The Arab Media: In Transition Or In Crisis?

  • 7 July 2014

A decade ago, the status of the Arab media was diagnosed in a report based on a six-month workshop series organized by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in March 2004 to analyze the role of the Arab Media in shaping the information environment.

With a broad definition of the Arab media that includes all media written or produced in the Arabic language with the print remaining influential throughout the Arab World attracting opinion-makers readership. Already at this early stage, the report acknowledged the dynamic media transition underway in the Arab world. However and with due consideration to the context of the media, the report added

Reform in the media will happen as a process… and within the tradition of government control, it will not occur easily… Arab Media should focus on local concerns…Arab governments have never allowed their respective media to evaluate critically national domestic policies or those of friendly other Arab governments.

This said, the report highlighted the King of Jordan wanting credibility, ‘but bureaucrats and practitioners are not willing to change their familiar “safe” practices.’ This perception of King Abdullah II is well justified given in the following years to USIP’s report, while some statesmen in the region implicitly attempted to thwart genuine and solid political reforms and tried to sabotage the Arab Awakening. Jordan’s Monarch underscored intolerance to having already-undertaken and ongoing reforms in Jordan obstructed and exhibited unwavering and vigorous resolve to avert what might threaten the enhancement of national interests.

The Arab media actors had its share in being criticized in this report for lack of professionalism – accountability regarding objectivity and fourth estate responsibilities to the public – in addition to its heavily entertainment- orientation.

The early signalling of what later came to be known as the Arab Spring and the possible role of the Arab media was evident with the report stating

But something fundamentally new is emerging in Arab politics…it seems to have something to do with awakening of the Arab public to its own power. Could it be that Arab media, for all their warts, have played a part in that awakening?

While attending to the ongoing changes in the Arab World and the contextual changes which will facilitate the Arab media to shoulder adequately its colossal responsibilities of the Arab media, the report concluded

Only the media can provide a reflection of their public’s values, which once recognized could empower citizens to claim their rights and obligations…regime transition is occurring in the region… until political reform toward classical liberal values occurs in the region, the media will never become an objective fourth estate to ensure good governance.

With the emerging fundamental developments further escalated in the Arab world, Safaa Azab (Asharq Alawsat, 8/5/2013) revisited the Arab media in a time of crisis. With a genuine attempt to detect if the Arab media is part of the crisis management, Azab not only perceived the disappointing role of the Arab media but equally suggested solutions. Azab noted

When Arab media outlets report news of a certain crisis in a dramatic way without investigating the facts, this may contribute to escalating the crisis, while also stirring the emotions of the masses. In order for the Arab media to effectively contribute to crisis management, there must be ongoing interaction between officials and media outlets…the Arab media outlets…are full of repetitive and contradictory news items…Yet, we must also highlight that there are some serious and positive Arab news outlets that work to uncover the facts and serve the public interest. These outlets, however, are at the risk of being overwhelmed by the increasing number of media outlets whose sole aim is to stir public emotions.

Whilst inquiring whether the fabricated new outlets replaced the enlightening, educational and developmental role of the Arab media. Azab highlighted the need for ‘a media that supports the truth and the promise of a brighter and better tomorrow, rather than despair and frustration.’

In clear controversy with the existing phenomenon of most of written publications’ disinclination to criticize or analyze the role of the media, the often highly defensive attitude of the most critical journals and if this happens, they are not sufficiently holistic and do not touch upon the very role of the media within one’s own society as underlined by Peter Watkins (2007). During a lecture recently delivered at the Arab Thought Forum in Amman, Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, Director-General of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), was vocal about the poor status of the Arab media especially in its relation to culture. Further with due thoughtfulness to the significance of the Arab media and its strong link to culture given media exists in a cultural context as highlighted in the above-mentioned USIP report. ECSSR launched a first-of-its-kind event in the Arab world in cooperation with the Arab TV Producers’ Union. During December 15-18, 2014, the event – ‘The First Arab Culture Forum’ – will gather under one umbrella personalities belonging to creative, cultural and intellectual fields who will address issues related to thought, culture and media in the Arab world and give them a wider perspective.

In the light of the above-mentioned, the Arab media, like the accompanying political factors that shape the media context, in addition to the deteriorating Arab culture as highlighted by General Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan Crown Prince of Dubai (ECSSR, 2014), is both in transition and in crisis. And events similar to the one adopted by ECSSR and Arab media evaluation by a media forum like Alarab Alyawm are crucial guarantees to secure a safe transition for both the media and for its political and cultural contexts. Such brave endeavors remain the only assurance for the Arab media to move from being in crisis, if not instigator of crises, towards becoming equal partner in not only successfully managing the crisis in the Arab world. But equally consolidating the Arab Awakening while equipped with the required professionalism, and guided, responsible and foremost ethical liberty and freedom of expression.