Media and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa [Archives:2006/994/Reportage]

October 30 2006
Newspapers in Yemen wrote articles about the arrest of journalist Saeed Thabet in 2004.
Newspapers in Yemen wrote articles about the arrest of journalist Saeed Thabet in 2004.
By: Hamdy Hassan
Mass media are the way to disseminate ideas. In the Arab region, communication for democracy is a risk communication where perception is reality. The better people perceive democracy in terms of significance and practices, the better democracy is to go at a good pace in the region.

“Due to the absence of real democratic institutions and activities the great majority of Arab people rely heavily on mass media for their ideas about democracy. As such, mass media will always

be the queen of the hill to disseminate ideas, concepts, as well as democratic practices1. However, Arab media is not able to play such role in an efficient way because of various types of control, pressure, and manipulation, not only by governments, but also by a conservative power of the culture. This is not the case in pluralistic societies, as these do have access to independent media.

For the past decade, new independent media have begun to emerge in different Arab countries making democracy a symbolic reality in the political life of the area. However, it might take time to transfer democracy into concrete and realistic issues and practices.

Pluralistic societies can be found only through independent media. Such pluralism is vital for any democracy to grow. In one way or another, Arab media are still governmental. An average of 92 percent of newspaper circulation in the Arab region is covered by government and semi governmental newspapers. An average of 90 per cent of television transmitting hours goes to channels that are subject to governmental or semigovernmental control, pressures, or manipulation.

Audience needs

Different characteristics of Arab media industry these days can be traced back to the early 1990s, right after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Governments and peoples learned many lessons since each side has exploited opportunities that were provided by new technology and recent political developments in the region. It seems that the audience is winning as, for the first time in the region media history, it has led of a change in the media industry. Governments are obliged now to consider audiences' needs and satisfactions. We have had an obstinate, active audience that really needs great support to magnify what it gained.

In Egypt, state-owned radio stations, TV channels, and official newspapers had to adopt new policies, and to approach more professional standards due to severe competitions coming from local independent newspapers and foreign satellite channels.

Independent newspapers were much more successful than others in telling people what to think about. Independent newspapers more than governmental ones are setting the political agenda now. Correlation between media agenda and audience agenda is higher for independent newspapers than official ones although penetration is higher for the latter. The significant point is that independent newspapers are produced largely by official newspaper journalists. They resort to independent ones for different reasons including professional environment, higher compensation, popularity and reputation, and less pressure and barriers.

Training professionalism

There are two ways to activate the role of the media in order to disseminate democracy and economic reform in Egypt, as well as in some other Arab countries. The first means is to help restructure present national media to be become more independent by providing support to improve management and economic viability of print and broadcast sectors. The second way is to help new independent media outlets to emerge, using the latest state-of-the-art tools and professionalism. Those outlets must be published in regional urban centers other than capitals.

Yet, no matter which method you choose, training is of high priority. The current prevailing media standards have been developed under non-democratic conditions. There are plenty of enthusiastic journalists, but what

is lacking is required skills, as democracy is a cultivated culture, not a by-product. Practices of independent media imply misconducts that tempted other social and political forces to defend or call for governmental actions. Professionalism is a turning point for any kind of media development. It is a master key. The agenda for training sessions must be based on real domestic needs. For the past five years no less than 20 training sessions were conducted by different foreign organizations in Al-Ahram

Regional Press Institute (ARPI) covering human rights, press freedom, NGO's and gender-related issues. Yet such training areas usually lead to skepticism among journalists. As a result, these practices did not have the desired effect. The training strategy Investing in the Future, developed

by Free Voice and CDFJ is a step in the right direction, with an emphasis on professionalism and legal awareness.

Systematic approach

Investing in the Future seems to be the first systematic ambitious attempt to address media training in the region. We expect a lot to come out of this program. We are all willing to cooperate in a way that makes training a real future investment. While paving the way to more professional media practices and more protection, other efforts are required to address media management and structure in the region.

In general, training sessions must be accompanied with sustainable sources of knowledge and skills.

In ARPI we are preparing for a professional periodical or journal that is to be published quarterly to provide translated articles, media experiments, new trends of coverage, and to be a window to look at the changing media environment around us. Such periodicals can help build a professional background that affects practices for years to come.

Economic management

Audience research is a new concept that must be introduced to the Arab media industry. Media planning is now completely based on speculations, and largely ignores or misses the real needs of audiences.

European experience is a great help in that field. Using audience research results may bridge the gap between media content, news mix and audience expectations. By all means, audience research is a valid area for media men and audience to practice a democratic relationship.

Other concepts are needed in any training strategies. One of them is to work hard to remove obstacles set up by senior journalists who do not always welcome new ideas, new concepts and new skills. Neither should we ignore the aspect of media management in our training strategies. Economic management affects every aspect of the industry, a vision we lack in the region. The milestone of our journey is to help turn our societies into pluralistic communities that enrich and support our endeavors toward democracy. Pluralistic communities can be found only when we have independent media that reflect all political spectrums in a way that help eliminate skepticism and mistrust.”

Hamdy Hassan (PhD) is dean of faculty of mass communication and acting Director of Al-Ahram Regional Press Institute (ARPI).