Media Convergence and Its Consequences

by Jon W. Anderson (Catholic University of America) &
Dale F. Eickelman (Dartmouth College)

In December, the Arab States Broadcasting Union rejected the application of al-Jazeera TV, a new Qatar-based news and discussion channel distributed by satellite throughout the Arab world. It gave this provocative and widely popular broadcaster six months "to conform with the Arab media code of honor" which "promotes brotherhood between Arab nations." Within days, a four-sentence wire service report of this story was spread internationally on the Internet by Arabia.On.Line (AROL), a three-year-old Jordanian World Wide Web site. Technology and its adepts thus undermine an information regime of privileged arbiters of public discourse.

Convergence of media and wider participation in communication underlie the global information revolution now permeating the Arab Middle East and bypassing efforts of nearly all governments of the region to control the print and broadcast media. The information revolution in the Middle East features more of everything: media, especially transnational media, information, and erosion of boundaries to communication carefully erected by state monopolies. It particularly erodes attempts to limit public discourse to the promotion of acceptable views. New technologies, the convergence of satellite broadcasting and the Internet, a multiplication of actors in a widening public realm, and generational change are bringing forward the region's first cohort raised on television with increasing numbers adept in the Internet.

The Internet is a global phenomenon, but with a distinct regional profile. Dabbagh Information Technology in Dubai estimates that less than one percent of households in the Arab Middle East subscribe to Internet services, rising to three percent in some Gulf countries, with growth rates in the low double digits. The typical respondent in DIT's surveys is younger, more educated, and far more likely to be both professional and male than in the US or Europe. Internet growth in the Arab Middle East is primarily connected to commercial concerns, in comparison to the leading role played by universities and research in the US. While sponsored as industrial development by the government in Egypt, throughout the region the Internet is more commonly a child of telecommunications concerns and the media arms of commercial conglomerates. A few research institutes had early connections, but commercial interests have brought the region on-line as an additional dimension of distribution and marketing.

Part of the reason is that the technology is readily available and largely off-the-shelf, but the costs to businesses are low in comparison to the economic costs and other impediments to individual users. Actual consumers of Internet services in the region to date have largely been firms, and a panoply of firms has emerged to provide everything from physical connection to site-design and hosting to other support services. These are commonly spin-offs from established telecommunications, trading, and media concerns in both public and private sectors. For "end" users, the cost of equipment and connections, limited infrastructure, and the overwhelmingly English language medium have kept the Internet beyond reach for all but a handful of scientists and engineers at selected government research institutes, international companies for whom the information superhighway is a potential place of business, and visionaries in official positions and the private sector. Dr. Hazem Abdelazim, executive director of Sakhr Software, which creates programs for using Arabic on the Internet, recently noted that slightly more than three hundred thousand of an estimated twenty million "pages" making up the World Wide Web are in Arabic.

Convergence, however, is changing this picture. Technologically, there is no bar to convergence. The Internet fundamentally depends on telecommunications capacity, which has been a rising throughout most of the region and especially in Gulf countries. In the past year, satellite broadcasters have offered or bought Internet services. Arabia.On.Line, one of the first Arab World Wide Web sites, survived the demise of its parent, Byte Middle East, and is now part-owned by Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, the Saudi media mogul with interests in Arab Radio and Television (entertainment predominately in Arabic), ZakSat (a Kuwait-based satellite broadcaster and Internet service provider), and mobile telephones. Other Gulf broadcasters offering international fare have announced Internet services in connection with satellite television: the Showtime satellite network of Gulf DTH will offer some 600 websites through the ZakNet subsidiary of ZakSat.

Today's convergence is in applications, particularly around entertainment. AROL, for instance, has added sports to its daily offering of regional political, commercial, and technological news for a business audience. The most striking example is Saudi Arabia's adoption of an entertainment model for regulating public access to the Internet, which must meet standards of broadcasting "propriety ." Moreover, the structure of the Saudi services, through a government controlled gateway, is similar to schemes for Satellite Master Antenna Systems and Multi Channel Microwave Distribution to replace individually owned satellite dishes, nominally banned in the Kingdom.

A glance at the dish-equipped rooftops of any Middle Eastern city attests to the penetration of satellite television. As important as the rising number of receivers is the rising number and variety of senders, of which al-Jazeera is only the most prominent. By comparison to entertainment-and-sports formats favored by ArabSat members, al-Jazeera is the first to feature full-time news and discussion and serious competition for MBC, a formerly Lebanese broadcaster reborn on a CNN model and relocated to London. Perhaps al-Jazeera's most popular show is "al-Ittijah al-Mu'akis" (The Opposite Direction), which has served as an open forum for political debate and attracted the ire of Arab governments unaccustomed to such competition in a medium they have heretofore dominated. The real change is not the emergence of alternative voices in public media, but their sheer variety.

This is the Internet model. From modest beginnings as a showcase for the technology and its commercial possibilities for image advertising, the Internet has had a role in expanding the media environment. As Jon Alterman notes in a recent study (New Media, New Politics? Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998), among the first beneficiaries of the Internet in the Middle East have been journalists and the press. Most of the transnational Arab press, nearly all of the English editions of regional publications, and a rising number of the Arabic ones are now on-line. Their individual presences collectively constitute a new community of communication that is transnational, open to more participants, and interactive in a way that traditional broadcasting has not been.

Until now, broadcasting and electronic media in the Middle East generally narrowed rather than widened the possibilities for communication. As government monopolies, they were instruments of state-building, and still are for those with dirigiste inclinations, now in the guise of education, economic development, and providing a controlled space for religious broadcasting.

A new information regime is emerging that magnifies what has been a minor presence and arm's length relationship. Many Middle Eastern governments tolerate a degree of experimentation abroad that is anathema at home and in Arabic. Free expression at the margins provides a safety valve and a way of keeping tabs on opponents and alternatives at a safe distance from local arenas. This "distancing" is breaking down, not just as those arenas are penetrated, but more importantly as the number of conversations multiplies and find their way into public media and wider circulation.

Underlying these trends are more fundamental ones of demographic change. The average tenure of contemporary Arab regimes is approaching 18 years and converging on the median age of populations that are increasingly educated and increasingly urban. Old habits, such as the "honor code" that the Arab States Broadcasting Union urges on al-Jazeera, meet new realities that include a several decades long rise in mass education, particularly mass higher education, and reconnection with the Arab diaspora that together erode old monopolies on information and communication. In this context, technologies from cassette recording to satellite TV to the Internet accelerate communication, bypass gatekeepers, reduce the social distance between sender and receiver, segment markets, and give voice and place to special, even to passing, interests. The first generation of mass media, such as government broadcasting monopolies, now faces the competition of more user-friendly media that began with cassette recorders and are now joined by "narrowcasting" and its ultimate (for now) expression in the Internet.

This retail technology brings into the public arena conventions and practices of face-to-face communication that mass communications had relegated to a "private" realm, expanding their reach and what is in public. This may be more significant in the longer term than the possibilities for media celebrity as the public sphere is enriched not just by more players but by more conversations and more ways for consumers/recipients to recognize themselves and their lives in public discourse.

An early result is a more diverse Arab media culture, which has been dominated by political reporting and ideological commentary. Mass media facilitated a journalism that is part of the political culture on which it reports; new media, by bringing more of society into public discourse, facilitate a broader-based journalism. Other identities figure prominently in new media, as cassette recordings circulate not only sermons of prominent preachers but also folk music and recitations, or local and even neighborhood television stations feature neighbors addressing local and even neighborhood issues, or the Internet, which first interests professionals.

Another result is that indigenous forms come the fore and surface tensions between local diversities and would-be uniformitarians. Apart from the ASBU, these include the Muslim Brethren, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and the Afghan Taliban finding their way to media that match their ambitions to make their cases, which include the reform of local practice.

While al-Jazeera has made an enormous splash, attracting viewers across the region, many of whom call in to talk shows, and the Internet currently has a limited base, ultimately the Internet is the more important. It is the model for post-mass media marked by audience fragmentation, diversity, seeking over receiving; and in these terms, al-Jazeera is TV on an Internet model.


Reprinted from Middle East Insight XIV(2): 59-61, March-April 1999, "Focus on the New Media"

In accordance with The Copyright Law of the United States of America, Chapter 1, § 108(b)(3), this work may be protected by copyright.

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