The media in the Arab world: a geopolitical issue?

(Un)Civil war of words: Media and Politics in the Arab World

BOOK REVIEW  by Théo CORBUCCI  •  Published 31.10.2010  •  Updated 16.11.2010
Is it accurate to state that the media and satellite channels are mere political and diplomatic instruments? This is, in any case, the idea that that has been put forward by Mamoun Fandy in his first work, constituting a different way of analysing the media in the Arab world.

Title: (Un)Civil war of words: Media and Politics in the Arab World

Author(s): Mamoun FANDY

Editor(s): Praeger Security International

Release Date: 01.01.2007

Summary

Introduction

November 1996: the Qatari channel Al Jazeera was launched. What was at the time merely a (costly) wish on the part of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa AI-Thani was to very quickly become one of the most influential media companies in the region. Over the years, satellite channels were to prove their importance in terms of their power, especially since they reach a public beyond their borders due to their transnational nature. Arab media, which is eminently political, constitutes a number of factors that are a source of power, whether it be internally or regionally. 

In his work (Un)Civil war of words, Mamoun Fandy, Senior Fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) of London and regular editorial writer for Al-Ahram and Asharq Al-Awsat, puts forward two main ideas: firstly, he believes that satellite channels are essentially instruments of soft power [+]  NoteAs understood by Joseph N. Nye in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, that it to say in short, "co-opting rather than coercing", in his work Economie politique internationale [The International Political Economy].X     [1]and must therefore be analysed as such. Secondly, the authors puts forward the idea that Western universal literature, besides underrating this factor, is based on an analytical grid that is too ethnocentric to be precise [+] Note“This is my contribution to the emerging debate that is aimed at de-Westernizing media studies. Thus, instead of examining where news outlets like Al-Jazeera stand relative to CNN or Fox News, or focusing on images of the West in the Arab media, I explore how Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya function in the tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”, p.2.X [2]In short, the majority of researchers would appear to analyse Murr TV, Al Manar and its like as it would the BBC or CNN. This would of course be counterproductive.
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Media and satellite channels as instruments of soft power

The recent proliferation of satellite channels in the Near- and Middle-East has proven how important they can be for governments. For countries whose populations are little or not represented on the international scene, they can be an opportunity to tell others about themselves, to create an image and show themselves to best effect throughout the world (Qatar) [+] Note“Al-Qaradawi and Al-Jazeera hide the fragility of Qatar, giving it regional and international visibility that is envied by its neighbours. It is even becoming an essential regional player”, Al-Jazira, Miroir rebelle et ambigu du monde arabe [Al-Jazeera, a rebellious and ambiguous mirror of the Arab world], Alfa Lamloum, La Découverte, 2004, p. 64 - 65X [3] while they enable others to establish regional power on the media scene (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran). For Mamoun Fandy, all these channels are close descendants of the radio station Sawt al-Arab set up by Nasser, and are striving more or less towards the same objective [+] NoteMamoun Fandy stresses three main points for comparison: “First, the regime used to gain legitimacy among the Egyptian public and to mobilize support for his revolution. [ ... ] Second, Nasser used Sawt Al-Arab to settle scores with Arabs leaders who challenged Egypt's regional hegemony ambitions. [ ... ] A third function of Sawt Al-Arab and of Al Nasser's media broadcasting was to redirect peoples' anger away from the failure of the policies of Nasser's regime toward an outside force beyond their reach and beyond national boundaries.”, p.41.X [4]. Sawt al-Arab may well have been unique in the 1950s, but today there are dozens of channels financed by as many countries who would like to make their presence felt. A veritable battle is raging, reflecting via the media prism the conflicts going on between the different states. This is all the more obvious when the Egyptian (Nile News TV) or Saudi (Al Arabiya, of the MBC group) initiatives are looked at; they are clear responses to the disturbing Qatari channel. Iran and Turkey, whose main language is not Arabic, are even starting to compete, with the launch of Al-Alam (2003) and TRT 7 (2010) respectively.

When this satellite war started, it caused a few diplomatic disputes, in particular because it shook the stability of inter-state relations. An initiative such as Al Jazeera surprised governments and Foreign Affairs Ministries, whether they be local or Western; they didn’t know whether they were to treat it as a normal television channel or as a semi-official Qatari body. This ambiguity [+] NoteTake note of this excerpt which includes two rare and equally explicit statements: “Al Jazeera represents the foreign policy of Qatar; it is an export product; it is a Qatari embassy,” explains Ahmad Kamel, a former director of Al Jazeera. “It is not an embassy” replies Atef Dalgamouni, one of the founders and key managers of Al Jazeera in Doha. It is the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Qatar”, Mainstream, Frédéric Martel, Flammarion, 2010, p.319.X [5], which was denied from the outset by Qatar and the channel, first of all led to a diplomatic counterattack: Libya and Morocco, for example, called back their ambassadors “permanently”, while Tunisia put an end to its relations with Qatar [+] NoteMany examples have been cited in Al-Jazeera, la chaîne qui défie l'Occident, (Al-Jazeera, the channel that defies the West), Hugh Miles, Buchet/Chastel, 2005 (mainly in chap. 2, “Un pavé dans la mare arabe”) (A pavestone in the Arabic pool).X [6], following reports or talk-shows deemed to be defamatory. Such actions did not however produce a great effect; Qatar maintained that it was not able to impose anything at all on this independent channel and that it in no way controlled the channel. The offensive was then continued at economic level: “Saudi pressure on the Qatari government was essentially commercial, the aim of which was to prevent Al-Jazeera getting access to the Middle-East advertising market that is largely dominated by Saudi and Lebanese agencies” [+] Note“Le face-à-face Al-Arabiya/Al-Jazeera: un duel diplomatico-médiatique” (“The showdown between Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera: a diplomatic and media duel), Mohamed El-Oifi, Moyen-Orient n° 6, June-July 2010.X [7]. According to Hugh Miles, “At the end of 2002, the diplomatic and financial pressure on the channel reached an unprecedented level. Its offices were shut in six countries and the number of official complaints that it received reached over four hundred” [+] NoteAl-Jazira, la chaîne qui défie l'Occident, Hugh Miles, Buchet / Chastel, 2005, p. 229: p.8.X . In the end, having used up all its options, the chosen path was to set up competing channels based on the same model we have seen.
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Deconstructing the Western system of media analysis

 Some researchers saw Al-Jazeera as a symbol of liberalisation of the media system, even the flag-bearer of an information revolution, but Mamoun Fandy saw it quite simply as the geostrategic policy set up by a new emir keen to stabilise his power both nationally and internationally. In the same way, he clearly refutes the idea that the media behaves in an independent fashion towards politicians: “The Arab media can sometimes give the impression of being independent, but it is actually always controlled by governments, either directly or indirectly” He believes that, unlike Western media, the public/private dichotomy here appears to be of no significance, as in the end it is the State, whether through one or several companies, or on its own behalf, that always runs the media, openly or not. Mamoun Fandy puts forward the idea that the kafala system [+] Noteany foreign person working in one of the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, etc.) must be placed under the responsibility and protection of a local kafeel (sponsor). In exchange, the kafeel must give his consent for the foreigner to open a bank account, to apply for credit or to apply for a driving licence. Generally, the kafeel keeps the passport of the “protégé”, and prevents this person from leaving the country without his consent. The kafala system is supposed to govern the number of migrant workers, but some believe this is a way of exploiting workers. See on this matter, Golfe: l'ONU appelle à améliorer le statut de la femme et des étrangers, lexpress.fr (The Gulf: the UNO calls for an improvement to the status of women and foreigners, lexpress.fr), 19/04/10.X [8], initially for migrant workers, equally applies to journalists and for the media. In Morocco, some journalists have supposedly been “sponsored” in this manner by a Saudi kafeel, and Egyptian and Lebanese television channels have been kept under control, directly or not, once more, by a Qatari, Kuwaiti, Saudi or even Libyan kafeel (page 18). The journalists, it is claimed, are indebted to their kafeels, who are in most cases influential people, who are close to or are members of the government. The author believes that, “the first stage to understanding the war of words in the Arab media is to look at the war between the kafeels” Finally, along the same lines, we can add to all these analyses what the author calls the “anywhere but here” phenomenon, which means the ability of some channels to be critical of all Arab regimes except that of their host country [+] Note“Another characteristic of the Arab media is what I call the "anywhere but here" phenomenon. The Arab media are quick to criticize other Arab regimes, while at the same time ignoring problems with their host governments.” p.8.X . This critical statement, which is not actually new [+] NoteLa complaisance [d'Al Jazeera] par rapport à l'État du Qatar indique bien la limite infranchissable que rencontrent aujourd'hui tous les médias émettant depuis une terre arabe. (“The complicity [of Al-Jazeera] towards the State of Qatar shows clearly the line that cannot be crossed which media broadcasting from an Arab country come up against.”) Al-Jazira, Miroir rebelle et ambigu du monde arabe (Al-Jazeera, Rebellious and ambiguous mirror of the Arab world), Alfa Lamloum, La Découverte, 2004, p.140.X , accentuates the image of satellite channels being under the orders of the political authorities, and refers us back to the diplomatic-media war that we spoke about earlier.
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Critical Perspectives

In (Un)Civil war of words, Mamoun Fandy is attempting to move the current debate on the media in the Arab world forward; but although he offers new perspectives, he is just as keen on deconstructing current schemes of thought by way of a complex line of reasoning. At the risk of closing himself off in a one-way analysis, the author makes the assertion from the outset that the media are geopolitical in nature. He highlights a factor that is often neglected by university academics who focus on the sociological, anthropological, and even economic aspects of such changes. Likewise, by claiming that States are all-powerful, Mamoun Fandy is going up against political experts who are convinced that the influence of States and their institutions is falling; in so doing, he is questioning a large-scale analysis of globalisation which, for the moment, is still being debated. None of this has added any theoretical or scientific elements to the debate. We can merely state that what makes one of the strengths of the work also constitutes its main weakness. We should also note that by taking the example of Lebanon to assert the intrinsically political nature of the media, Mamoun Fandy is focussing on a unique situation in the region that cannot be assumed to apply everywhere at the moment, even if it is possible that the situation could spread to other regions. Lebanon alone is worthy of being analysed separately, and it is debatable as to whether it can be incorporated into a regional approach.

The work, published in 2007, needs to be considerably updated, taking into account the global aspect of such media and diplomatic disputes. By giving priority to conflicts between Arab states, Mamoun Fandy leaves out a non-negligible aspect, namely on the on hand the attraction exerted by this region of the world on the Western media (Russia Al-Yaum for Russia, Al Hurra for the USA, BBC Arabic TV for Great Britain or even France 24 in Arabic for France), and on the other hand the possible redefinition of flows of information from the South towards the North, towards Arab or English speaking populations living in Europe or in North America. Let’s hope that this intellectual exercise is only the beginning of a more in-depth debate that will be more balanced and more targeted, and which will take into account the criticism levied against it. Basically, this book should be seen as a simple introduction to a future work and series of arguments that would be of greater interest.
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Bibliography

- Tourya GUAAYBESS, Télévisions arabes sur orbite: Un système médiatique en mutation (1960 – 2004),  CNRS éditions, 2005
- Josh RUSHING, Mission Al Jazeera,  Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
- Yves GONZALEZ-QUIJANO and Tourya GUAAYBESS (editors), Les Arabes parlent aux Arabes: La révolution de l'information dans le monde arabe, Actes Sud, 2009
- Kamal KAJJA, "Al-Jazeera, phénomène ou leurre?"Hérodote n°133, La Découverte, 2nd quarter, 2009
- Mamoun FANDY,"To reach Arabs, try changing the channel", Washington Post, December 2001
- Interview with Mamoun Fandy, PBS NewsHour, January 2003
- Book review by Aaron Wenner, Arab Media & Society, Spring 2010
 
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  • 1. As understood by Joseph N. Nye in Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, that it to say in short, "co-opting rather than coercing", in his work Economie politique internationale [The International Political Economy].
  • 2. “This is my contribution to the emerging debate that is aimed at de-Westernizing media studies. Thus, instead of examining where news outlets like Al-Jazeera stand relative to CNN or Fox News, or focusing on images of the West in the Arab media, I explore how Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya function in the tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”, p.2.
  • 3. “Al-Qaradawi and Al-Jazeera hide the fragility of Qatar, giving it regional and international visibility that is envied by its neighbours. It is even becoming an essential regional player”, Al-Jazira, Miroir rebelle et ambigu du monde arabe [Al-Jazeera, a rebellious and ambiguous mirror of the Arab world], Alfa Lamloum, La Découverte, 2004, p. 64 - 65
  • 4. Mamoun Fandy stresses three main points for comparison: “First, the regime used to gain legitimacy among the Egyptian public and to mobilize support for his revolution. [ ... ] Second, Nasser used Sawt Al-Arab to settle scores with Arabs leaders who challenged Egypt's regional hegemony ambitions. [ ... ] A third function of Sawt Al-Arab and of Al Nasser's media broadcasting was to redirect peoples' anger away from the failure of the policies of Nasser's regime toward an outside force beyond their reach and beyond national boundaries.”, p.41.
  • 5. Take note of this excerpt which includes two rare and equally explicit statements: “Al Jazeera represents the foreign policy of Qatar; it is an export product; it is a Qatari embassy,” explains Ahmad Kamel, a former director of Al Jazeera. “It is not an embassy” replies Atef Dalgamouni, one of the founders and key managers of Al Jazeera in Doha. It is the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Qatar”, Mainstream, Frédéric Martel, Flammarion, 2010, p.319.
  • 6. Many examples have been cited in Al-Jazeera, la chaîne qui défie l'Occident, (Al-Jazeera, the channel that defies the West), Hugh Miles, Buchet/Chastel, 2005 (mainly in chap. 2, “Un pavé dans la mare arabe”) (A pavestone in the Arabic pool).
  • 7. “Le face-à-face Al-Arabiya/Al-Jazeera: un duel diplomatico-médiatique” (“The showdown between Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera: a diplomatic and media duel), Mohamed El-Oifi, Moyen-Orient n° 6, June-July 2010.
  • 8. any foreign person working in one of the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, etc.) must be placed under the responsibility and protection of a local kafeel (sponsor). In exchange, the kafeel must give his consent for the foreigner to open a bank account, to apply for credit or to apply for a driving licence. Generally, the kafeel keeps the passport of the “protégé”, and prevents this person from leaving the country without his consent. The kafala system is supposed to govern the number of migrant workers, but some believe this is a way of exploiting workers. See on this matter, Golfe: l'ONU appelle à améliorer le statut de la femme et des étrangers, lexpress.fr (The Gulf: the UNO calls for an improvement to the status of women and foreigners, lexpress.fr), 19/04/10.

Book title: (Un)Civil war of words: Media and Politics in the Arab World
Author(s): Mamoun FANDY
Editor(s): Praeger Security International
Release Date: 01/01/2007
Number of pages: 165 pages

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