Media and the Transformation of Arab Societies: A Report on the 4th Annual Beirut Institute for Media Arts Conference, March 16-19, 2004, Beirut

By Iveta Kourilova

The School of Arts & Sciences at the Lebanese American University hosted on March 16-19, 2004 for the fourth consecutive year a unique media studies conference organized by its Beirut Institute for Media Arts (BIMA). The conference was dedicated to the theme of "Media and the Transformation of Arab Societies." In these times of significant transformation in Arab societies, many of them a direct consequence of rapid developments in the media, the theme of this year's meeting was particularly timely.

The hosting institution - the Beirut Institute for Media Arts - seeks in its various activities to provide a dynamic forum for collaboration between the academic and professional media communities. As the field of mass communication becomes increasingly more complex and competitive, the need for constant cooperation between the media industry and training becomes more urgent and necessary and the faculty of BIMA is fully aware of this fact. With an advisory board that includes the chief executives of LBCI, MBC, Al Jazeera, FTV, MTV, An-Nahar, As-Safir, The Daily Star, as well as the region's leading advertising agencies and radio stations, BIMA supports a number of activities that bring together media practitioners, faculty and students.

The objective of hosting these annual conferences - as formulated by Dr. Ramez Maaluf, the director of the BIMA - is creating an Arab venue for the exposition and discussion of Arab media studies. The conferences are designed to generate and bring to the fore research into the effects of media on all aspects of Arab societies, focusing on the economic, political, social, cultural and technological aspects of the media including newspaper, magazine, radio, television, cable, news agencies, film, satellite broadcasting and the Internet as well as other mass media industries. Topics covered include issues of governance, media laws, rules and regulations, developments in freedom of expression, commercial and non-commercial media systems, ethnicity and indigenous populations and the media, issues of politics, censorship, ownership patterns and control, aspects of media professionalism, media and conflict resolution, gender and communication, issues of Arab media and international relations and the like.

This year's conference dealt with a wide variety of media-related issues and provided a much needed forum for academic scholars, media practitioners, doctoral students and others to discuss issues of importance involving the Arab world and the transformation of its societies as a result of media impact on them. Particular attention was paid to important new developments in the domain of the Internet and new transnational satellite channels. The participants and attendees from the Arab World, Europe, and the United States explored issues ranging from the politics of coverage, committed journalism, and the role of media for Arabs abroad to issues such as media as a tool of war. The various papers presented new findings from on-going social science research on uses and impacts of modern technologies in work, leisure, education, commerce, globalization and transnational ties in the Arab world, and examined the changing access to communications, production and consumption of media, the evolving political economy of telecommunications and policy issues.

Conference participants met in nine full and four parallel sessions to hear speeches and presentations addressing the above mentioned issues. Morning panels of media practitioners and other experts explored the session topic from different perspectives, with a view to providing new information or original insights. Each session was followed by a lively discussion in which the topic studied was addressed by a number of participants. Critical commentaries were offered on the current debates.

On the first afternoon, the conference was opened by Dr. Ramez Maaluf, the director of the Beirut Institute for Media Arts, who welcomed the participants and attendees, and presented a brief outline of its goals. This was followed by the keynote address delivered by Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the head of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo and professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, who talked about the freedom of the Arab press.

Then followed three intensive days of presentations and discussions, during which a number of issues were raised. The first panel of the conference examined the current state of some of the Lebanese TV stations. Speakers included Ibrahim Farhat, director of Al Manar TV, Nicolas Abou Samah, executive of Heya TV, Ihab Hammoud from Future Television and Ramsay Najjar, Strategic Communication Consultant. The panelists offered interesting information about their own institutions and provided original insights into the problems Lebanese media currently confront.

The following session of the conference focused on the problem of the politics of coverage. Lars Lundsten from the Institute for Media, Arcada, Finland, contributed to the discussion with his paper entitled Reporting the "Crusade": A Rhetoric of Motives, which aimed to initiate a trans-cultural dialogue on the role of media in shaping Arab and Western ways of understanding each other and themselves. The presentation contained a number of references to transnational news reporting from the war against Iraq in 2003, understanding of which was promoted by American television rhetoric in terms of a crusade. Lars Lundsten stressed that stated facts have objectively different meaning within different cultural contexts, and that communicative meaning is dependent on social and cultural institutions, conventions, the collective beliefs and self-understanding of collectives. The second presentation devoted to this thematic area was delivered by Ramez Maaluf, who spoke on the absence of "inspirational movies" in the Arab film industry, and pointed out an interesting observation, that the Arabs are constantly, and by their own movies, bombarded by "failure."

The third session of the conference entitled "Confronting Modernity" examined recent trends and the future potential of modern technologies and satellite channels in the Arab world, and their impact on Arab societies. One of the questions raised was: Are they a threat - or not? Introduction of the Internet in the Arab world, as well as elsewhere, was accompanied by great visions and strong fears. The first speaker, Albrecht Hofheinz from the Center for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin, sought in his paper for answers to the following questions: Does the Internet contribute to value changes and to strengthening democratic publics in Arab societies? Will the net contribute to enhancing possibilities for democratic participation in public debate and decision-making? Or will it rather lead to cultural homogenization, transporting mostly Western values and helping to undermine other cultures? Albrecht Hofheinz approached these questions from the angle of majority use and presented analysis of what majority activities on the net consist of in the Arab world, what themes and ideas are particularly popular, and whether there are social and political trends especially evident on the net. He focused in particular on studying the Egyptian, Moroccan, and Sudanese case and presented important similarities to and significant differences from other countries. He concluded by suggesting that the greatest transformative potential of the Internet for the public sphere may lie not in its helping civil society organizations vis-à-vis the state, but in its enhancing a sense of individual autonomy.

Within the framework of this session, Tim Walters from Shaykh Zayed University looked in his paper at when, where, and how female Emirati students use television and the Internet and what they are looking for as they use it. Among Tim Walters' surprising findings are that these women live a highly mediated existence, media occupying more than 9.9 hours on average of their day. He pointed out that these students are traversing radically different communications pathways than their parents - a generation much more intimately connected through interpersonal communication. Making a switch-over from the Internet to the satellite television channels, the next speaker, Hana Nahas from the City University of London, examined whether satellite television channels can push an agenda for political change in the Middle East.

The afternoon session of that day featured presentations on "Media and Arabs Abroad." Judith Brown from Exeter University showed in her presentation how Arabs are acting, interacting and reacting to the British media. She underlined different attitudes of the new British Arab population and mentioned the recent appearance of properly managed press offices in Arab embassies in London, and the media-monitoring group, which encourages its members to respond to negative and inaccurate reports and to thank journalists who express a sympathetic viewpoint. The next speaker, Christoph Schumann from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, then described and analyzed two models of Diaspora press: the Arab-American press in the U.S. and the Turkish press in Germany. The Canadian state of affairs was elucidated by Fadi Zeidan from Quebec, who spoke on emigration and the media in Canada and the U.S. in the last ten years, and also by John Asfour, the chair of the Advisory Committee for Canadian Multi-Culturalism on Arab & Moslem Affairs, who presented a further Canadian case study.

The BIMA conference ended its first day with a wonderful Lebanese style dinner, where two of the conference participants, Rami Khouri (The Daily Star) and Bruce Kennedy (WABE 90.1 FM Atlanta) delivered the dinner address.

The second day of the conference was opened by a panel debate on committed journalism. Among the panelists were several Lebanese journalists: Talal Salman from As Safir, Edmond Saab from An Nahar and Rami Khouri from The Daily Star. Similarly to the previous day morning session, which introduced to the attendees the Lebanese television channels, this was an opportunity to get more information on the Lebanese press.

The following session discussed television's different responsibilities. The session opened with a presentation by Rawan Damen from the University of Leeds, who started off the session by presenting a horizontal case study of Al Jazeera Channel that examined and verified the hypothesis of the absence of real and thought-provoking educational debates on the main pan-Arab television stations. The second speaker of the session, Becky Schulthies from the University of Arizona, delivered an anthropological study of media reception in Morocco. Her paper aimed at filling the existing gap and providing linguistic analyses in the frame of ethnographic studies of media's impact on relations between local and global "imagined communities." Her paper merged the ethnography of media reception with careful linguistic analysis of domestic discourse in order to understand Moroccan family interpretive processes as they relate to viewing practices. The main question addressed was: How are media scripts contributing to Arab domestic dialogues and interpretations of current transnational events? Christa Salamandra, a Fulbright fellow at the Lebanese American University, on the other hand, presented ethnographic approaches to Syrian TV drama.

The afternoon session of the second day of the conference paid particular attention to media as a tool of war. John Merrill, professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, suggested - among other things - several points about what the Western media can do to give a good face to democratization, but at the same time indicated that they might be in favor of the status quo. Ibrahim Marashi from Oxford University, who delivered a paper entitled An Assessment of the Role of Media in "Operation Iraqi Freedom," pointed out that the media's failure to understand Iraq's history and politics led to many miscalculations of how "Operation Iraqi Freedom" would evolve, and how the Iraqi people would react to the American presence.

Joe Khalil then described in his paper how the Arab channels (Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV) fought for the Gulf war audience. He analyzed their strategy to prove themselves worthy of viewers' attention, and, most importantly, to claim leadership in news coverage. Studying the individual organizational cultures and tactical strategies of these channels, he tried to investigate how they had found ways to accommodate their alliances and need for promotion. The study addressed how Arab channels used their financial, technical, and editorial resources to produce a news product that might attract their target audience, while simultaneously considering both the internal and external factors that influenced their strategies.

The last Thursday session, entitled "The Framework of Media," was opened by Ralph Berenger, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo, who spoke on media behavior in the Middle East focusing on 2003 Gulf War. The goal of the delivered lecture was to lay the theoretical and conceptual groundwork to better understand global media's reporting behavior before, during, and after the 2003 Gulf War. The speaker stressed how personal biases inculcate the information in stories reporters choose to write and broadcast, which ultimately impacts the way audiences come to view an event. After that Bruce Kennedy (News Director, WABE 90.1 FM Atlanta) presented his Comparing News Coverage paper, demonstrating his statements by a number of news recordings. The last speaker of the session, Katharina Nötzold from the University of Erfurt, Germany, sought to offer a comparison of the developments in the pan-Arab satellite channels to the local Lebanese stations. She based her study on a series of very interesting quantitative and qualitative content analyses conducted on Lebanese newscasts.

The last day of the conference opened with a session focusing on different particulars. It included and covered a variety of topics. In his talk, Nabil Dajani from the American University of Beirut offered a critical reading of Arab information. Mazin Motabagani from Al Madinah Center for the Study of Orientalism devoted his paper to the BBC's relation to orientalism. In one of the most interesting presentations, Ali Awad from Al Sharjah University examined the women's press in the Arab world and pointed out several paradoxes related to this theme. The last speaker of the session, Hanan Yousef from Ain El Shams University, analyzed in her paper the role of Arab media in non-Arab lands, taking into account the international changes that had occurred in recent years.
During the following session, participants presented papers focused mostly on such issues as "Bias" and "Media and Governments." Kamal Abou Chedid from the Notre Dame University, Lebanon, opened this session by presenting his paper entitled Info-Bias Mechanism and American College Students Attitudes Towards Arabs, which examined-with negative images indicating a considerable degree of stereotyping against Arabs, and counter-stereotypes that indict Americans of having negative stereotypes about Arabs due to media bias-the extent to which American college students believe the American media provides them with useful information about Arabs and the Arab world.

Lina Khatib from the University of London explored in her paper Hollywood, Egyptian Cinema, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Hollywood's and Egyptian cinema's construction of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It showed how those cinematic representations revealed the difficulty of applying traditional cultural theories to the conflict. Lina Khatib analyzed the conflict's representation in Hollywood and compared the findings with Egyptian cinema's focuses. She argued that the American and Egyptian representations of the conflict ultimately served nationalist agendas, emphasizing the role of the US as a world leader on one hand, and that of Egypt as a crucial Arab player on the other hand. We were fortunate to watch during the presentation some extracts of those films illustrating Lina Khatib's statements and conclusions. The next speaker, Dalia Shams from Al Ahram Hebdo, Cairo, raised in her presentation the following question: What kind of heroes are conquering Arab audiences?

The session continued with Yousuf Al Humaid Al Suwaidi's (Australian National University / Dubai Courts) study of the role of media in assisting trial court performance. His paper examined the issue of a clear choice for fair trial over free or restricted press along with how courts could assess both the risks and benefits to be gained from the electronic media before permitting coverage of courts proceedings. After that, Dima Dabbous-Sensenig from Lebanese American University presented a study on the role of legislation play in structuring societal change. She examined the relationship between the introduction of broadcast legislation in Lebanon and the rule of law in the country after the end of the civil war. After examining all the phases of the regulatory process, she questioned the effectiveness of the democratic process that led to the promulgation and later implementation of the law, and the extent to which this measure, as one of several others, indeed introduced the rule of law in post civil-war Lebanon.

Finally, James Redman from the University of Utah spoke on Kurdish broadcasting's challenge to Turkish media hegemony. He stressed that European-based satellite stations became a powerful antithesis to the Republic's control over media content, and that incorporating traditional symbols of authority into their programming such as anthems, flags and newsroom maps of Kurdistan, these telecasts developed into state television without a state. The paper addressed this socio-political phenomenon and what it means for the nations involved, the Kurds and the Turks.

On the final afternoon of the conference, during the closing plenary, the participants, attendees and members of the audience of the 4th annual BIMA conference summarized the current state, lessons learned, and prospects for future. Several speakers provided some closing remarks and reflections on the meeting and its outcomes. Overall, the conference proved that there is indeed a lot of happening in the field of Arab media studies and was truly informative, covering a wide range of topics related to the Arab media and featuring a number of new and interesting findings. TBS


Iveta Kourilova teaches Arabic, Modern Islamic Society, and Leading Islamic Thinkers courses at theUniversity of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Czech Republic. She is also affiliated with the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
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