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Keynote Address – The Cambridge Arab Media Project: The Media and Political Change in the Arab World

The Cambridge Arab Media Project: The Media and Political Change in the Arab World, 29-30 September 2004

What I would like to do today is put the issue of the media in some perspective, both analytical and historical. Then I will put some thoughts on the table about the extent to which media does or doesn't influence opinion, and then report some of my findings from surveys I have been conducting-public opinion surveys-in the Arab world about what people are watching and how that behaviour affects their opinions on political issues. And then I'll end with some reflections about the role of the state: to what extent media is really independent and what does that mean?

Let me begin with some images. I'll begin with four. They all come from Al Jazeera, and the selection of Al Jazeera is certainly intended because it has come to symbolise the new media and for a good reason.

In my survey, Al Jazeera is by far the number one most-watched station in every category that we tested on. Al-Arabiya is a very distant second right now. It has become the second, but a very distant second. There is no question that Al Jazeera has more impact than any other channel right now.

The first image is recent. In a show a lot of you watch often, al-Ittijah al-Mu'akis, participants deliberated over the beheading of innocent people in Iraq. Is it justified? Is it not justified? They had someone on that show that was making a case for why it is justified. It was a sickening show! That is an example of the sort of thing that we see in some of the media today.

The second image is more positive. Those of you who watch those regular women's shows, if you look at some of the episodes, they are absolutely first rate by any standard, whether by Middle Eastern standards or international standards. They are most thoughtful and complex, and the daring part is that they get into the issue of men and women and power in society: what explains it, what doesn't. They are challenging taboos in ways that were never seen in the Arab world ten years ago. It is there on a regular basis on Al Jazeera.

The third image is one that was personal to me. A couple of months ago I was in Haifa on the Mediterranean and went to a seafood restaurant. Always, whenever I go to any Mediterranean city, I look for Sultan Ibrahim (red mullet). I have to have it. It's a part of my childhood. As I approached the restaurant, the Arab owner of the restaurant came to me, identified me from my appearances on television, and said hello and few nice things. And then he said, knowing that I came from Washington, "What about the American government putting pressure on Al Jazeera? What about this democracy you are talking about? How can you reconcile this pressure America is putting on Al Jazeera and the democracy that they are advocating in the Middle East?"

The final image is from Washington itself: the image of how people see Al Jazeera and the Arab media. They read today that it is full of incitement, full of anti-Americanism, full of anti-Israeli rhetoric, and they blame it for much of the trouble they are facing in the Middle East. It is as if the media is really the cause for all these problems, and that image is juxtaposed with an image of Al Jazeera in the late 1990s that is exactly the opposite.

And I remind you to recall how Al Jazeera was seen at first in the Arab world-in Cairo or Riyadh or Rabat. It was called an agent of Zionism or American intelligence in the Middle East. There was an image that they had the agenda of normalising Israel in the Arab world. It was true only four years ago! This is a change. Amazing how quickly we forget these images!

So how does one reconcile all these images? And what do they tell us? What are we facing in this new phenomenon?

Let me begin by putting it in perspective. In terms of what it analytically means, what does this phenomenon represent? I'm not talking so much about Al Jazeera specifically, but the satellite phenomenon. What has changed in the past decade that is different, in terms of its impact on the media and Arab public opinion that we didn't have a decade before?

And, clearly the primary factor in the transformation of the media is that today we have a market-driven media.

By "market-driven" I don't mean commercially driven. None of these media have a chance of making serious profits, or even any profits, today. By "market-driven" I don't mean that they are not under the control-directly or indirectly-of the state. By "market-driven" I merely mean that they all are trying to get maximum viewership in the Arab world.

The market has changed. It has changed dramatically from what it was a decade before by virtue of the "reach"--the accessibility--of satellite technology to the vast majority of the Arabs.

And as a consequence, every citizen in the Arab world has so many choices. They can turn off a station or turn on a station. They have fifty or sixty choices to decide on for the first time. They are not captive audiences. They don't just sit there and the government tells them, "Here is what you are going to see!" They have choices. And if you are an outfit that wants to succeed, it means you had better figure out a way for getting the people to tune in. And if you don't, you are dead.

Your aim may be political or your aim maybe commercial. Whatever your aim, you still want maximum viewership. Why do we think Al Jazeera is important? It has managed to get "maximum viewership." That is influence! That is what it drives it all. So if you are going to succeed, you have to understand your audience. What is this audience you are trying to reach? It is no longer the local audience that every media outlet thought of when they had a government monopoly of the media; that is, if you were a station of Qatar or if you are a station of Abu Dhabi.

Your audience--your potential audience--is everyone in the Arab world. Your prototype consumer is now the Arab. It is no longer the Qatari, Kuwaiti, or the Egyptian. And as such, the product you are trying to market is the product you are trying to market to your prototype consumer, which is the Arab. And that, in some ways, defines how you view what is appealing to the broadest number of people.

In that sense, we have the dynamics here of competition that has driven the sort of programming on any station which wants to be successful, regardless to who it is and regardless to what it is, or what its agenda is.

Let me give you a couple of examples. When you look at the image that I juxtaposed earlier about how Al Jazeera is being perceived today as being anti-US, inciting anti-Israeli (anger) and how it was seen as pro-US and pro-Israel in the late 1990s. What has changed in that market? I think what has changed is the market.

In the late 1990s, most Arabs believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict was coming to an end, whether they agreed to it or not, and they were reconciling themselves to the fact that there was going to be some kind of an agreement between the Israelis and the Arabs. Al Jazeera was the first one to truly take that seriously. Most people in Saudi Arabia and many parts of the Arab world did not know much about what the Israelis were like. Al Jazeera was out there reporting from the Knesset, from cities, and bringing Israelis on television. People were curious. They wanted to watch that environment.

After the collapse of the peace negotiations there was very little hope of an agreement. You have bloodshed. You had the horrific pictures of the West Bank and Gaza. People wanted to see them. So what you see is essentially a station catering to a market. If it didn't, it was not going to get that viewership.

In fact, let me give you a very good example. When I look at the stations that get most of the viewership on Arab-Israeli issues, in general Al Jazeera is still number one, but the strong second in some of the markets is Al Manar television of Hezbollah because it is covering more of that bloodshed on the television screen than some of the other channels.

In fact, here is a remarkable finding in the surveys that I conducted prior to the Iraq war. Al Jazeera was number one in Jordan on matters related to Arab-Israeli issues. On the eve of the war, when it seemed to moderate its coverage of that issue for variety of reasons, Al Manar television became number one in Jordan on issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Number one, by just a slight margin, over Al Jazeera. The market is out there, and if you don't cover what the public want, they are going to abandon you. The question is, what does the public want? And at what point can you influence the market yourself?

The final example is from Al Arabiya. Al Arabiya came into being just a little over a year ago, as you know, and it came with a very clear intent to compete with Al Jazeera. When you talked to them earlier on, as they were thinking up what this television station was going to put together, the idea was a less sensational version of Al Jazeera because what they thought was that Al Jazeera had introduced something very important. The public wants it, but most of the public thinks it is too sensational, and Al Arabiya was going to provide a more responsible version of Al Jazeera.

Well, starting immediately after that, they aired the bin Laden tapes. Now, when you hear the director of Al Arabiya speak about this phenomenon, he says 'Look, I don't like it! It is horrible. We shouldn't be doing it, but how I can not do it if other stations are going to do it? So if you can get them all not to want to do it, then I am willing not to do it." You know, it's like "price fixing." "If you want to get rid of the market, then I am willing to live with it." It is a market; it is a reality we have to contend with. You have to understand that we have to come to grips with the fact that there is a phenomenon out there, that some people use it irresponsibly. There is a lot of irresponsibility in the coverage. Granted! But there is a market out there. And above all, it is that market force that they are all subject to, regardless of whether they want to and even if their intent is generally good.

But does that mean media does not or cannot influence opinion? Or doesn't have a role and shouldn't be more responsible? I want to say no, of course. But I want to lay out some of the conditions under which we should expect the media to have more impact. ... And later I am going to report to you whether there is in fact an Al Jazeera factor in opinion in the Arab world.

In general, I think we make too much of the media affecting public opinion. We make far too much of it. The media is an intermediate step. It is not the cause of public opinion. In fact, at some level, whether you have pictures of what happens in Abu Ghraib on television or not, the problem is that Abu Ghraib abuse takes place, and when it does, then I want to see it on television. So the reality, first of all, is the problem, not the coverage itself, even though the coverage can obviously be more responsible and less sensational.

But let us face the fact on the structural level. It isn't so much the media that shapes opinion as such, particularly when you have a market with competing ideas and people have a choice of which ideas to respond to. But here are four points I want to make in terms of the influence of media on public opinion.

First, in times of pain, all people-whether they are in the Middle East or elsewhere-listen with their hearts far more than with their heads. You have to take into account if you are an American after 9/11 you are sitting in New York and looking at those events through the pain that you are feeling there and then. You take sides because it is inevitable, because you cannot not take sides. And the media pops up and says "We are partly responsible! Let us look at this analytically!" You, the media, are going to be dismissed. You are going to be attacked. Nobody is going to listen to you. You've got to be part of your consumer market, and if you are not, you are going to be booted out of that market. And that is why we have sensationalism, like Fox TV, growing in times of pain. And you know what? In the Middle East unfortunately we have had too many times of pain, whether it is the Palestinian issue, the Iraq issue, the 9/11 issue, the war on terrorism issue. People are looking at those events through the prism of pain. And when they are looking through the prism of pain, they expect the station to reflect their feelings, and if it doesn't, they are going to boot it out.

In fact you get criticism of people like me. If I go on Al Jazeera and make an analytical objective analysis about what happens at times of pain, people will say, "He is detached. He is not one of us. He is not speaking like we do. He does not understand us. He does not reflect our pain." That is just the reality of it. We've just got to come to grips with it. This is a time of pain in the Middle East. And yes, this pain is there in the US too. You cannot expect the American media to be perfectly objective when it is covering the issue related to that pain. Keep that in mind.

Secondly, media affect opinion far less on priority issues and far more on secondary issues. It is a fact that, again, very few people understand. If there is an issue about which you have a strong opinion and about which you care a lot, the media is not going to shape your opinion on that issue. Sometimes the media is going to reinforce it. . . . You are not going to change your position because of what the media is saying, but rather if it is going against what you believe. That is why we are talking about the bias.

Let's look at the facts. Let's look at the reality. I have done surveys in the US about public opinion on international issues, including the Arab-Israeli issue. What do we have? Well, when you ask people, "Do you get your information on Arab-Israeli issue from the media? The majority of people say yes. But then when you ask people, "How important is the Arab-Israeli issue to you personally? Those who rank it high on their priorities are Jewish-Americans, Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans. They say they don't get most of their information on that issue from the media. They get if from friends and from religious or political organizations. They have their minds made up. If the media is going to shape their opinion, think about it, why don't Arabs and Jews in America have the same opinions on all of these issues? They are all watching the same media! Why don't they have the same opinions on these issues? In fact, their opinions are completely opposed. In fact, when you see an Arab-American seeing a picture of a beheading on Fox TV, they more often than not say, "Well, they're trying to blacken the image of the Arabs," rather than saying, "Oh! This is horrible. Let me think. Maybe the Arab world has got a problem." When you've got an Israeli or an American or a Jewish American who are strongly favourable to Israel, and they are going to see a picture that is highly critical of Israel-like a picture from a refugee camp-the first instinct is not "I am going to stop supporting Israel!" The first instinct is, "This is a problem I have got to deal with. Maybe the media is biased."

And so, we have to understand that on matters that are related to issues that are priority issues to the public the media impact is very small. It is there, obviously; it reinforces. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying it has no impact, but that is not the core of the problem. … There are dynamics out there.

On the other hand, on secondary issues, on issues about which you don't have a prior opinion, media matters a lot. Let's say you're learning about Nigeria, and you know nothing about Nigeria and you care nothing about Nigeria, but you see a story on Al Jazeera. You already trust Al Jazeera because it resonates with you on issues you care about and you see that story on Nigeria on Al Jazeera. Your opinion on Nigeria is going to depend on that story you see on Al Jazeera, no question about it. You have no other source of information. All the issues we are talking about in our debate are really primary issues, not secondary issues, in term of a discourse.

The third point is that we should differentiate between the media's impact on opinion . . . and the media's impact on political identity, or how people see themselves. I happen to think the media today in the Middle East, as a phenomenon, has far more impact on the way people see themselves than on their particular opinions on a specific issues. I am talking about this as a long term process. In part because the media, by definition, defines the consumer as "the Arab" or "the Muslim" because the media is trying to reach out to the broadest audience. That has an impact on how the media defines its consumer, and therefore how the consumer defines himself in relation to the media . . . . It is hard to study. It is going to be important in ten to twenty years from now, and I'll reflect on that in my findings.

My final point is that there is a difference between the impact of media on adults and the impact of media on children. We far too often ignore children in this discourse when we talk about public opinion. We only do public opinion research on adults. I say this because if you see a show on beheading on television it may not have the same impact on an adult because we already have our views and can deal with it. If you have an 8-year-old watching it, the impact is going to be enormous. Enormous! And understudied! I have to say that this is an area that is going to have to be a focal point of our studies.

The Findings

What did we find in the studies? Let me put this in perspective. I have been doing surveys for the past three years, largely in six Arab countries-Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, the UAE, and Lebanon. What I have been doing is asking people what they watch most. Which station is their first preference for news? Which station is second? How often do they watch the stations? Just behavioural questions. 

And then parallel to that, I ask them some questions about foreign policies, domestic policies, and social issues. The aim is to find out whether there is a real direct relationship between people's opinions on the issues of the day-particularly in foreign policy, political reform and the role of Islam in politics-and what they watch on the news. And let me briefly tell you the findings of that aspect of the research: there is a minimal-absolutely minimal-impact on matters relating to support or opposition to the US for example. The lack of trust in US foreign policy among people who don't watch Al Jazeera or people who don't have satellite is very similar to those who watch Al Jazeera and have satellite. On matters related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the views of those who watch one station or the other are minimally different. In fact, sometimes they go the other way than you might think. Those who watch CNN tend to be more anti-American in some countries than those who watch Al Jazeera. So it is very difficult. I have done some correlation studies, statistical analysis, controlling demographics. I see no major impact on those opinions. It tells you that for these opinions, their sources are somewhere else.

The media is an intermediate factor. It does influence on the margins, but it is not the driving force for these opinions. You have in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Morocco 95 percent of the public with a negative opinion of the US . . . . There is very very little difference . . . .

The same doesn't hold on matters of political identity. In fact, a hypothesis I put on the table and am still struggling with in my next book, Media Identity on Foreign Policy, pertains to the issue of identity specifically. In fact we've only recently begun to ask the questions directly about identity. I needn't tell you how difficult this survey analysis is, and how little we have by way of historical opinion to see change over time, which is what we need, and that is why I am doing this, to keep track constantly on how it manifests itself. There is another question that we put on the table, and that is whether they want the clergy to play a larger or smaller role in politics in the Arab world? It is clear that more people want the clergy to play a bigger role rather than a smaller role in the Arab world. That too has changed from the past. What does this mean, and what is the relationship with the media to this phenomenon?

First, I haven't yet identified the real difference of opinion depending on what people watch. I am still doing the statistical analysis, but the superficial view of this doesn't show any serious differences.

I can say on the basis of other questions that this does not mean that you have a religious identity on the rise. In fact, I am calling it "the rise of Islamic nationals." Why? Let me give you an example.

I think there are other questions that indicate that the role of the clergy question pertains more to the perception of corruption . . . . That is the real rise in the statistic. For whatever reason, as in America, people think of religious people as being more ethical, and when you have a sense of corruption, you move in that direction. But the Islamic identity itself has to be balanced with the following open question: whom amongst world leaders do you admire most outside your own government? I did not want to put them in a position to have to answer about their own government. Let me give you the top vote list:

No.1 Gamal Abdul Nasser, hardly an Islamist.
No.2 Jacques Chirac, now there is an Islamic Crusader!
No.3 Hasan Nasrallah, who almost ties-it varies from country-with Saddam Hussein, who is still No.1 in Jordan!

Hasan Nasrallah a Shi'ite. Saddam Hussein and Nasser are Arab Nationalists. Jacques Chirac is a non-Arab, non-Muslim who prohibited the veil in France. What does that tell you? The only thing that these people have in common is that they are perceived as being anti-imperialist and anti-American . . . .

And I see that as an indication of what the mood is. Not one of them, by the way, is democrat, except for Chirac I guess. But certainly those who they chose locally are not democrats. And that tells me something. Most people in the Middle East want democracy badly. No one likes authoritarianism, no one likes dictatorship, everyone wants change and reform. I don't believe there is a single government in the Middle East that has won popular standing in free and true election today. But is also still tells me that their anti-imperialist, angry sentiment trumps, at the moment, their hunger for democracy. I am not saying there are choices, but it tells you how anger is growing today.

As I told you, I don't see an obvious relationship between those who watch Al Jazeera and those who don't … . And by the way, just to extend this point a little bit, there is no question of the rise in Islamic identity in non-Arab Muslim countries and the importance of the Palestinian issue in non-Arab countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan. Musharraf said in The Washington Post that it was the number one issue for the Pakistanis and the reason for their anger against the US. … Clearly you have some kind of revival unrelated specifically to Al Jazeera, and more related probably to a rejection of government policies. This comes in the absence of empowerment and in seeing the US as being anti-Muslim, not just anti-terrorist, in that campaign.

Let me move to my final substantive point, which is the role of the state in all of this. I have started off by saying, "Look there is a market out there, but don't misunderstand!" I mean these stations are not really making money and don't misunderstand, market-driven does not mean states are no longer players. It is just that they have to worry about the market in ways that are different from the way they had to worry about it before. But the reality of it is still that the ones that are most influential-whether directly or indirectly-are state-supported, and in the case of Al Jazeera, heavily subsidised. In the case of Al-Arabiya, members of the royal family clearly pay the bill, and we have to understand that there is state control still, but at a different level, and with different rules of the game. So I want to talk about these rules of the game and start by asking this curious question. The curious question, again, is focused on Al Jazeera.

You have, in our American discourse, everybody seeing Al Jazeera as the enemy of the US today. In that discourse, even the liberal Arab elites see Al Jazeera as inciting and working for, or in a way bolstering, the position of some of the militants in the region. So how do you reconcile that with the fact that here you have a (Qatari) government which is clearly pro-US, strongly pro-American, which hosted American forces on its soil and had American planes fly into Iraq during the war, and is a strong supporter of a peaceful solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. How do you reconcile that? How can that be? What is this government doing if in fact that is what it is doing in Al Jazeera? What explains those two? What is the role of the state?

Well, let me give you my take on all this. Again, you have to see Al Jazeera, in its inception, not only as a child of a benign leader who sees that is the way to open up democracy. I think you have to give him credit for one thing because a lot of leaders use different tools to advance their interests. He understood at least that this thing will be of great benefit to him. In the end you have to ask the question. No leader in the Middle East … is going to do something which is going to be self defeating. So what is the benefit in all this for the Emir?

Well, back in the 1990s when Al Jazeera was starting . . . the Arab media had become largely influenced by the Saudis. Remember, it was a very important period-particularly after the rise of Saudi Arabia as an oil state-when the Saudis invested a lot of money in it by buying newspapers and starting transnational broadcasting with the first truly effective satellite television station MBC . . . . The elite discourse in the Arab world is very much in that orbit of the Saudi influence in the media at the time, and if you look at that period of the 80s to mid-90s, you see Saudi influence in the Arab World is just like the Egyptian influence in the Arab World had been . . . . Qatar was mostly the target of that media. In fact, it was plainly supportive of the Arab-Israeli peace process … and its foreign policies were different from those of the Saudis. The Qataris cleverly sorted that out by creating a far more influential media output that came to dominate. They have done two remarkable things for themselves.

First, they took away market share from all the other media. It doesn't matter what they say on that media, but no longer are they the target of that media. That is huge when you think about it in perspective. The media attention shifted to other areas. In fact, if anything, Saudis have become less favoured by the viewers than before. Certainly Qataris have the one channel that is most watched. That is one thing they were able to achieve for themselves.

The second thing is that it has enabled them to have pro-American positions and even to have a policy that is more cooperative with Israel than otherwise. It gives them the cover. It gives them the credentials. It gives them democratic appeal. It gives them the reach, the influence, that mitigates the anger on their hosting of troops or anything else that is related to their dealings with the US.

Both of these things were essentially for them to sort out policies that they sought to pursue. When you look at Al Arabiya, it is clear that after a decade of [Saudi Arabia's] losing ground, Al Arabiya has to be seen as regaining some of the lost ground with the competition with Al Jazeera . . . . It is state competition that still cannot be divorced from the forces of the market because if Al Jazeera changed today, people would dump it and go somewhere else. It is a dilemma they no longer can escape because of the nature of the market itself. It is very important to keep this in mind when we think about it: in the background, the role of the state is not gone. In fact, it is still dominant in many ways. It explains why these governments are willing to lose money to keep going and sustain some criticism to do it, because their natural interests are still being served in some very small ways.

Let me conclude.

If you look back at the last decade and the transformation of the media in the Arab World you ought to ask me, "Are there things that you hate about the media today?" I will say, "Absolutely." There are many things that I resent that I wished were not aired. I am frustrated by that. I find it to be irresponsible.

If you ask me whether the media today is better today than a decade ago in the Middle East, I would say it is far better than a decade ago. The pluses outweigh the minuses . . . . I would even argue to you that some of the sensationalism, some of the issues that are subject to criticism, have got a lot of silver lining in the sense that people are finding out about themselves in the Arab World.

A lot of the governments in the Middle East in the late 90s thought that it was absolutely wrong to give Saddam Hussein a voice lest he go on air and say, "I want all of these regimes overthrown," and then somehow they would be overthrown! Al Jazeera, right after a very tense period in 1998, gave Saddam Hussein the opportunity to give a speech in which he called for the overthrowing of governments in the region. It had no impact whatsoever! And again, talking about democracy, it showed how much space there is, and how people should be taken more seriously than this rigid exclusion that takes place.

And then there is even the issue of the beheadings, which I personally think it is sickening to show on TV or to have someone (as a studio guest) advocating their legitimacy. But I have to wonder out loud whether it isn't in itself a sensational act by the media, but rather in fact a problem present at the level of society. And I ask the question not simply rhetorically because you can look at the poll Al Jazeera did electronically asking people, "Do you support beheadings or do you oppose beheadings?" The point is, although it was not a scientific survey and it is only elites who have access to the Internet, the vast majority of respondents said they support beheading.

I wonder whether putting it out on the air is not putting it out there for society to come to terms with itself; whether it is better to hide this or to deal with it outright, ugly as it is. Certainly, we need maximum responsibility in the media, but if you are going to ask me, I place far more trust in the market with all its negatives than I would on any single leader controlling what we should see here on television in the same way that I would never accept the notion that they could be my dictator or the notion that there should be a monopoly in the political arena. I do not believe that the answer to all of the troubles that we are facing in the media today is censorship.

Thank you very much.

About Tessa Litecky

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