Policy LineSleeping Satellite [Archives:2005/848/Opinion]

June 6 2005

Fatima Fouad
[email protected]

I was up north in a village called Bani Sad in Mahweet visiting some projects. Around night time, I went with a friend to have dinner in a local Yemeni restaurant in the middle of the souq. The restaurant was small and crowded, it had plastic chairs, stone age spoons but there was a brand new 27 inch TV screen on the table with Al Jazeera Channel on.

People were drawn to Al Jazeera like they were listening to a Khatib on a Friday prayer. We must have passed 4 or 5 restaurants that displayed the same channel. During the commercial breaks, you can see tribesmen and villagers indulging in assertive political dialogues; criticizing President Bush's policies, damning the silence of their Arab governments towards various acts of suppression in the region and condemning the death of civilians in Iraq. There was also intensive talk about the voting process in Palestine and its credibility.

Channels like Al Arabia and Al Jazeerah are not just limited to Mahweet, they are all over the country, they are evident in any local shop near you that has a TV set and a satellite dish.

Media is an indispensable part of our lives, TV in particular is the most powerful tool that can reach illiterate groups and various segments of this society. However, the local media is losing its audience to a competitive regional market. A market that understands the needs of the people and focuses on behavior change.

Regional media has been strategic and focused, it interacts with the audiences and provides simple democratic forums for the public to voice their opinions. These sorts of programs have won the hearts and minds of the people in Yemen. It has also built up their capacity in understanding political issues.

Regional media presents the local media with a challenge that questions its effectiveness. Local media is struggling to reach Yemeni citizens and keep them informed; however, the local media's focus on a one way flow of information is building a communication gap which can weaken the democratization process. In addition, the weak journalistic quality and the lack of antagonism undermines the credibility of the local media programs all together.

The issue of using the Media as a strategic communication tool is alive in the Government and various International donor agencies. However, the influence from regional channels is hardly tackled. There is nothing that abides the Yemeni citizen to switch on to a local channel if there are better alternatives. It is difficult for a humbly resourced Yemeni Media to satisfy the needs of the people as long as there is fierce regional competition that continues to provide a refined level of news analysis, attractive presentation styles and a comprehensive policy debate.

The demolishing influence of the local media is not something that we should ignore; the increasing interest of the citizens in regional media might distract them from engaging in core political and social issues. It can provide a smokescreen on the local reality and deter the Yemenis from engaging in the development of their country. It is alarming when the Yemeni citizen is more knowledgeable about the voting process in Iraq but possesses little information on the upcoming elections in Yemen.

Local Media is currently asleep and inattentive to the real needs of the society. If Yemen is going to deliver good standards of democracy and governance then it is crucial to develop institutional capacities and open up respectful dialogues with the audiences. It is equally important to recognize the competitions in the region and reach the citizens with voice that can build up mutual accountability and contribute in the building up of democracy in this country.