State Media that Serves the Public?
A look at BBC Media Action’s recommendations for reforming Arab national broadcasters
Since the Arab Spring, there has been substantial analysis both on the role of media in the uprisings and the evolution that has taken place in the media landscape since. Several trends emerged in the discourse that ensued. Initially many analysts credited social media for its democratizing effect and value as a crowd-gathering tool. As the dust settled, many voices emerged acknowledging too much credit had likely been assigned to new media in the wake of the uprisings. Since then, the focus of analysis has largely shifted back to traditional media given its continued social influence. There has been substantial international scrutiny around editorial independence and freedom of expression across the region. This has been most pronounced in Egypt, where several incidents of journalists being imprisoned or threatened have received broad coverage.
Last month, BBC Media Action released the policy brief “After the Arab Uprisings: The prospects for a media that serves the public.” It consists of four case studies representing four of the Arab countries in which the organization operates: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Lebanon. Overall, the brief calls for state media in these four countries, and the region in general, to adapt their broadcasting model to better serve the public, rather than simply those in power. Importantly, the document recognizes the potential of the existing infrastructure of state broadcasters across the region. Despite serious issues virtually across the board, the brief argues that several state broadcasters are theoretically poised to provide relevant content to serve the public and foster dialogue and social cohesion.
This of course is true to varying degrees depending on the context examined. In the case of Libya, certainly the most volatile and divided of the four, the report concludes that an adequate restoration of state broadcasting is simply not viable at this time. It argues that in this case, out of country content targeting local audiences is the best option, citing El Kul (“For Everyone”) an initiative BBC Media Action set up that operates out of Tunis. “El Kul and other virtual public media programmes like it may be the only means of providing unbiased public service content that crosses social divides, aimed at all Libyans,” the brief states.
Conversely, to differing degrees the remaining three cases are presented as opportunities for reform based on existing structures operating within each country. While there are some similarities in terms of barriers to success across the three cases, most notably the need for broader institutional reform, factionalism and financial obstacles, each country has its own unique challenges as determined by societal composition, government structure, and the history and institutional size of their national broadcasters.
In Egypt, where the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) has approximately 40 000 employees and is plagued by issues of inefficiency, corruption and debt, the brief argues that improving the broadcaster’s effectiveness is inextricably linked to broader civil service reform. It argues that given the influence of social dramas on Egyptian society, the ERTU should focus efforts on improving production value of dramas to “enable the station to revive the social cohesion role it once played within Egyptian society.” It also calls on the ERTU to capitalize on its existing infrastructure to provide service tailored to audiences outside the capital, an idea for reform that has been championed by local media stakeholders. Two major obstacles highlighted by the brief surround questions of editorial independence and adequate regulation. Despite the fact that a media regulatory framework was included in the 2014 Constitution, including a call for the establishment of a Higher Regulatory Authority, little headway has been made in terms of putting these articles into action.
In many ways, the Lebanese case is markedly different. National broadcaster Télé Liban has faced challenges reflective of Lebanon’s unique demographic composition and government structure. Despite having a diverse media landscape, Lebanon too has had issues regulating both private and state broadcasting, where private interests and political and religious differences dominate content. In sharp contrast to the Egyptian case, Télé Liban is a very small operation, which according to the brief may help facilitate effective and efficient public service content reform. Still, it argues, any substantive change will require solid commitment from the state and more financial support.
The brief presents Tunisia as the case for greatest optimism in terms of the national broadcaster’s ability to shift towards better serving the public. It cites the 2013 establishment of the National Body for the Reform of Information and Communication (INRIC) and the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) as major strides. Still there have been issues in terms of independence and the ability for the new bodies to effectively enforce their enshrined values. Furthermore, Tunisia’s precarious economic situation is reflected in the financial instability of the national media.
Ultimately the brief offers eight recommendations for media reform. In sum they are:
1) Space must be given for a free, critical media that holds public officials to account.
2) The potential for national broadcasters to deliver public service values to the community should not be undervalued.
3) Delivering public service values should be the prerogative of all actors within a country’s media landscape, not just the national broadcaster.
4) Audiences must be consulted about their views and concerns to ensure they are adequately represented in national programming.
5) Youth audiences must be better represented.
6) All formats, not just news, should be included in efforts toward representation and inclusiveness.
7) Meaningful institutional reform is necessary for effective reform.
8) Any efforts at reform will be meaningless without a stable political environment to help facilitate effective implementation.
BBC Media Action’s look at national broadcasting in the Arab World since the uprisings offers useful analysis on the current media climate in the region, particularly within the four countries in focus. The case studies, while valuable in terms of showing the diversity of experience from context to context, highlight the challenges associated with setting out broad recommendations for the Arab World as a whole. The biggest regional influencers in the Gulf are only mentioned in passing, and the report seems to diminish their impact, arguing that political divisions have caused pan-Arab audiences to dwindle. Still, to understand the current media landscape in the region, it is critical to grasp the impact of content generated in the Gulf, given the fact that since the 90s, local broadcasters have scrambled to adapt their content to compete with this programming.
The focus on building off of existing infrastructure and generating local programming is of great value, particularly in the resource deficient contexts highlighted. However, with the emphasis on national broadcasters building community trust, the Libyan example is problematic, as the brief does not acknowledge the suspicion to “local” programming generated from outside a country’s borders that would almost inevitably emerge from segments of the target audience. If externally generated content is in fact the best that can be hoped for at this time, the limitations of such content should be more thoroughly addressed.
The report argues that since the uprisings, the Arab media environment has become pluralistic, which has “undeniably led to an improvement in freedom of expression.” It continues, “It has also simultaneously allowed the media to be increasingly co-opted in the service of narrow political interests.” Paradoxically, this line of argument may serve as justification for the crackdown on media outlets and journalists recently witnessed in several countries across the region.
Finally, while the recommendations offered are theoretically valuable, the feasibility of their actual implementation, at least in the shorter term, is questionable. This is particularly true for those recommendations calling for editorial independence, freedom of expression, and a stable political environment to facilitate the necessary institutional reform. The more palatable points such as catering content toward youth, consulting audiences to help ensure representation, and decentralization of programming, should be the types of initial steps taken in the effort to reform national broadcasting in the Arab region.
The full report can be accessed here.