#07 transition
Stefanie Groth

Revolution is Good for Business – How the Arab Upheavals Shape the Regional Media Landscape

The current developments in Middle Eastern politics and societies do not leave the media market unaffected. The ongoing changes not only are mediated through mainstream media and aided by new channels of communication, such as social networks or citizen journalism.

Moreover, they seem to have a considerable impact on the Arab media landscape. As Muhammad Ayish put it: "2011 will go down in history not only as a year of dramatic political upheavals, but of deep media transition as well."[1]

The Arab media market, indeed, receives more and more attention from both public service broadcasters and commercial media conglomerates. While the former expand their programming, the latter launch new Satellite TV channels. The regional audience of Arabic native speakers seems to be increasingly conceived as an internationally and politically decisive public.

However, considering the time of historical changes we are facing in the Middle East, the opportunity – and necessity – for a reform of former state controlled media unfolds. As history proves, seminal societal changes need to be institutionalised in form of a constitution, a legal system, and within the media. Therefore, the rebuilding of former state media and the development of new national structures and guidelines which reflect and maintain freedom of opinion, of speech and of the press, seem to be constitutive and necessary steps, if the political and societal transition should be profound and sustainable. Accordingly, the most interesting developments in the region rather appear to emanate from national media developments than from transnational ones.

Ayish's quote above indicates that the ongoing developments in the Middle East touch upon the question of how media and transition relate to each other and what role communication might play for development in the region.

Early works on communication and development, such as from Schramm (1964) assumed that free access to communication and information will lead to social and economic development, which seems rather simplistic. A more cohesive concept of how modern communication may contribute towards modernisation comes from Lerner (1963) who had conducted empirical research in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and supposed that in the long-run it would "socialise people into wanting more out of life by extending their horizons."[2]

The Arab media landscape since the 1990s

Clearly, the media landscape in the Middle East saw some significant developments over the last two decades. Since the early 1990s, forces of globalisation, namely the advent of satellite TV and the Internet, effectively changed the media landscape in the Middle East, allowing for circumventing authoritarian censorship, although limited to those with access.[3]

Satellite broadcasting's high potential in the Middle East lies in its ability to bypass the "two key barriers of illiteracy and government control"iv, according to Rugh. Sreberny even argues for a predisposition of the Middle East for home-based entertainment, as "patriarchal culture remains dominant, supported by religious values, and [...] an often intense masculinisation of public space."v In a region where terrestrial broadcasting stations are normally state media, transnational media channels are an alternative, uncensored source of information.

Satellite broadcasting's high potential in the Middle East lies in its ability to bypass the "two key barriers of illiteracy and government control"[4], according to Rugh. Sreberny even argues for a predisposition of the Middle East for home-based entertainment, as "patriarchal culture remains dominant, supported by religious values, and [...] an often intense masculinisation of public space."[5] In a region where terrestrial broadcasting stations are normally state media, transnational media channels are an alternative, uncensored source of information.

However, as Hafez put it aptly "the question remains, (...) whether new access to external media and the widening of media horizons is sufficient to generate political and social changes in the Arab world and the Middle East?"[6] Against the background of the Arab upheavals in 2011 it seems nearby to answer this question with 'yes'. Yet, (social) media may well aid protests, but not trigger them.

The myth of a 'Facebook Revolution'

History has taught us several times that processes of societal and political transition are protracted ones, in which media may play a central part. For example regarding the fall of European communism where transnational broadcasting contributed to the erosion of communist regimes (Sparks 2000). Or in the Iranian Revolution 1979 where audiocassettes and leaflets opened a political public space not available under the repressive regime (Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi 1994). Accordingly, the Arab media landscape saw changes long before the current developments could have been anticipated.

Thus, retaining historical context seems essential when trying to grasp the current developments in the Middle East. The enthusiastic framing of the Arab Uprisings as 'Facebook Revolution' indicates how transnational processes tend to be overestimated as implicit for development while national processes are neglected. Despite the impact of social media networks as organisational tools during these upheavals, there seems to be a critical tendency to exaggerate their role in the current developments.

The 'Facebook Revolution' argument, I would argue, derives from a prevalent globalisation discourse that tends to link any political or societal change to modernisation processes. Perceiving social media merely through this analytical framework is problematic. It suggests that the transition from traditional to modern forms of society is conditioned by industrialisation, which eventually will be accompanied by democratisation and secularisation. However, this model of interdependent modernisation processes, in which one step automatically leads to the other is historically and culturally specific to the experience of Western nation-states and therefore, cannot simply be translated into different cultural contexts. Thus, it is likely to misconceive the complexity of recent changes in the Middle East.

With these theoretical thoughts in mind, how does the interplay of transnational and national media developments in the Middle East look like and how are they shaped by the Arab upheavals?

Arab TV news – a market in shake-up

For a long time the two satellite channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabyia have dominantly defined the market for Arab TV news. However, competition seems to arise from several sides.

One person that seeks to enter the Arab media landscape is the Saudi-Arabian investor and billionaire Prince Waleed bin Talal Al Saud, member of the Saudi royal family. In September 2011[7] he announced the foundation of the satellite news channel Alarab for the year 2012 as an independent company of the Rotana Media Group and the Kingdom Holding Company. As Waleed himself holds the ownership of both, in fact, Alarab would be his private corporation. The international 24-hour news channel, supported by the news service of Bloomberg LP, seeks to address the Arabic native speaking audience and aims to cover current developments worldwide, with a special focus on political, societal and economic topics in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. Yet, if Alarab will go on air in 2012 remains to be seen.

Waleed had already announced the foundation of a news channel of similar conception back in July 2010, at that time in cooperation with Rupert Murdoch's Fox News.[8] Although these plans were denied later[9] Alarab is unlikely to turn out as a missed opportunity for Murdoch's media empire, since Murdoch and Waleed are connected closely through long lasting business relations: Not only is Murdoch's News Corp. the second largest shareholder in Waleed's Rotana Media Group. In addition, the British Pay-TV channel Sky News Broadcasting pursues similar plans to win over the worldwide target group of 300 millions Arabic native speakers: Sky News Arabia[10] according to the channels' webpage shall become the Arabic voice for independent and innovative journalism and shall go on air from Abu Dhabi in spring 2012.[11] It comes as no surprise that Waleed, being the second largest shareholder in News Corp. that holds 39% in Sky News Broadcasting, is equally obtaining a share in Sky News Arabia due to this.

As it is the case with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, Waleeds' planned Alarab, too, has close connections to Arab dynasties, Saudi-Arabia in particular. Sky News Arabia again is associated with the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Group, a corporation of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Although such close connections need to be questioned critically, they must not necessarily form an obstacle for unbiased, investigative journalism and editorial liberty. At least not as long as one avoids the critique of one's own patron, as was shown by the development and news coverage of Al Jazeera during the last years.[12]

Al Jazeera enjoys high credibility in the Arab region and among diasporic communities abroad.[13] Its role as an independent source of information and space for political and societal debate in and about the Arab world can barely be overestimated. Yet, a certain political bias in their coverage cannot be precluded. Following the general critique brought forward[14] Al Jazeera is seen as increasingly biased over time, especially over the course of the 'Arab Spring' in which it took, more or less openly, a political position with its coverage of the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Waleed is keen to allay similar concerns with regard to Alarab early on. In an interview with the Saudi-Arabian newspaper Al Hayat, he declared that Alarab will not take instructions from the Saudi-Arabian information ministry. However, he also said that he will pay the broadcasting fees due for the next ten years on his own[15], which seems to be rather ominous than enhancing his credibility in any form.

Another significant question, aside of the manorial connections of the satellite news channels, is whether and to what extent the influence of the Western media conglomerates Bloomberg and Sky News will have an impact on the way the new satellite TV news channels are going to report. To stand out they would not only have to differentiate themselves from well established sources as Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic, but aim for an editorial independency of their established Western media partners, too. It remains to be seen if journalism in a 'Murdoch-format' will appeal to the Arab public and if the new satellite channels will be able to gain ground on a rather saturated pan-Arab media market.

That great importance is attached to the Arab media market is also indicated in the way public service broadcasters are maintaining and expanding their programming dedicated to this regional audience. For example, the Arabic language service of the BBC will not only be omitted from the massive cuts that the corporation is going to carry out within the next years, but additional resources will be provided for it as well.[16] Likewise, the answer to the regional developments in 2011 of the German foreign broadcasting channel Deutsche Welle was an extension of its TV services in Arabic language, aiming at an increased focus on dialogue in times of change.[17]

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has expanded its own programme services to attract new audiences. Since November 2011, Al Jazeera Balkans[18] broadcasts from Sarajevo. It seems as if Al Jazeera knows well how to maintain its position as a significant player on the international news media market. However, an interesting point is, whether the recent change of management will have an impact on its news coverage. After eight years, director Wadah Khanfar resigned from his position in September 2011, facing fierce criticism, including the accusation that Al Jazeera has faked footage of demonstrations in Syria. At his place a member of Qatar's ruling family has been appointed as new head of the news channel which might lead to a loss in reputation of the broadcasting service, keeping in mind that one reason for Al Jazeera's popularity among the Arab audiences from the beginning was its political independence in most instances.

Thus, subsuming the numerous recent developments in the transnational media environment in the Middle East, it remains to be seen how these may influence the prevailing 'media culture' in the region and whether this, in turn, may bring about meaningful political and societal implications.

After the revolution – institutionalising change through the reform of national media

Evidently, political and societal implications can be observed in the current media developments of national dimension. For example in Egypt, where "The National Coalition for Media Freedom" (NCMF)[19] was established in April 2011.[20] It aims at rebuilding the Egyptian media for a democratic future, emphasising the important role of media as guards and catalysts of democracy and of the overall development of state institutions and society.[21] They aim to contribute to a legal framework in line with the interests of citizens and society that defends press and media freedom, even releasing its own Media Freedom Declaration.[22]

Promising as these efforts may be it is important not to underestimate the challenge that a reformation of the Egyptian media system brings with it. "[The] manner in which the revolutionary moment is now subject to cultural narrativization and canonization suggests the persistence of particular representation practices which should be met with caution."[23], as Aly puts it. He claims the either persisting absence or stereotypical misrepresenting of subordinate groups on Egypt's national medium: television. For example, Egypt's 47.5 million rural inhabitants remain invisible within the public perception, although they constitute over half of the countries' population. According to Aly, even after the fall of Mubarak's regime, state television would serve as a channel for the military council and the transitional government.

Apparently, patterns that have been inscribed and prescribed for decades through cultural production do not change overnight. That is true for media professionals as well, who have been socialised in a certain media system, and thus, may similarly face difficulties in adopting new values. That is not to excuse but to give one explanation for the obstacles Aly describes. Being cautious about the major institutional and legal restructuring that a profound change would require, Aly suggests a fundamental shift from Egypt's state broadcasting to a Public Service Broadcasting system as way to meet the responsibility of reflecting Egypt's social and cultural vibrancy in a balanced manner.

One year after the Egyptian people brought the regime to fall the country is struggling to institutionalise the change. As promising as Aly's prospect of an Egyptian media reform and the activities of the NCMF are, it seems likely that, acknowledging the diversity of Egyptian society, different concepts may have to be encountered during a process of transition first, before a reformed media system can be thoroughly implemented.

Hence, achieving freedom of speech and of media is only a first step. Journalists and citizens have to learn then, how to handle this newfound freedom. In Tunisia nearly a hundred publications and a dozen local FM radios have been authorised since January 2011 and more than 30 licenses for new television channels were issued. Nonetheless, Tunisia, too, faces transitional problems as more than 80% of media magnates are still there and journalists are inexperienced in tackling issues like corruption and the economy, according to journalist Mourad Teyeb.[24] Thus, enhancing media literacy among citizens and media professionalism of journalists seems to be one of the most crucial challenges in the near future.

Whether Egypt, in the end, decides for a Public Service Broadcasting system, remains to be seen. As Aly notes, it was in "a revolutionary moment that class, sectarian, gender and regional fractures of Egyptian society were temporarily suspended."[25] The challenge now, is to take this revolutionary moment beyond and institutionalise participatory and representational structures within the Egyptian society.

Media in the Middle East – part of a transitional process

Clearly, the current developments in the Middle East affect the region's media landscape, on both a national and a transnational dimension. However, I argue, that it is less the transnational developments but rather the national ones, where we might find, at present, bigger challenges and political and societal implications, which are an essential part of the regional transition.

The Egyptian case has shown significant national developments which will be interesting to follow up. Another field of interest may be whether these media transformations of national dimension may impact the attention Arab audiences gave so far to transnational satellite TV channels.

What is in flux in the Middle East at present, not only significantly affects the region and its people. It also challenges our way of reflecting on it profoundly and how we approach the Middle East. In the long term, it is when one abandons the binary distinction between either the transnational or the national and instead acknowledges their complementary interaction that new perspectives on the Middle East and ways of conceiving it may emerge.


[1] Muhammad Ayish in The National 16/6/2011.

[2] Lerner 1963, cited in Curran and Park 200b: 4.

[3] For an interesting research on Satellite Television in the Middle East, see Sakr (2007 and 2001). For an in-depth analysis of print media see Rugh (2004).

[4] Rugh 2004: 244.

[5] Sreberny 2000: 65.

[6] Hafez 2001a: 1.

[7] Video of Press Conference (in Arabic) available at: www.youtube.com/watch .

[8] Politico 9/7/2010.

[9] Huffington Post 15/9/2011.

[10] Website: www.skynewsarabia.com . Comment: This link led to an English Website till 22nd February 2012. However, with the launch of the Arabic Website on 23rd February 2012, the English content page seems no longer available in this form. See: news.sky.com/home/technology/article/16175302 . Only the Career Service Pages are still available in English now: corporate.skynewsarabia.com .

[11] A first impression of what the programme is going to be like gives a look at the studios in Abu Dhabi. Video available at: www.youtube.com/watch .

[12] See Zayani's collection (2005) for a critical review of Al Jazeera.

[13] This became obvious during protests of the Arab upheavals. Scenes from Cairo gave an impression how big the reputation of Al Jazeera is among some of its audience. After Mubarak stepped down, some protesters raised banners on which they had changed the calligraphy of the channel's logo Al Jazeera [island, Arab Peninsula] in Al Hurriya [freedom].

[14] For example by the magazine The Economist (Economist 27/5/2010).

[15] Al Hayat 14/9/2011.

[16] Reuters 22/6/11. Whereas BBC World Service audiences have fallen 14 million in 2010/2011‚ BBC Arabic TV saw a growth in its audience of 2 million, increasing to 13.5 million viewers. Press release available at: www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2011/07_july/12/world.shtml

[17] Press release available at: www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,6614027,00.html .

[18] Website: balkans.aljazeera.net .

[19] See Website of NCMF: ncmf.info .

[20] For more information of Egyptian media before Mubarak's fall, see Guaaybess (2001) and Amin and Napoli (2000).

[21] Article 1 of the coalition statute reads: "The National Coalition for Media Freedom' is a democratic framework aimed at aggregating and coordinating the efforts of civil society organisations and media activists who are interested in the development of Egyptian media based on freedom from all types of governmental, political and economic dependence and control, as well as in defending citizens' right to information, communication, freedom of opinion and speech." See: ncmf.info .

[22] Declaration available at: ncmf.info .

[23] Aly 2011: 1.

[24] CG News 7/10/2011.

[25] Aly 2011:1.

Books, Collections and Journal Articles

  • Aly, Ramy 'Rebuilding Egyptian Media for a democratic future' Arab Media & Society Issue 13 Summer 2011, available at: www.arabmediasociety.com
  • Amin, Hussein (2001) 'Mass Media in the Arab States between Diversification and Stagnation: An Overview' in Hafez, ed. (2001), pp. 23-41
  • Amin, Hussein and James Napoli (2000) 'Media and Power in Egypt' in Curran and Park, eds. (2000), pp.178-187
  • Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity at Large University of Minnesota Press
  • Armbrust, Walter ed. (2000) Mass Mediations: new approaches to popular culture in the Middle East and beyond University of California Press
  • Chaterjee, Partha (1998) 'Beyond the Nation? Or within?' Social Text 16, 3, Fall 1998
  • Curran, James and Myung-Jin Park (2000a) De-Westernizing Media Studies London: Routledge
  • Curran, James and Myung-Jin Park (2000b) 'Beyond globalization theory' in Curran and Park, eds. (2000a), pp.3-18
  • Guaaybess, Tourya (2001) 'Restructuring Television in Egypt: The Position of the State between Regional Supply and Local Demand' in Hafez, ed. (2001), pp.61-75
  • Hafez, Kai (2007) The Myth of Media Globalization Cambridge: Polity Press
  • ________ ed. (2001a) Mass Media, Politics, and Society in the Middle East Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press
  • ________ (2001b) 'Mass Media in the Middle East: Patterns of Political and Societal Change' in Hafez, ed. (2001a), pp.1-20
  • Rugh, William A. (2004) Arab Mass Media. Newspaper, Radio and Television in Arab Politics London: Praeger
  • Sakr, Naomi (2007) Arab Television Today London: I.B. Tauris
  • ________ (2001) Satellite Realms. Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East London: I.B. Tauris
  • Schramm, Wilbur (1964) Mass Media and National Development Stanford University Press, abridged version available at: unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0008/000872/087299eb.pdf
  • Sinclair, John et.al. eds. (1996) New Patterns in Global Television: Peripheral Vision Oxford University Press
  • Sparks, Colin (2000) 'Media theory after the fall of European communism: Why the old models from East and West won't do any more' in Curran and Park, eds. (2000), pp.35-49
  • Sreberny, Annabelle (2000) 'Television, gender, and democratization in the Middle East' in Curran and Park, eds. (2000), pp.63-78
  • Sreberny-Mohammadi, Annabelle and Ali Mohammadi (1994) Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution University of Minnesota Press
  • Zayani, Mohamed ed. (2005) The Al Jazeera Phenomenon: Critical Perspectives on New Arab Media London: Pluto Press

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