arabiya Television has become a close rival of Al Jazeera. And even the content of Abu Dhabi Television has become more contentious than it once was, in large part as a result of competition from Al Jazeera and the other satellite channels.[9]

Yet the satellite television channels are subject to some constraints imposed by political realities in each country. Even Al Jazeera, the media outlet that tends most to break taboos and to criticize Arab governments, pays attention to the national political environment of its home country, Qatar.  A conservative Gulf state, Qatar subsidizes Al Jazeera, although it claims the channel is an independent entity. Qatar has long had a “loyalist” media system, and its newspapers still fall into that general category. Al Jazeera however has taken on a different role that seems revolutionary and not consistent with Qatar’s past history. Yet for three reasons, the basic rule, that national political circumstances are very important for the media, also applies to Al Jazeera. First, this channel first emerged as a taboo-breaker after a significant political change took place in Qatar when the ruler was deposed by his son, who was determined to undertake some reforms in the direction of political liberalization. Secondly, Al Jazeera’s aggressive political attitude can be seen to some extent as the result of a policy decision by the new ruler to put his country on the map by way of constructing a different international image from his neighbors, and using Al Jazeera to stir up controversy in a controlled way. Third, because of Qatar’s small size and the fact that Al Jazeera focuses on regional and international news that is of interest to the Arab world as a whole, there is little of real interest in Qatar for this channel to focus on, and therefore it has few Qatari taboos to challenge. In practice, Al Jazeera tends not to raise controversial issues that directly affect the political status quo in Qatar. In fact, there are limits to what Al Jazeera does, and after offending most Arab governments by one program or another, it has recently adopted a code of ethics that indicate it is trying to some extent to moderate its tone. But Al Jazeera now has some protection from criticism because other channels are also challenging taboos.

In short, Al Jazeera is on the one hand an example of pushing the boundaries of what is possible politically on Arab television, yet at the same time, its behavior tends to reinforce the basic thesis that domestic political concerns are very important for the media.

Other new media

I have confined my study only to newspapers, magazines, radio and television, because these were the only means of communication that were “mass media”, edited from a single point and intended for the general public.  Moreover, I believe that print media, radio and television remain the most important channels of communication reaching mass audiences in the Arab world, despite the rapid growth and spread of newer means of communication such as e-mail, websites, blogs, videocassettes, DVDs, and SMS text messaging. The new media do not reach the almost universal audiences of the older ones, because of their cost and their novelty, and because of illiteracy barriers. Therefore I have excluded these newer channels, as well as older ones such as fax messages, movies, point-to-point radio, telephone and telegraph, that are of a different nature. These are all fascinating and very important, but to try to analyze all of them would have required another entire book, and I believe that drawing the line around truly mass media, intended for the general public, was a reasonable delimitation.  Happily, excellent work is being done by some scholars on these new media, and the subject matter is growing so rapidly that it probably deserves special treatment.

Offshore media

In my research, I excluded media that were intended for audiences outside the Arab world, even if they were in Arabic, such as so-called émigré newspapers published in the West, because they function in a political environment that is quite different from the one that prevailed inside the Arab world, and therefore their content and purpose were substantially different.[10]  But I did include the newspapers (and later satellite television broadcasts) that were controlled by Arabs and originated from Europe if their intended audiences were inside the Arab world.  In these outlets, editors faced concerns and constraints similar to those editors sitting in offices in Arab cities.  In my 2004 edition I devoted an entire chapter to these media because they are important.

It is true that these offshore media behave slightly differently from media based inside the Arab world, because they are not subject to all of the same constraints. However they are circumscribed by the political realities in the Arab countries, and thus even these newspapers must follow the basic rules of other media.

For example, editors of Al-Hayat and Asharq Alawsat sit in London but they must think about their readers living in Arab countries when they make their editorial decisions. They must be mindful of the direct and indirect restrictions on newspaper content imposed by the various Arab governments because they want their newspapers to be distributed in Arab countries and the governments there have the means to stop or inhibit distribution. These editors must also be mindful of the possible impact on their advertising revenues in various Arab countries when they make decisions on news play and editorials.

Globalization and regionalization

Although my analysis focuses attention on the nation-state and its influence over the media as it relates to audiences within Arab national borders, my writing has always taken into account cross-border flows of information, a factor that has increased dramatically in recent years.

In the past, when national governments had more control over Arab media, there were always some cross-border information flows. Some people listened to the BBC from London, VOA from Washington, or the Voice of the Arabs from Cairo, or they were able to import foreign newspapers. Others who happened to live in border areas where television from a neighboring country was visible, could watch that. But many people only had access to the media that were produced within the borders of their home countries, and those media were heavily influenced by the political circumstances in those countries. In Saddam’s Iraq, for example, the public essentially had access only to information and ideas that Saddam wanted them to have, since he presided over a mobilization press, banned foreign print media and jammed foreign broadcasts.

Today the situation has changed because of greater globalization and regionalization of the media, especially due to satellite television. As a result, many more people have access to information produced outside the borders of their home countries. This has made the Arab media picture much more complicated than it once was. The controls that state governments once had have been eroded somewhat because many more alternative sources of information and comment have now become available to the Arab public. Yet national political, economic and cultural constraints and influences have not disappeared, and thus the analysis I have offered still has some validity.

To be specific, on the global level the phenomenon of cultural “convergence” involving the dissemination of Western media products and imitation of non-Arab innovations in Arab media, has had an impact. The style and format of a number of Arab television programs have been influenced to an extent by Western TV programs, as Marwan Kraidy, Marc Lynch and other scholars have pointed out in their interesting recent studies. There are echoes of American debate programs in the Al Jazeera’s contentious discussion shows, and Arab reality shows, especially those that involve viewer voting such as Super Star and Star Academy, have taken format ideas from the West.[11]  

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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