The world community has suddenly become interested in the media scene in the Arab world. It is not clear whether this is a result of the success enjoyed by some Arab satellites or simply an attempt to find a way to win the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims, as part of the West’s “war on terror”.
Major countries, among them the US, Sweden, UK, EU, are pouring millions of dollars supposedly towards making the Arab media more independent, and media groups are coming together to see what are the needs of the media in this region of the world. For those of us struggling for independent media in this area, this is generally good news, although we must be aware of the many pitfalls that can accompany such an abrupt interest in this sector.
A quick survey of the media scene in our region shows that governments have always had overwhelming influence in almost every aspect. They either own or control almost all the media. There is government monopoly on radio and TV in most Arab countries; newspapers are often nominally owned by private individuals but in almost all the countries these businesspeople are partially or entirely subservient to governments who can make or break a private newspaper through a variety of administrative, legal and political pressure points. Governments also have influence on the media through the journalists’ syndicates.
Big businesses, including local representatives of multinationals, are often in tandem with autocratic governments, at times having a negative effect on independent media, often encouraging pro-government media and generally favouring centralised media instead of decentralised local and community media.
As long as governments control media, the ability of independent media to exist and flourish is next to impossible. Therefore, media reform must be directed towards either seeking ways to lobby governments to end their control and support for some media outlets at the account of others or, conversely, (and until such a change takes place) create a mechanism so as to subsidise media not supported by governments, thus establishing some sort of equilibrium between government-supported and private-supported media.
Such support can be done creatively so as not to make donors part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Some examples in this direction are the Danish government’s International Media Support NGO, which funds the programme Eye on the Media and the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), in which it is funding the research of investigative reports and subsidising the media outlets that allow their staff to take time off to do research by covering the cost of a replacement staff person while the journalist is busy doing the investigation. Other ideas can include support for radio and TV production and subsidising a newspaper supplement that deals with environment, women or youth.
There is need for agents of change, and since this is a dynamic field, we need to invest effort and resources in supporting individual champions that are willing to fight for reform. Such support will encourage them to continue taking risks and also help create role models for younger media practitioners. Funding these champions also helps them avoid making compromises. Media-related prizes and other incentives can go a long way in providing psychological and practical support as well.
The information revolution has provided technological tools to allow media champions to push for change and reform even under the most dictatorial regimes. Such innovative and experimental ideas needs to be supported technically and financially.
While donor-supported programmes can have many positive results, there are a number of pitfalls that donors must be aware of. Too many donor-driven programmes which reflect their desires (often in good faith) end up in failure because too little effort is made to hear what the recipients want. On many occasions the enthusiasm of donors has led them to lend support to nothing more than paper organisations. Donor funding has also at time gone to people who are in the business of fundraising and can spout all the correct jargon with little substance to back this up.
The region is full of examples in which donors created programmes that are duplicates. Journalists and media activists sometimes suffer when taking financial support from donors. While this is not always the fault of the donors (recipients often take the risks knowing the potential dangers), it is important that donors be aware of the possible backlash.
Donor-driven programmes are usually well-funded, thus driving wages higher and potentially hurting small independent media, the group that needs to be helped the most. Certain well-funded programmes are often taking away business from small- and medium-scale media producers.
While the situation in the Arab world in general, and Jordan in particular, is quickly changing for the better, much work is still needed. While issues such as imprisonment of journalists, liberalising the airwaves and access to information can be addressed through laws, the more difficult problem of creating an environment that respects freedom of expression will take much longer and will require efforts from schools, political parties and civil society.