Don’t Turn That Dial

The media scene in the Middle East and North Africa is complex and shows the push and pull of new and old ideas. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions much attention was brought to new media outlets such as Facebook and the blogosphere. However, television still maintains its primacy as people’s primary method of media intake. Satellite television has opened up a whole new range of stations and ideas, of which Al Jazeera is only the most prominent example. Local stations are also heavily influential. Still, the push and pull of censorship remains and, in some cases, may be expanded. Revolutionary countries have not yet let go of state run media and many, while abandoning the editorial line of the prior regime, still act as something of a propaganda tool for the new governments.

There is no question that social media has provided a new and vibrant method for sharing information for a wide swath of Arab society. One study showed that nearly nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians were using social media tools to help organize protests (although this was a small sample of only 200). While there is little debate as to whether these new forms of media played a role in revolutionary movements, there is much debate as to how much of a role should be ascribed to them. Egypt, for example, managed to continue its protests through an internet blackout. Sidi Bouzid, where the Tunisian protests began, is a farming town with relatively low internet penetration. Libya was significantly more restricted in its internet access than either Tunisia or Egypt. One must be cautious of putting too much stock in the relevancy of the internet and new media in countries and regions that do not see the same level of internet penetration as more developed countries. Regardless, the advent of social media has opened a new forum for the flow of ideas in the region.

Television, on the other hand, remains of primary importance. Satellite television has made it increasingly difficult for censorship and control of the airways to be effective. During the Libyan revolution Qathafi used the state-run media outlet Al Jamahiriya to show images of his ‘adoring supporters.’ Meanwhile, home viewers were treated to images and reports on the protestors trampling on Qathafi’s face and throwing shoes at the giant screens carrying his image. The major satellite providers for news are Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC Arabic, and Al Hurra.  

Al Jazeera in particular occupies a preeminent position across the region. While the Qatari-owned station might avoid discussing Qatar, it has proven to be one of the most open stations from the region, earning the ire of both regional leaders and the United States (although US enmity appears to have waned somewhat in recent years). Viewership during the Arab Spring skyrocketed. In the first two days of the Egyptian revolution livestream internet viewers of Al Jazeera increased 2,500 percent to 4 million viewers, viewership over the airwaves was likely even higher.  Al Jazeera has earned its reputation for reliability by being the first Arab station to host an Israeli official and airing guests such as dissidents, feminists, and Islamists. The main questions that arise when discussing Al Jazeera center on whether it is sympathetic to Islamist parties, whether or not it targets particular Middle Eastern regimes, and what role the Qatari state plays in its organization and methodology. While it is unlikely these questions will have a definitive answer anytime soon, the network remains possibly the most influential on the block.

Even with satellite television and internet, censorship remains a problem throughout the region. Even Al Jazeera’s Qatari connection is questioned, as mentioned above. While there was initially great hope that revolutions would have changed the game regarding the flow of information, this has not proven to be the case. Egypt, for example, is still known to arrest journalists covering demonstrations. The leadership of Al Ahram, Egypt’s leading daily, has been assigned in much the same manner as under Mubarak, with the only major difference being the Brotherhood is in charge now, resulting in little change in terms of freedom of expression.

Tunisia has also had problems. Nessma television was fined in 2012 for airing a film about the Iranian revolution, Persepolis, which includes a scene in which Allah is animated. Nessma was fined $1700 for “broadcasting a film that disturbs public order and threatens proper morals.” Vigilante justice is a concern as well. Going back to Nessma, their fine was imposed after over 300 protestors attacked the studio, attempting to set it on fire, and Nebil Karoui, the head of the station, came under siege in his own house by around one hundred protestors – the government’s response was the issuance of a call to “respect sacred things.” Clearly, the freedom of the arts is, for the moment, playing second fiddle to perceived Islamic values.

Indeed, media in the Middle East and North Africa post Arab Spring shows much continuity with what came before. Censorship is still viewed as an acceptable tool by the leadership. However, given the presence of satellites capable of receiving content beyond the control of a single state censor, people are still able to receive information that is, if not censor-free, at least censored by a different body. Social media is opening up new avenues for dissemination of information, but it is unclear yet what long-term effects this will have. Put simply, states that have not undergone change have hardly changed their media policy and those that have undergone revolutions have not overturned the apple cart either.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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