New media and social change in the Arab and Muslim world

On 16 June, 2008, the Centre for Arab and Muslim Media Research (CAMMRO) held its fouth annual conference at the King’s College in London. This year’s topic was “New Media and Social Change in the Arab and Muslim World”. The rather crowded schedule of the one-day event featured 15 speakers and five moderators who mirrored the diversity of the Arab and Muslim landscape. The crowd represented some Western research efforts as well.

What became very clear during the day is how deeply the emergent transnational satellite television channels (most notably Al Jazeera and Al Arabia) and the Internet affect politics, the public sphere, and the daily lives of the peoples concerned.

This is, as Daniela Conte from the Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca, Italy, pointed out, a mostly unintentional result of the technological modernisation. Keeping up or catching up, respectively, with world standards of communication infrastructure, the Arab and Muslim nations could not help but at the same time create opportunities for the distribution and exchange of news and opinion that did not exist before.

According to Conte, satellite TV in particular brought entirely new properties to the Arab media world:

  • Diffusion: A broad choice of content independent of state borders and cultural differences;
  • Connection: An opportunity for mutual exchange between the Arab and Muslim peoples and individuals;
  • Immediacy: A new framework for following and understanding current developments;
  • Outlook: Regular reporting on events taking place in the rest of the world;
  • Inclusion: The sat channels were among the first media to take women and young people seriously as a target audience.

All this could, indeed, be a major step towards a transnational Arab public sphere. Keeping in mind, of course, that today, there remain deep dividing lines throughout the region – despite the tendency of the West to regard it as one entity. The countries are very diverse in terms of development, governance, rule of law, religious practice, and economy.

However, being commercial enterprises, Arab satellite broadcasters do not have an intrinsic interest in politics and the development of societies. Rather, they follow the same rationale as their Western counterparts: Build and retain an audience that can be turned into advertising revenue. To this end, they cover political events quite superficially, as Deena Dajani from Longborough University, UK, demonstrated in her analysis of how the 2007 Jordanian elections played on transnational TV. Other favourite subjects seem to be accidents and general human-interest topics.

But viewer retention is also achieved through audience participation, Conte added: Viewers calling in or sending text messages to be displayed on the screen. Again, while this practice is used primarily in the context of entertainment shows (as in the West), it still opens up an entirely new line of communication. In the long run, this might give many more people than before the opportunity to make their voices heard even on political matters.

Abeer Mishkhas, editor of the London-based pan-arabic daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat and columnist for The Guardian, and Seham Nassar from the Modern University for Technology and Information in Cairo, illustrated the fundamental change process triggered off by the new media with examples from Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, lived in a very secluded, self-sufficient isolation until about a decade ago. Media freedom was virtually non-existent, since journalists and citizens alike readily censored themselves for fear of being formally punished or being shunned by society. Many political disagreements and social conflicts were not officially known to the public at large. Since then, the Saudis have discovered through the satellite channels and the Internet that there is, indeed, many a cause for debate inside their own country. At the same time, they started to become visibly interested in the world outside Saudi Arabia and in the feedback on Saudi politics and image from abroad.

Mishkhas confirmed that government censorship is still in place. But the government ever so slowly starts to relent its grip on the Internet. Censors have realised hackers are bypassing the official firewalls. Filters are becoming more and more futile. In parallel, a Saudi blogosphere has emerged, where people use pseudonyms and spoofing tactics in order to express their opinion without fear of prosecution. Once again, technological innovation has unleashed a process that can not easily – if at all – be stopped or turned around.

In Egypt, bloggers have so far gained even more influence than in Saudi Arabia, as Nassar stated. Blogs about politics, human rights and society are quite popular, and some have even managed to seep through into the official culture. Nassar quoted an example where blogs uncovered police torture and created a public scandal, and referred to another very popular weblog by a woman asserting her right to choose a husband by herself. The weblog has in the meantime been published as a book.

In response to developments such as these, the Arab League, an official organisation of 22 countries in the region, has actually launched their own youth bloggers and youth journalists networks.

Other noteworthy presentations included one by the former Royal Navy spokesman in Iraq, Steve Tatham, now with the Defence Academy of the UK. He demonstrated how terrorist groups have brushed up on their new media communication and PR techniques as well, thus ever more professionally and systematically taking advantage of the opportunities presented by television and online. He criticised that the US and British military have so far failed to come up with a convincing counter strategy to these activities.

Leon Barko from Jönköping University, Sweden, discussed how Al Jazeera, CNN and the BBC use specific glossaries to frame news from the Arab and Muslim world – depending on their respective points of view or the target audiences of their broadcasts. He said that in the case of Al Jazeera, the exact wording for the same news items in Arabic and English broadcasts differs significantly.

And Miriyam Aouragh from the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, The Netherlands, showed how the use of fixed network and mobile phones and the Internet mushroomed in the Palestinian Territories after the Palestinian National Authority took over control of telecommunications infrastructures from Israel. Often using only makeshift technology, Palestinians took the opportunity to re-connect the territories with refugee camps abroad and the outside world.

Judging from what was discussed at the CAMMRO conference, the process of media-induced change in the Arab countries has only just begun, but will ultimately turn out to be unstoppable even by the most traditional governments and the most closed societies.

This process is very likely to give increasingly more power to the individual citizen, including women, and will at the same time create more cohesion and commonality between the peoples and countries of the region, as well as generate new ties between Arabia and the rest of the world, in particular Europe, Russia, and China.

However, that does not necessarily mean that the Arab nations are now on the fast track to European-style democratisation and open societies. Rather, they may be on the way to modernise their own traditions, however difficult and painful that might turn out to be in any given case.