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The Age of New Media: The Role of Al-Jazeera Satellite TV in Developing Aspects of Civil Society in Qatar

In 1995 censorship of the domestic press in Qatar was formally lifted. Since then, the press has been essentially free. Liberating the press from governmental interference, and permitting freedom of speech and public opinion through the media, especially radio and TV, have paved the road for a healthy civil society. Most notable of all was the unprecedented political initiative of founding the most popular Arabic language news and informational satellite channel al-Jazeera which went on air in 1997. It is the only independent satellite television news of its kind in the Arab world. Further, to ensure more free flow of information, the government dissolved the Ministry of Information and Culture in 1996. Thus with the rise of all these innovative developments the government manifested the fact that media are no longer confined to bureaucratic circles. Accordingly, a cable vision service was introduced for the purpose of providing people with more sources of information in a secured civil society in which people are entitled to have open access to information. This service has been divided into basic service and optional service. Ninety-three percent of Qatari people are subscribers to the basic service, and 74% subscribe to the optional service. Foreign subscribers to the basic service have reached up to 63%, while 45% are subscribers to the optional service (Al-Hail, Gulf Times, 29-30, 1997). This trend, though, has been criticized, because it reinforces the power of the government to censor through its gatekeeper which is QTEL. It has also been seen as contrary to the government's visible agenda of openness.

In 1996 Qatar entered the era of the Internet. At the time of writing there are 100,000 subscribers to Internet service. This figure includes Qatari individuals, foreign individuals, governmental subscription, private sector subscription and foreign embassies' subscription. Interestingly enough, females outnumber males in access to the Internet by nearly 2 to 1 (Al-Hail, Al-Quds al-Arabi, July 11, 1997). It is perhaps due in part to the popularity and dramatic spread of this service, especially among individuals, that the government decided in 1995 to lift censorship of the Qatari media. This action is based mainly on the premise that media are everywhere in our society. No longer constrained by geographical boundaries, technological limitations or the scarcity of radio frequencies, the new delivery systems of satellite, cable and video allow the universal, and virtually instantaneous, distribution of television and film productions. The only potential barriers left are those of state regulation, and even then it is unclear how they are going to stop (should they wish to) the bombardment from above (satellites) or from below (video piracy and smuggling). According to the author's research in 1995 there were 700 television sets for every 1000 people in the state of Qatar. Presumably, the number of TV sets has increased over the past several years for factors related to, mainly, development of media transmission and technology (Al-Hail, 1995).

These media developments were, on one hand, responding to the global revolution of information and media through microwave technology, while on the other gratifying people's needs for information. A civil society can not survive without knowledge and information, for which the media are the vehicles. Probably it was partly with this philosophy that the government of Qatar established the new channel al-Jazeera.

Aspects of the Role of New Media: A General Perspective 
In this high-tech era of satellite television and Internet nearly every child and adult in Qatar has access to satellite television (and Internet, to an extent), plus other forms of media. But it is believed that some of the channels available, especially commercial types, are diverting the consciousness of their viewers from the real challenges of modern life to what can only be described as immoral trash (cf. Aseery, 1992: 43; Al-Hail, Gulf Times, 1997). By the same argument, the American President Bill Clinton has recently urged teachers throughout the United States to raise their students' awareness to avoid "unuseful" materials from the media.

Why the Need for Al-Jazeera? 
In view of this, a question arises: what is the supposed role of the governmental official media in the Qatari society which is, of course different from al-Jazeera? Before addressing this question, it has to be made clear at the outset that, the implications of the answer to this critical question had shown the need for al-Jazeera, as a new "unofficial" style of televized media. Almost without exception, most Gulfian (my own term) countries place a special emphasis on the role of media in manifesting Islamic values and beliefs.

This role is consistently maintained when planning for programs in terms of content and most importantly in terms of schedules. The reason for this scheduling is that, regardless what is viewed on TV or transmitted on radio, playing the call to prayer and pausing five times a day every day for up to ten minutes characterizes Islamic TV and radio. Additionally, transmitting other Islamic worshipping activities such as Friday's speech and prayer, Ramadan's daily night prayer for the whole holy month of Ramadan and the annual hajj (pilgrimage) activities from Mecca are completely taken for granted as far as Islamic media are concerned. In societies such as Gulf states up to 40% - 50% (up to 60% in the case of Saudi Arabia) of daily TV programs are Islamically oriented. The percentage increases during the holy month of Ramadan, as the media in Islamic societies dedicates itself completely to Islamic programs. This includes live transmission of daily night prayer live from Mecca, which lasts up to one hour every night. The total air time filled with religious programming reaches an average of 80%.

The role of media in these societies is assumed to reflect peoples' interest in Islam and their needs for such programs, on one hand, while on the other it attempts to divert people from the external satellite channels which are perceived to feed very different ideas into the minds of the television audience in this part of the world. These programs are so widespread and so popular that they are assumed by the local programmers to carry out a "holocaust" against people's minds, young people in particular.

If one applies Herzog's theory of the 1940s and 1950s about the uses and gratifications of Western audiences in their perception of the media's output, one could say that the Islamic media "use" this particular role based on "satisfying the needs and gratifications" of the people in Herzog's terms. Herzog criticized those theories which implied that an audience is passive. She based her theory on the belief that an audience is selective and actively chooses those aspects of the media which might satisfy their needs. As a reference, research of university students in the Gulf states regarding the role of media, especially TV, concluded that for young women watch soap operas as relief from cultural crises arising from the difference between their own culture and other open societies. As for the young men, the culture leads them to feel loneliness and they find watching television alleviates this feeling of loneliness (Basher, 1984). This research started in 1984 and was updated until 1997. This indicates that the culture is not subject to a time factor. Therefore, the role of media serves their purposes in this respect. Interestingly, one western researcher (Howitt 1982) believes that western media help people "alleviate suffering" (p. 4). He refers to media entertainment which enables people to "drug" their stress. People in Islamic countries seek refuge in Islamic programs to eradicate their suffering from the hot climate and other types of strain. It is clear that the purpose is the same whereas the means are different.

However, the findings of my observation research are that Islamic programs, both those made for children and those for adults, are observed to be dull and uninteresting, and underestimate people's intellect and tend to inhibit their capacity for imagination. Besides, these programs are broadcast like Friday mosque sessions. The result of my observational research matches with the research work conducted on the university students. There is much interest in the religion of Islam, based on the moderate nature and flexible way of life of Islamic beliefs properly understood. Programs could be made entertaining, and it is up to the media in Islamic countries to educate people to realize that the images they see on television are not always correct. Many people blame the West for stereotyping Islam, but the biggest offenders are the Islamic channels. For instance, the media play a negative role regarding the importance of women in Islamic societies. This is against the view of Islam about women, because in the early days of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) women were held in the highest respect. The prophet's wife Khadija was one of his staunchest allies, was involved in his everyday life, and stood by him until she passed away. If this is recognized in the origins of Islam, why then do media in Islamic countries underestimate the importance of women in relation to religious and life affairs?

The media in Islamic countries also alienates well-educated viewers, since the majority of programs are either Islamically oriented or sports, soccer in particular, while other types of programs are neglected. One reason for this could be the assumption that the well-educated viewers are more independent concerning their sources for information and entertainment. This diagnosis of the official media introduced an urgency for an independent satellite TV channel that would reflect the needs of all sections within the society.

The Emergence of Al-Jazeera 
In spite of the political and cultural controversy that has surrounded al-Jazeera since its emergence in 1997, it has to be said that al-Jazeera shifted the visual media in the Arab world into a new era. Although some Arab states and a number of Arab journalists questioned its role and "presumed hidden agenda" in serving communicational purposes of "American globalization," its popularity among Arabs both in the Arab world and elsewhere appears to be increasing. It is claimed that 70% of Arabs with satellite TV rely on Al-Jazeera for news, documentaries and politically related programs (interview with al-Jazeera's general manager, 1999). The interpretation for this point could be that while Al-Jazeera's popularity reflects the thirst of Arabs for impartial information from which they are deprived through their regimes' media, and also reflects the eagerness of Arabs to eradicate traditional forms of censored media output, an eagerness which is tremendously civilized and highly human.

The Role of Al-Jazeera in Developing a Civil Society in Qatar 
Although al-Jazeera focuses on major Qatari issues from an official view and tends to neglect other Qatari domestic issues of significant importance to the ordinary Qatari citizen, it has influenced certain sectors of the society--through its revolutionary challenge to some taboo subjects--into founding aspects of civic activity, that in turn may lead to civil society in Qatar.

This is exemplified by the turnout of Qatari women at the 1998 municipal election and the decision by some leading Qatari women to run for office. According to the Minister of Foreign Office, 47% of Qatari women voted in recent elections (Al-Sharq newspaper, 12/29/1998). He described this event as an indicator of rising feminist consciousness.

The analysis for this is that the fundamental precondition for the success of a creative work is the degree of freedom it has in its possession. This notion of relatively free media behind al-Jazeera enables certain programs to perform to a greater degree as the "mirror" of society. An example is the role of al-Jazeera in addressing questions about secularism and Islam, an issue which so many Arab media avoid because of the damage it would cause to traditional notions of reputation and pride. However, certain Arab and domestic writers disagree with some of what is presented by al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera can play, under some circumstances, the role of "distorting mirrors"; the news can be selective, subjective and it focuses on some issues and neglect others.

This could be analyzed on one hand, within the nature of human being as never satisfied. If an individual lives in another country his view will probably be different, as human beings take what they always have for granted. On the other hand it may well be analyzed within the freedom of speech and the right to criticize, of which many nations in the Arab world are deprived. From the perspective of a comparative observation, the role of al-Jazeera in education, information and entertainment could well be seen as impartial realistic and informative rather than being manipulative, as is the case to varying degrees in other Arabic media.

As an example, al-Jazeera reported the banning of two Muslim girls from a school in France for wearing the veil from the perspective that the ban contradicts basic human rights which a reasonable society holds extremely high. Another example is related to the media's role of entertainment. Al-Jazeera does not seem to--with limited exceptions--focus on the notion of entertainment for its own sake, simply because it is a total waste of time providing the limited life people have. For example, the very popular program "Clothes Show" reinforces what people already know about fabrics and design; it makes people react with it and learn from it. It is very socially educating to a certain segment of audience. This concern of the role of media about educating and informing the public owes its roots to the rise of American styled TV in Dahran, in the eastern province in Saudi Arabia, in the early 1960s. Historically, the media was accused of creating "moral panic" in Qatar. Therefore, educators and others urgently called on the government to protect Islamic educational values, wanting Qatari children and youth to learn at school the negative side of the entertainment industry of Hollywood, which can be contrary to the Islamic beliefs. This understanding could be interpreted within the commercialization which characterizes the most popular American media. This orientation has also been imitated by al-Jazeera, which goes against a large section of Qatari society.

Recommendations for further research and policy development 
Great stress must be placed on carrying out further research into comparative cultural areas of study between Islamic culture and Western culture. Although there are many forms of material cooperation between Islamic and Western countries, there are too few cultural attempts on both sides to understand each other's culture, an issue which has often been subjected to emotions and moral judgement.

Gulf countries' media should carry out frequent audience research to make sure that its programs meet the needs of all sections of society. This procedure would contribute to minimizing the phenomenon of alienation certain groups, such as the well educated and women, face.

Islamically oriented programs should be produced and presented on TV according to modern techniques of television. Cartoons and other programs children enjoy should be used in teaching them about Islam in its context to the living world.

Islamic media should promote the role of women in Islamic oriented programs as well as other types of programs. The media should also stop portraying women as merely domesticated and highlight their image as a well educated sector of the society, working as civil servants, and so on.

Further research by PhD students from Islamic countries studying at Western universities should include conducting cultural comparative research between their countries and the West by the use of qualitative methodologies, especially the method of interviewing. This strategy of research is more appropriate in social sciences for obtaining first-hand knowledge in the area under examination. From experience, this approach helps to narrow the cultural gap between the Muslim researcher and his/her interviewees and vice versa.

As one area of comparative cultural research, further research is needed into the role of mass media, rather than giving in to rhetoric and assertion without providing evidence into their claimed effects.

The media's institutions in Gulf states should adopt practical methods to content-analyse exported media's products, not for the sake of protection as much as for the sake of being aware of the contents of these products. They should subsidise, support and sponsor the ideas of Gulfian actors and actresses to produce indigenous productions of media that reflect the Gulfian, Islamic and Arabic culture and make these forms of production exportable to the West.

The educational authorities and the mass media agencies in Gulf states need to accept the urgency of introducing media studies into schools. Media institutions should also support attempts to introduce media education into schools as a means of enabling people of the Gulf from early age to become critical producers of their own media texts.

These suggestions could be carried out through subsidy of production, subsidy of distribution and subsidy of training. The media institutions should carry out frequent audience research to keep in touch with their audiences' response to what they do.

Educational organizations may pave the way for such a program of teaching media education and media studies by publishing teaching materials which could be stimulating to teachers of these subjects. These materials should be made pertinent to their concerns and ideas that they may want to teach about, as well as providing them with something new and up-to-date. These materials should be about ways of studying images, or studying television programs, or studying the aesthetic values of the cinema. Such publications could be potentially useful in establishing a starting basis. It could assist with creating an enthusiasm and an interest among teachers.

The Gulfian educational policy makers should realize that the principles of media education are similar to those grounded in the Holy Quran--namely, the urgency to motivate people to become conscientious and critical of what they watch, read and listen to. Hence, they should consider introducing media education into schools.

Further research is needed in relation to narrowing the gender inequalities in both Islamic and Western cultures because of cultural misunderstanding and stereotyping on both sides. Therefore, further research is required into the capability of media studies to further this goal.

The policy makers in the Gulf should acknowledge the fact that only through education can they enable people to grasp a conscientious awareness of the mechanisms and technology by which media's discourses are produced. Regardless of the high cost which training teachers of media studies could entail, the Gulfian policy makers should consider the long-term outcomes of such an investment.

One could say that Al-Jazeera has clearly contributed to civil society in Qatar in the sphere of raising women's awareness of their role within the society. This has been manifested in the Qatari women's participation in the 1998 municipal election. Al-Jazeera has also boosted the demands of the domestic press for more freedom of expression. Needless to say it was al-Jazeera which gave justification for the lifting of censorship from the press. Finally, al-Jazeera has had its main social impact by making Arabs talk about it and by creating moral panics about its observed effects.

About Ali Al-Hail

Ali Al-Hail has taught Mass Communications at Qatar University and elsewhere in the United States, Europe, and the Arab World. He is a consultant to Qatar Radio & TV Corporation.

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