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Transnational Media and Regionalism

The Arab League's headquarters in Cairo lie just a few hundred meters away from the city's statue of Simon Bolivar. The two represent monuments to desires for regional autonomy and unity—desires that time has proved easier to conceptualize than to implement.

Yet a half century after the founding of the Arab League and a century and a half after Bolivar's efforts to unite the newly independent states of Latin America, transnational media are doing what statesmen and warriors have been unable to do. Building on common language and common heritage, the people of both regions are beginning to come together in ways that would have seemed wildly utopian only ten years ago.

The challenge will be how the governments of the two regions respond. The rewards for creating durable regional ties are great, and the costs of regional atomization are likely to increase over time.

The parallels between the unification processes in the Middle East and Latin America are striking. In both cases there is a linguistic unity across a wide geographic area, and political borders which divide that area. In both cases, as well, major regional powers do not share in the linguistic continuum, and exclusion from that continuum poses a challenge to them. Finally, in both cases regional broadcasters have emerged in the last decade. Based mainly in London for the Arab market and Miami for the Latin American, these broadcasters have capitalized on advances in technology to create a regional media market where none had existed before.

The creation of a regional media market is notable for several reasons. The first is that it is, in fact, a market. Relying on supply and demand, programming does not simply meet the needs of government broadcasters, but rather actively seeks viewers who enjoy a variety of news and entertainment options. The consequence is an enormous empowerment of the viewership and a dramatic improvement in viewer satisfaction with programming.

The second is that regional markets are, in fact, regional. To a great degree, identical programming can be seen throughout the region. While market-driven programmers direct their broadcasts primarily to groups with high value to advertisers in the Arab world—generally wealthy Gulf Arabs—programming itself affects many throughout the region who may not fit the targeted socioeconomic profile of each station.

Finally, regional broadcasting has created regional news organizations which far surpass—both in terms of covering news and delivering it to recipients—what had existed heretofore. Many of these news organizations are headquartered outside the region, which gives them a degree of independence unprecedented in many countries. The consequence is the emergence of a press corps which is both independent of the agenda of an individual country and one which seeks an audience which transcends national borders.

The potential results of the regional media market described above are not hard to imagine. In his insightful book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson makes a persuasive case that two factors controlled the development of national consciousness in state after state in Reformation Europe: commerce and linguistic unity. As printers sought to expand their markets beyond small numbers of Latin-literate elites, they increased their printing in vernacular languages (Luther's Theses drove much of the vernacular printing in Germany for decades). In so doing, they created communities of essentially monolingual people who spoke and wrote in similar languages, but whose communications were largely unintelligible to those from outside the region.(1) These communities drew together to form modern nation-states like Germany, France and Italy.

In the Middle East and Latin America, the advent of print occurred after colonial powers had begun to lay down borders. Napoleon brought movable Arabic type to the region as part of his colonial project in Egypt at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and mass printing remained mainly the province of central governments—ones constructed along the lines of Western states—for most of the next hundred years. As a consequence, Arabic printing tended to reinforce barriers between Arabic speakers rather than elide them. Over the years, strong state institutions arose which tended to reinforce the separation between the nascent states of the region. One of those institutions was the state censor, which helped promote the development of a national identity in much the same way that linguistic unity in Europe led to the perception of national identity.

Transnational media, however, alter this equation fundamentally. What is most apparent about the new technology—print, satellite and internet—is that it facilitates the transmission of information independent of distance. Whereas national difference could be maintained in the twentieth century because geography combined with governmental efforts to create distinct markets for information, information transcends those obstacles to create something much more closely resembling a single market. If the European Union's drift toward unity despite national and linguistic difference is any guide, the political consequences may be dramatic.

There is an additional point about the context which also deserves mention. The technological revolution is beginning to refashion the nature of the nation-state around the world. Concurrently (and only partly as a consequence of technological change), European integration is also beginning to tread on traditional notions of nations and nationalism. Where these changes will lead is unclear. But in a world which increasingly relies on regional groupings rather than national ones, and in which governments increasingly cede initiative to non-state actors, the Arab world and Latin America are unusually well-positioned to facilitate the development of productive relationships which transcend the borders of an individual state.

The opportunities posed by the changes underway are not without their pitfalls, however. States in both regions have traditionally been jealous of power, especially on domestic matters.(2) Non-state actors in both regions—drug lords in Latin America and Islamists in the Arab world—have threatened and to a degree co-opted some regimes, slackening enthusiasm for more laissez-faire state roles. In addition, regional economic development has been uneven, and industrialization in particular has lagged behind other areas of the world. Commodity trading—whether in petroleum or agricultural products—cannot form the basis for long-range economic growth. As markets continue to evolve, benefits will increasingly accrue to traders and marketers: those who create and exploit information. The mere production of a commodity will decline in value, especially as more producers come on line and create a more competitive market for sellers.

In this challenge lies the promise for both regions. Because the people of each region understand their own region well, they have an advantage in information over global competitors. Torpid economic activity in the region, however, decreases the value of that information, as do state barriers which restrict the flows of goods, capital, and the information itself.

Previous enthusiasm about regional unity has always proven to be misplaced. In the Arab world in particular, intraregional trade has remained anemic despite numerous regional organizations and decades of honeyed words about the importance of Arab unity. Despite their rhetoric, states have often dashed the very hopes for regional unity that they have purported to espouse.

Over the last few years, transnational communication has been creating regional markets and regional identities which exceed the dreams of the most optimistic regionalists of the past two centuries. Latin America and the Arab world are uniquely poised to capitalize on the changes underway because of bonds of language and culture which make regionalism fit rather more comfortably than in other regions of the world. What makes for unity among people, however, does not necessarily make for unity among governments. In order to profit from the changes underway, the governments of Latin America and the Arab world will have to redefine their relationships to their people and among themselves, and do so with relative speed. Such a fundamental change in governance is perhaps the greatest challenge of all, and one which too often has been missing from current discussions.

About Jon Alterman

Jon Alterman is Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is author of New Media: New Politics: From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World.

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