By Sania El-Husseini
The development and spread of mass media throughout the Middle East over the past two decades—starting with satellite television stations, which took national narratives out from under state control, and followed by social media, which gave voice to the masses—is widely considered a key factor leading to the eruption of the Arab revolutions.
Arab satellite media stations first emerged as key players during the American wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. The Qatar-based television network Al Jazeera produced such professional coverage of the wars that it competed with that of international satellite networks and reached Arabs around the world. The remarkable success of Al Jazeera in influencing Arab public opinion inspired the creation of other channels in the region, such as the Saudi channel Al Arabiya, the Lebanese channel Al-Hayat, the Abu Dhabi Channel in UAE, and the American-based Al-Hurra, which broadcasts in the Middle East. It also inspired the creation of new Arabic-language channels within existing international networks such as BBC, France24, and Russia’s RT Channel.
Despite intense competition, Al Jazeera remained the most widely viewed channel and was also considered the most credible, perhaps due to its consistency in presenting values and perspectives that resonate with people in the region. For example, Al Jazeera stood against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and has supported Palestinian rights and exposed Israeli abuses, such as the siege of Gaza, which most other channels deliberately avoided covering. Most of all, Al Jazeera has served as a forum for regime opposition.
During the revolutions, and the subsequent restrictions Arab regimes imposed on both domestic and foreign correspondents, social media became a supplemental news source, alongside broadcast media and satellite channels. As the numbers of people using social media platforms grew—Facebook use alone doubled in the Arab world between 2010 and 2012—these platforms became the chief means of documenting and broadcasting atrocities committed by Arab regimes. Arab satellite channels came to rely on Facebook for such footage, often filmed on mobile phones.
Although the mass media succeeded in inspiring the Arab revolts, its own shortcomings neutralized its potential to help bring about an Arab democratic transition. Most Arab satellite channels, including Al Jazeera, are owned by Arab royalty, which has meant the introduction of bias and narrow political interests into the newsroom. Meanwhile, social media remains an open platform where anyone can have a voice. The result, however, is that information is often unverifiable and is presented without the level of professionalism offered by traditional media outlets.
Democratic transformation requires freedom of expression, which has certainly blossomed over the past two decades through mass media. However, outward expression must be accompanied by change from within a country. For decades, Arab countries have been suffering from totalitarian regimes that have confiscated freedoms, strangled opposition, failed to hold honest elections, and prevented the effective evolution of legislative powers. The Arab world must reform their constitutions, their parties, and their judiciary systems—in short, adopt a culture of democracy. Otherwise freedom of expression will never survive.
Dr. Sania El-Husseini is a writer and academic from Palestine. She is currently a visiting scholar at CCAS.
This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.