Arab Media Project: The Media and Political Change in the Arab
World, 29-30 September 2004
What I would like
to do today is put the issue of the media in some perspective,
both analytical and historical. Then I will put some thoughts
on the table about the extent to which media does or doesn't
influence opinion, and then report some of my findings from
surveys I have been conducting-public opinion surveys-in the
Arab world about what people are watching and how that behaviour
affects their opinions on political issues. And then I'll end
with some reflections about the role of the state: to what extent
media is really independent and what does that mean?
Let me begin with
some images. I'll begin with four. They all come from Al Jazeera,
and the selection of Al Jazeera is certainly intended because
it has come to symbolise the new media and for a good reason.
In my survey, Al
Jazeera is by far the number one most-watched station in every
category that we tested on. Al-Arabiya is a very distant second
right now. It has become the second, but a very distant second.
There is no question that Al Jazeera has more impact than any
other channel right now.
The first image is
recent. In a show a lot of you watch often, al-Ittijah al-Mu'akis,
participants deliberated over the beheading of innocent people
in Iraq. Is it justified? Is it not justified? They had someone
on that show that was making a case for why it is justified.
It was a sickening show! That is an example of the sort of thing
that we see in some of the media today.
The second image
is more positive. Those of you who watch those regular women's
shows, if you look at some of the episodes, they are absolutely
first rate by any standard, whether by Middle Eastern standards
or international standards. They are most thoughtful and complex,
and the daring part is that they get into the issue of men and
women and power in society: what explains it, what doesn't.
They are challenging taboos in ways that were never seen in
the Arab world ten years ago. It is there on a regular basis
on Al Jazeera.
The third image is
one that was personal to me. A couple of months ago I was in
Haifa on the Mediterranean and went to a seafood restaurant.
Always, whenever I go to any Mediterranean city, I look for
Sultan Ibrahim (red mullet). I have to have it. It's a part
of my childhood. As I approached the restaurant, the Arab owner
of the restaurant came to me, identified me from my appearances
on television, and said hello and few nice things. And then
he said, knowing that I came from Washington, "What about
the American government putting pressure on Al Jazeera? What
about this democracy you are talking about? How can you reconcile
this pressure America is putting on Al Jazeera and the democracy
that they are advocating in the Middle East?"
The final image is
from Washington itself: the image of how people see Al Jazeera
and the Arab media. They read today that it is full of incitement,
full of anti-Americanism, full of anti-Israeli rhetoric, and
they blame it for much of the trouble they are facing in the
Middle East. It is as if the media is really the cause for all
these problems, and that image is juxtaposed with an image of
Al Jazeera in the late 1990s that is exactly the opposite.
And I remind you
to recall how Al Jazeera was seen at first in the Arab world-in
Cairo or Riyadh or Rabat. It was called an agent of Zionism
or American intelligence in the Middle East. There was an image
that they had the agenda of normalising Israel in the Arab world.
It was true only four years ago! This is a change. Amazing how
quickly we forget these images!
So how does one reconcile
all these images? And what do they tell us? What are we facing
in this new phenomenon?
Let me begin by putting
it in perspective. In terms of what it analytically means, what
does this phenomenon represent? I'm not talking so much about
Al Jazeera specifically, but the satellite phenomenon. What
has changed in the past decade that is different, in terms of
its impact on the media and Arab public opinion that we didn't
have a decade before?
And, clearly the
primary factor in the transformation of the media is that today
we have a market-driven media.
I don't mean commercially driven. None of these media have a
chance of making serious profits, or even any profits, today.
By "market-driven" I don't mean that they are not
under the control-directly or indirectly-of the state. By "market-driven"
I merely mean that they all are trying to get maximum viewership
in the Arab world.
The market has changed.
It has changed dramatically from what it was a decade before
by virtue of the "reach"--the accessibility--of satellite
technology to the vast majority of the Arabs.
And as a consequence,
every citizen in the Arab world has so many choices. They can
turn off a station or turn on a station. They have fifty or
sixty choices to decide on for the first time. They are not
captive audiences. They don't just sit there and the government
tells them, "Here is what you are going to see!" They
have choices. And if you are an outfit that wants to succeed,
it means you had better figure out a way for getting the people
to tune in. And if you don't, you are dead.
Your aim may be political
or your aim maybe commercial. Whatever your aim, you still want
maximum viewership. Why do we think Al Jazeera is important?
It has managed to get "maximum viewership." That is
influence! That is what it drives it all. So if you are going
to succeed, you have to understand your audience. What is this
audience you are trying to reach? It is no longer the local
audience that every media outlet thought of when they had a
government monopoly of the media; that is, if you were a station
of Qatar or if you are a station of Abu Dhabi.
Your audience--your potential audience--is everyone in the Arab
world. Your prototype consumer is now the Arab. It is no longer
the Qatari, Kuwaiti, or the Egyptian. And as such, the product
you are trying to market is the product you are trying to market
to your prototype consumer, which is the Arab. And that, in
some ways, defines how you view what is appealing to the broadest
number of people.
In that sense, we have the dynamics here of competition that
has driven the sort of programming on any station which wants
to be successful, regardless to who it is and regardless to
what it is, or what its agenda is.
Let me give you a
couple of examples. When you look at the image that I juxtaposed
earlier about how Al Jazeera is being perceived today as being
anti-US, inciting anti-Israeli (anger) and how it was seen as
pro-US and pro-Israel in the late 1990s. What has changed in
that market? I think what has changed is the market.
In the late 1990s,
most Arabs believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict was coming
to an end, whether they agreed to it or not, and they were reconciling
themselves to the fact that there was going to be some kind
of an agreement between the Israelis and the Arabs. Al Jazeera
was the first one to truly take that seriously. Most people
in Saudi Arabia and many parts of the Arab world did not know
much about what the Israelis were like. Al Jazeera was out there
reporting from the Knesset, from cities, and bringing Israelis
on television. People were curious. They wanted to watch that
After the collapse
of the peace negotiations there was very little hope of an agreement.
You have bloodshed. You had the horrific pictures of the West
Bank and Gaza. People wanted to see them. So what you see is
essentially a station catering to a market. If it didn't, it
was not going to get that viewership.
In fact, let me give
you a very good example. When I look at the stations that get
most of the viewership on Arab-Israeli issues, in general Al
Jazeera is still number one, but the strong second in some of
the markets is Al Manar television of Hezbollah because it is
covering more of that bloodshed on the television screen than
some of the other channels.
In fact, here is
a remarkable finding in the surveys that I conducted prior to
the Iraq war. Al Jazeera was number one in Jordan on matters
related to Arab-Israeli issues. On the eve of the war, when
it seemed to moderate its coverage of that issue for variety
of reasons, Al Manar television became number one in Jordan
on issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Number one,
by just a slight margin, over Al Jazeera. The market is out
there, and if you don't cover what the public want, they are
going to abandon you. The question is, what does the public
want? And at what point can you influence the market yourself?
The final example
is from Al Arabiya. Al Arabiya came into being just a little
over a year ago, as you know, and it came with a very clear
intent to compete with Al Jazeera. When you talked to them earlier
on, as they were thinking up what this television station was
going to put together, the idea was a less sensational version
of Al Jazeera because what they thought was that Al Jazeera
had introduced something very important. The public wants it,
but most of the public thinks it is too sensational, and Al
Arabiya was going to provide a more responsible version of Al
Well, starting immediately
after that, they aired the bin Laden tapes. Now, when you hear
the director of Al Arabiya speak about this phenomenon, he says
'Look, I don't like it! It is horrible. We shouldn't be doing
it, but how I can not do it if other stations are going to do
it? So if you can get them all not to want to do it, then I
am willing not to do it." You know, it's like "price
fixing." "If you want to get rid of the market, then
I am willing to live with it." It is a market; it is a
reality we have to contend with. You have to understand that
we have to come to grips with the fact that there is a phenomenon
out there, that some people use it irresponsibly. There is a
lot of irresponsibility in the coverage. Granted! But there
is a market out there. And above all, it is that market force
that they are all subject to, regardless of whether they want
to and even if their intent is generally good.
But does that mean
media does not or cannot influence opinion? Or doesn't have
a role and shouldn't be more responsible? I want to say no,
of course. But I want to lay out some of the conditions under
which we should expect the media to have more impact. ... And
later I am going to report to you whether there is in fact an
Al Jazeera factor in opinion in the Arab world.
In general, I think
we make too much of the media affecting public opinion. We make
far too much of it. The media is an intermediate step. It is
not the cause of public opinion. In fact, at some level, whether
you have pictures of what happens in Abu Ghraib on television
or not, the problem is that Abu Ghraib abuse takes place, and
when it does, then I want to see it on television. So the reality,
first of all, is the problem, not the coverage itself, even
though the coverage can obviously be more responsible and less
But let us face the
fact on the structural level. It isn't so much the media that
shapes opinion as such, particularly when you have a market
with competing ideas and people have a choice of which ideas
to respond to. But here are four points I want to make in terms
of the influence of media on public opinion.
First, in times of
pain, all people-whether they are in the Middle East or elsewhere-listen
with their hearts far more than with their heads. You have to
take into account if you are an American after 9/11 you are
sitting in New York and looking at those events through the
pain that you are feeling there and then. You take sides because
it is inevitable, because you cannot not take sides. And the
media pops up and says "We are partly responsible! Let
us look at this analytically!" You, the media, are going
to be dismissed. You are going to be attacked. Nobody is going
to listen to you. You've got to be part of your consumer market,
and if you are not, you are going to be booted out of that market.
And that is why we have sensationalism, like Fox TV, growing
in times of pain. And you know what? In the Middle East unfortunately
we have had too many times of pain, whether it is the Palestinian
issue, the Iraq issue, the 9/11 issue, the war on terrorism
issue. People are looking at those events through the prism
of pain. And when they are looking through the prism of pain,
they expect the station to reflect their feelings, and if it
doesn't, they are going to boot it out.
In fact you get criticism
of people like me. If I go on Al Jazeera and make an analytical
objective analysis about what happens at times of pain, people
will say, "He is detached. He is not one of us. He is not
speaking like we do. He does not understand us. He does not
reflect our pain." That is just the reality of it. We've
just got to come to grips with it. This is a time of pain in
the Middle East. And yes, this pain is there in the US too.
You cannot expect the American media to be perfectly objective
when it is covering the issue related to that pain. Keep that
Secondly, media affect
opinion far less on priority issues and far more on secondary
issues. It is a fact that, again, very few people understand.
If there is an issue about which you have a strong opinion and
about which you care a lot, the media is not going to shape
your opinion on that issue. Sometimes the media is going to
reinforce it. . . . You are not going to change your position
because of what the media is saying, but rather if it is going
against what you believe. That is why we are talking about the
Let's look at the
facts. Let's look at the reality. I have done surveys in the
US about public opinion on international issues, including the
Arab-Israeli issue. What do we have? Well, when you ask people,
"Do you get your information on Arab-Israeli issue from
the media? The majority of people say yes. But then when you
ask people, "How important is the Arab-Israeli issue to
you personally? Those who rank it high on their priorities are
Jewish-Americans, Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans. They say
they don't get most of their information on that issue from
the media. They get if from friends and from religious or political
organizations. They have their minds made up. If the media is
going to shape their opinion, think about it, why don't Arabs
and Jews in America have the same opinions on all of these issues?
They are all watching the same media! Why don't they have the
same opinions on these issues? In fact, their opinions are completely
opposed. In fact, when you see an Arab-American seeing a picture
of a beheading on Fox TV, they more often than not say, "Well,
they're trying to blacken the image of the Arabs," rather
than saying, "Oh! This is horrible. Let me think. Maybe
the Arab world has got a problem." When you've got an Israeli
or an American or a Jewish American who are strongly favourable
to Israel, and they are going to see a picture that is highly
critical of Israel-like a picture from a refugee camp-the first
instinct is not "I am going to stop supporting Israel!"
The first instinct is, "This is a problem I have got to
deal with. Maybe the media is biased."
And so, we have to
understand that on matters that are related to issues that are
priority issues to the public the media impact is very small.
It is there, obviously; it reinforces. Don't get me wrong. I
am not saying it has no impact, but that is not the core of
There are dynamics out there.
On the other hand, on secondary issues, on issues about which
you don't have a prior opinion, media matters a lot. Let's say
you're learning about Nigeria, and you know nothing about Nigeria
and you care nothing about Nigeria, but you see a story on Al
Jazeera. You already trust Al Jazeera because it resonates with
you on issues you care about and you see that story on Nigeria
on Al Jazeera. Your opinion on Nigeria is going to depend on
that story you see on Al Jazeera, no question about it. You
have no other source of information. All the issues we are talking
about in our debate are really primary issues, not secondary
issues, in term of a discourse.
The third point is
that we should differentiate between the media's impact on opinion
. . . and the media's impact on political identity, or how people
see themselves. I happen to think the media today in the Middle
East, as a phenomenon, has far more impact on the way people
see themselves than on their particular opinions on a specific
issues. I am talking about this as a long term process. In part
because the media, by definition, defines the consumer as "the
Arab" or "the Muslim" because the media is trying
to reach out to the broadest audience. That has an impact on
how the media defines its consumer, and therefore how the consumer
defines himself in relation to the media . . . . It is hard
to study. It is going to be important in ten to twenty years
from now, and I'll reflect on that in my findings.
My final point is
that there is a difference between the impact of media on adults
and the impact of media on children. We far too often ignore
children in this discourse when we talk about public opinion.
We only do public opinion research on adults. I say this because
if you see a show on beheading on television it may not have
the same impact on an adult because we already have our views
and can deal with it. If you have an 8-year-old watching it,
the impact is going to be enormous. Enormous! And understudied!
I have to say that this is an area that is going to have to
be a focal point of our studies.
What did we find
in the studies? Let me put this in perspective. I have been
doing surveys for the past three years, largely in six Arab
countries-Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, the UAE, and
Lebanon. What I have been doing is asking people what they watch
most. Which station is their first preference for news? Which
station is second? How often do they watch the stations? Just
And then parallel to that, I ask them some questions about foreign
policies, domestic policies, and social issues. The aim is to
find out whether there is a real direct relationship between
people's opinions on the issues of the day-particularly in foreign
policy, political reform and the role of Islam in politics-and
what they watch on the news. And let me briefly tell you the
findings of that aspect of the research: there is a minimal-absolutely
minimal-impact on matters relating to support or opposition
to the US for example. The lack of trust in US foreign policy
among people who don't watch Al Jazeera or people who don't
have satellite is very similar to those who watch Al Jazeera
and have satellite. On matters related to the Arab-Israeli conflict,
the views of those who watch one station or the other are minimally
different. In fact, sometimes they go the other way than you
might think. Those who watch CNN tend to be more anti-American
in some countries than those who watch Al Jazeera. So it is
very difficult. I have done some correlation studies, statistical
analysis, controlling demographics. I see no major impact on
those opinions. It tells you that for these opinions, their
sources are somewhere else.
The media is an intermediate
factor. It does influence on the margins, but it is not the
driving force for these opinions. You have in places like Egypt,
Saudi Arabia or Morocco 95 percent of the public with a negative
opinion of the US . . . . There is very very little difference
. . . .
The same doesn't
hold on matters of political identity. In fact, a hypothesis
I put on the table and am still struggling with in my next book,
Media Identity on Foreign Policy, pertains to the issue of identity
specifically. In fact we've only recently begun to ask the questions
directly about identity. I needn't tell you how difficult this
survey analysis is, and how little we have by way of historical
opinion to see change over time, which is what we need, and
that is why I am doing this, to keep track constantly on how
it manifests itself. There is another question that we put on
the table, and that is whether they want the clergy to play
a larger or smaller role in politics in the Arab world? It is
clear that more people want the clergy to play a bigger role
rather than a smaller role in the Arab world. That too has changed
from the past. What does this mean, and what is the relationship
with the media to this phenomenon?
First, I haven't
yet identified the real difference of opinion depending on what
people watch. I am still doing the statistical analysis, but
the superficial view of this doesn't show any serious differences.
I can say on the
basis of other questions that this does not mean that you have
a religious identity on the rise. In fact, I am calling it "the
rise of Islamic nationals." Why? Let me give you an example.
I think there are
other questions that indicate that the role of the clergy question
pertains more to the perception of corruption . . . . That is
the real rise in the statistic. For whatever reason, as in America,
people think of religious people as being more ethical, and
when you have a sense of corruption, you move in that direction.
But the Islamic identity itself has to be balanced with the
following open question: whom amongst world leaders do you admire
most outside your own government? I did not want to put them
in a position to have to answer about their own government.
Let me give you the top vote list:
No.1 Gamal Abdul
Nasser, hardly an Islamist.
No.2 Jacques Chirac, now there is an Islamic Crusader!
No.3 Hasan Nasrallah, who almost ties-it varies from country-with
Saddam Hussein, who is still No.1 in Jordan!
Hasan Nasrallah a
Shi'ite. Saddam Hussein and Nasser are Arab Nationalists. Jacques
Chirac is a non-Arab, non-Muslim who prohibited the veil in
France. What does that tell you? The only thing that these people
have in common is that they are perceived as being anti-imperialist
and anti-American . . . .
And I see that as
an indication of what the mood is. Not one of them, by the way,
is democrat, except for Chirac I guess. But certainly those
who they chose locally are not democrats. And that tells me
something. Most people in the Middle East want democracy badly.
No one likes authoritarianism, no one likes dictatorship, everyone
wants change and reform. I don't believe there is a single government
in the Middle East that has won popular standing in free and
true election today. But is also still tells me that their anti-imperialist,
angry sentiment trumps, at the moment, their hunger for democracy.
I am not saying there are choices, but it tells you how anger
is growing today.
As I told you, I
don't see an obvious relationship between those who watch Al
Jazeera and those who don't
. And by the way, just to
extend this point a little bit, there is no question of the
rise in Islamic identity in non-Arab Muslim countries and the
importance of the Palestinian issue in non-Arab countries, including
Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan. Musharraf said in The Washington
Post that it was the number one issue for the Pakistanis and
the reason for their anger against the US.
have some kind of revival unrelated specifically to Al Jazeera,
and more related probably to a rejection of government policies.
This comes in the absence of empowerment and in seeing the US
as being anti-Muslim, not just anti-terrorist, in that campaign.
Let me move to my
final substantive point, which is the role of the state in all
of this. I have started off by saying, "Look there is a
market out there, but don't misunderstand!" I mean these
stations are not really making money and don't misunderstand,
market-driven does not mean states are no longer players. It
is just that they have to worry about the market in ways that
are different from the way they had to worry about it before.
But the reality of it is still that the ones that are most influential-whether
directly or indirectly-are state-supported, and in the case
of Al Jazeera, heavily subsidised. In the case of Al-Arabiya,
members of the royal family clearly pay the bill, and we have
to understand that there is state control still, but at a different
level, and with different rules of the game. So I want to talk
about these rules of the game and start by asking this curious
question. The curious question, again, is focused on Al Jazeera.
You have, in our American discourse, everybody seeing Al Jazeera
as the enemy of the US today. In that discourse, even the liberal
Arab elites see Al Jazeera as inciting and working for, or in
a way bolstering, the position of some of the militants in the
region. So how do you reconcile that with the fact that here
you have a (Qatari) government which is clearly pro-US, strongly
pro-American, which hosted American forces on its soil and had
American planes fly into Iraq during the war, and is a strong
supporter of a peaceful solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
How do you reconcile that? How can that be? What is this government
doing if in fact that is what it is doing in Al Jazeera? What
explains those two? What is the role of the state?
Well, let me give
you my take on all this. Again, you have to see Al Jazeera,
in its inception, not only as a child of a benign leader who
sees that is the way to open up democracy. I think you have
to give him credit for one thing because a lot of leaders use
different tools to advance their interests. He understood at
least that this thing will be of great benefit to him. In the
end you have to ask the question. No leader in the Middle East
is going to do something which is going to be self defeating.
So what is the benefit in all this for the Emir?
Well, back in the
1990s when Al Jazeera was starting . . . the Arab media had
become largely influenced by the Saudis. Remember, it was a
very important period-particularly after the rise of Saudi Arabia
as an oil state-when the Saudis invested a lot of money in it
by buying newspapers and starting transnational broadcasting
with the first truly effective satellite television station
MBC . . . . The elite discourse in the Arab world is very much
in that orbit of the Saudi influence in the media at the time,
and if you look at that period of the 80s to mid-90s, you see
Saudi influence in the Arab World is just like the Egyptian
influence in the Arab World had been . . . . Qatar was mostly
the target of that media. In fact, it was plainly supportive
of the Arab-Israeli peace process
and its foreign policies
were different from those of the Saudis. The Qataris cleverly
sorted that out by creating a far more influential media output
that came to dominate. They have done two remarkable things
First, they took
away market share from all the other media. It doesn't matter
what they say on that media, but no longer are they the target
of that media. That is huge when you think about it in perspective.
The media attention shifted to other areas. In fact, if anything,
Saudis have become less favoured by the viewers than before.
Certainly Qataris have the one channel that is most watched.
That is one thing they were able to achieve for themselves.
The second thing
is that it has enabled them to have pro-American positions and
even to have a policy that is more cooperative with Israel than
otherwise. It gives them the cover. It gives them the credentials.
It gives them democratic appeal. It gives them the reach, the
influence, that mitigates the anger on their hosting of troops
or anything else that is related to their dealings with the
Both of these things
were essentially for them to sort out policies that they sought
to pursue. When you look at Al Arabiya, it is clear that after
a decade of [Saudi Arabia's] losing ground, Al Arabiya has to
be seen as regaining some of the lost ground with the competition
with Al Jazeera . . . . It is state competition that still cannot
be divorced from the forces of the market because if Al Jazeera
changed today, people would dump it and go somewhere else. It
is a dilemma they no longer can escape because of the nature
of the market itself. It is very important to keep this in mind
when we think about it: in the background, the role of the state
is not gone. In fact, it is still dominant in many ways. It
explains why these governments are willing to lose money to
keep going and sustain some criticism to do it, because their
natural interests are still being served in some very small
Let me conclude.
If you look back
at the last decade and the transformation of the media in the
Arab World you ought to ask me, "Are there things that
you hate about the media today?" I will say, "Absolutely."
There are many things that I resent that I wished were not aired.
I am frustrated by that. I find it to be irresponsible.
If you ask me whether
the media today is better today than a decade ago in the Middle
East, I would say it is far better than a decade ago. The pluses
outweigh the minuses . . . . I would even argue to you that
some of the sensationalism, some of the issues that are subject
to criticism, have got a lot of silver lining in the sense that
people are finding out about themselves in the Arab World.
A lot of the governments
in the Middle East in the late 90s thought that it was absolutely
wrong to give Saddam Hussein a voice lest he go on air and say,
"I want all of these regimes overthrown," and then
somehow they would be overthrown! Al Jazeera, right after a
very tense period in 1998, gave Saddam Hussein the opportunity
to give a speech in which he called for the overthrowing of
governments in the region. It had no impact whatsoever! And
again, talking about democracy, it showed how much space there
is, and how people should be taken more seriously than this
rigid exclusion that takes place.
And then there is
even the issue of the beheadings, which I personally think it
is sickening to show on TV or to have someone (as a studio guest)
advocating their legitimacy. But I have to wonder out loud whether
it isn't in itself a sensational act by the media, but rather
in fact a problem present at the level of society. And I ask
the question not simply rhetorically because you can look at
the poll Al Jazeera did electronically asking people, "Do
you support beheadings or do you oppose beheadings?" The
point is, although it was not a scientific survey and it is
only elites who have access to the Internet, the vast majority
of respondents said they support beheading.
I wonder whether
putting it out on the air is not putting it out there for society
to come to terms with itself; whether it is better to hide this
or to deal with it outright, ugly as it is. Certainly, we need
maximum responsibility in the media, but if you are going to
ask me, I place far more trust in the market with all its negatives
than I would on any single leader controlling what we should
see here on television in the same way that I would never accept
the notion that they could be my dictator or the notion that
there should be a monopoly in the political arena. I do not
believe that the answer to all of the troubles that we are facing
in the media today is censorship.
Thank you very much.