Transnational Media and
By Jon B. Alterman
The Arab League's headquarters
in Cairo lie just a few hundred meters away from the city's statue of Simon Bolivar.
The two represent monuments to desires for regional autonomy and unitydesires
that time has proved easier to conceptualize than to implement.
Yet a half century after
the founding of the Arab League and a century and a half after Bolivar's efforts
to unite the newly independent states of Latin America, transnational media are
doing what statesmen and warriors have been unable to do. Building on common language
and common heritage, the people of both regions are beginning to come together
in ways that would have seemed wildly utopian only ten years ago.
The challenge will be
how the governments of the two regions respond. The rewards for creating durable
regional ties are great, and the costs of regional atomization are likely to increase
The parallels between
the unification processes in the Middle East and Latin America are striking. In
both cases there is a linguistic unity across a wide geographic area, and political
borders which divide that area. In both cases, as well, major regional powers
do not share in the linguistic continuum, and exclusion from that continuum poses
a challenge to them. Finally, in both cases regional broadcasters have emerged
in the last decade. Based mainly in London for the Arab market and Miami for the
Latin American, these broadcasters have capitalized on advances in technology
to create a regional media market where none had existed before.
The creation of a regional
media market is notable for several reasons. The first is that it is, in fact,
a market. Relying on supply and demand, programming does not simply meet the needs
of government broadcasters, but rather actively seeks viewers who enjoy a variety
of news and entertainment options. The consequence is an enormous empowerment
of the viewership and a dramatic improvement in viewer satisfaction with programming.
The second is that regional
markets are, in fact, regional. To a great degree, identical programming can be
seen throughout the region. While market-driven programmers direct their broadcasts
primarily to groups with high value to advertisers in the Arab worldgenerally
wealthy Gulf Arabsprogramming itself affects many throughout the region
who may not fit the targeted socioeconomic profile of each station.
Finally, regional broadcasting
has created regional news organizations which far surpassboth in terms of
covering news and delivering it to recipientswhat had existed heretofore.
Many of these news organizations are headquartered outside the region, which gives
them a degree of independence unprecedented in many countries. The consequence
is the emergence of a press corps which is both independent of the agenda of an
individual country and one which seeks an audience which transcends national borders.
The potential results
of the regional media market described above are not hard to imagine. In his insightful
book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson makes a persuasive case that two
factors controlled the development of national consciousness in state after state
in Reformation Europe: commerce and linguistic unity. As printers sought to expand
their markets beyond small numbers of Latin-literate elites, they increased their
printing in vernacular languages (Luther's Theses drove much of the vernacular
printing in Germany for decades). In so doing, they created communities of essentially
monolingual people who spoke and wrote in similar languages, but whose communications
were largely unintelligible to those from outside the region.(1) These communities
drew together to form modern nation-states like Germany, France and Italy.
In the Middle East and
Latin America, the advent of print occurred after colonial powers had begun to
lay down borders. Napoleon brought movable Arabic type to the region as part of
his colonial project in Egypt at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and mass
printing remained mainly the province of central governmentsones constructed
along the lines of Western statesfor most of the next hundred years. As
a consequence, Arabic printing tended to reinforce barriers between Arabic speakers
rather than elide them. Over the years, strong state institutions arose which
tended to reinforce the separation between the nascent states of the region. One
of those institutions was the state censor, which helped promote the development
of a national identity in much the same way that linguistic unity in Europe led
to the perception of national identity.
Transnational media, however,
alter this equation fundamentally. What is most apparent about the new technologyprint,
satellite and internetis that it facilitates the transmission of information
independent of distance. Whereas national difference could be maintained in the
twentieth century because geography combined with governmental efforts to create
distinct markets for information, information transcends those obstacles to create
something much more closely resembling a single market. If the European Union's
drift toward unity despite national and linguistic difference is any guide, the
political consequences may be dramatic.
There is an additional
point about the context which also deserves mention. The technological revolution
is beginning to refashion the nature of the nation-state around the world. Concurrently
(and only partly as a consequence of technological change), European integration
is also beginning to tread on traditional notions of nations and nationalism.
Where these changes will lead is unclear. But in a world which increasingly relies
on regional groupings rather than national ones, and in which governments increasingly
cede initiative to non-state actors, the Arab world and Latin America are unusually
well-positioned to facilitate the development of productive relationships which
transcend the borders of an individual state.
The opportunities posed
by the changes underway are not without their pitfalls, however. States in both
regions have traditionally been jealous of power, especially on domestic matters.(2)
Non-state actors in both regionsdrug lords in Latin America and Islamists
in the Arab worldhave threatened and to a degree co-opted some regimes,
slackening enthusiasm for more laissez-faire state roles. In addition, regional
economic development has been uneven, and industrialization in particular has
lagged behind other areas of the world. Commodity tradingwhether in petroleum
or agricultural productscannot form the basis for long-range economic growth.
As markets continue to evolve, benefits will increasingly accrue to traders and
marketers: those who create and exploit information. The mere production of a
commodity will decline in value, especially as more producers come on line and
create a more competitive market for sellers.
In this challenge lies
the promise for both regions. Because the people of each region understand their
own region well, they have an advantage in information over global competitors.
Torpid economic activity in the region, however, decreases the value of that information,
as do state barriers which restrict the flows of goods, capital, and the information
Previous enthusiasm about
regional unity has always proven to be misplaced. In the Arab world in particular,
intraregional trade has remained anemic despite numerous regional organizations
and decades of honeyed words about the importance of Arab unity. Despite their
rhetoric, states have often dashed the very hopes for regional unity that they
have purported to espouse.
Over the last few years,
transnational communication has been creating regional markets and regional identities
which exceed the dreams of the most optimistic regionalists of the past two centuries.
Latin America and the Arab world are uniquely poised to capitalize on the changes
underway because of bonds of language and culture which make regionalism fit rather
more comfortably than in other regions of the world. What makes for unity among
people, however, does not necessarily make for unity among governments. In order
to profit from the changes underway, the governments of Latin America and the
Arab world will have to redefine their relationships to their people and among
themselves, and do so with relative speed. Such a fundamental change in governance
is perhaps the greatest challenge of all, and one which too often has been missing
from current discussions. TBS
1. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread
of nationalism, 2nd ed. London: Verso, 1991. p. 44-45.
2. Interestingly, the supposed “patriarchal nature” of both societies has been
ascribed to religion: Catholicism in the Latin American case and Islam in the
Jon B. Alterman holds
a PhD in history from Harvard University and is Middle East Program Officer in
the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Research and Studies Program.