Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Arab media and civil society

There is a deficit in how Arab media treats, and perhaps understands, civil society, which directly impacts the capacity of civil society to play an effective role, writes Awatef Abdel-Rahman

Al-Ahram Weekly

In recent years, the term “civil society” has gained currency in the Arab world, used in diverse ways and with different meanings by researchers and authors. Attitudes to civil society vary. Some are enthusiastic while others have reservations, since the call from civil society came primarily from bodies that offered financial assistance to research centres, to support and spread the idea.

The civil society model emerged and matured in a Western context, with vastly different political, economic, social and cultural features than the Arab world with its own cultural and social history. Supporters of the idea of civil society believe that global developments that followed the scientific, technological revolution and the fall of totalitarian regimes in the Eastern bloc, with the concomitant decline of the role of the state and trend toward democracy with the rise of globalisation, require non-governmental organisations to engage in activities that complement the state’s role and help spread the values of social initiative and self-reliance. In this, they seek to go beyond reliance on the state and to undo social and cultural conditions that no longer suit the nature and needs of this stage in human history.

Civil society in the Arab world is currently going through an extremely difficult, complex transitional phase, marked by global shifts, domestic economic, social and political changes, and diverse intellectual and cultural trends. Organised civil society grew from 20,000 institutions in the mid-1970s to 70,000 in the late 1980s, but overall it suffers from restraints and other factors growing out of the failure of democratisation in the Arab world and the varied conditions of civil society, from one Arab country to the next, due to different political systems.

In states with limited multiparty pluralism, like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Yemen, Tunisia and Algeria, civic associations are growing. In conservative political systems, like those in the Arab Gulf, such organisations are fewer in number and less diverse. In these countries, human rights groups are virtually non-existent, and many civic groups engage in religiously based charitable work, as in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE.

There are also states that do not permit the establishment of civic organisations that reflect citizen initiatives, but instead establish popular committees that constitute an arm of government authority, as in Libya, or state-dominated federations, as in Iraq before the US occupation.

The debate over the media’s role in increasing awareness of civil society issues has highlighted several problems surrounding media discourse in both traditional and electronic media, such as the press, television, radio, satellite channels and Internet, as well as media materials disseminated by civic organisations. International and local media have made important contributions over the last two decades in making civil society issues a matter of public concern, both elite and popular.

Nevertheless, global and local experience suggests that that there are two types of media coverage of civil society in the global north and south. The first is fleeting coverage linked with particular occasions, such as inauguration ceremonies, the launch of new projects, seminars, festivals and local or international conferences. Typically, this means news coverage that ends with the specific event itself, with no follow-up of associated activities, obstacles, impacts and accomplishments.

Practitioners of this type of coverage, which is still prevalent in the Arab world, believe that it is an appropriate media response to local and global market demands and the needs of ruling circles. Media treatments of civil society issues under this model are subject to market competition, characterised by brief news items and little verified field investigations, resembling a mixture of paid public-service announcements and news reports.

Relying on official sources, these treatments typically adopt the perspective of governments and investment projects and ignore the views of local residents. They also focus on issues on the foreign agenda at the expense of local issues, while overusing vague, international terminology favoured by foreign donor agencies.

The second type of media coverage of civil society issues and culture relies on an integrated view of these issues, looking at their organic relationship with other social issues (political, economic or cultural), or is a more sustained type of coverage that looks at the wider picture and does not stop at simply the coverage of events.

This type of media discourse offers two types of media coverage of civil society issues: educational and critical. The first adopts a view that the publication of accurate information about the activities of civic organisations is not enough; the public must also be made aware of its social rights and responsibilities. Critical coverage adds an attempt to involve the public in assessing civil society activities covered by the media, to enable the public to understand the philosophy of civil society in its proper rights framework, in contrast to the partisans of the first type of discourse.

The educational, critical approach to civil society issues is marked by the ability of its practitioners to present a critical perspective, thus exposing the misinformation propagated by the first type of discourse. It is not locked into a theory isolated from reality and it is not bound to moneyed interests, local and foreign investment circles, and personal interests that would distort this perspective.

For this reason, proponents of this approach start from a reality-based stance to raise public awareness of civil society issues and society’s legitimate rights. They take care to link media coverage with rights, economic interests and mass cultural values, both individual and collective, and seek to highlight the relationship between civic organisations and the public and the positive or negative impact of their activities on the lives of the most needy social sectors.

This is done through in-depth reporting as well as by publicising other nations’ experiments that succeeded in making real gains through voluntary work. Practitioners of this critical approach translate their awareness of civil society issues into educational media coverage that avoids exaggeration, focussing on civic, volunteer initiatives that work outside the limelight in the countryside and villages and informal and working-class areas.

Partisans of this approach believe that the public’s engagement with volunteer activities is fundamentally linked with how convinced it is that civic organisations are sincere and serious in their adoption of the public’s basic rights to housing, education, jobs, treatment, and political and cultural participation. At base, they believe that citizens who are deprived of their rights are unable, and unwilling, to take part in any volunteer activity.

Civic organisations in the Arab world still tend to operate in the realm of traditional media, which revolve around issuing publications and press statements. In their outreach efforts, they tend to employ the same ideas and terminology common in government media and UN organisations without a readiness to create alternate lexicons that reflect the cultural role of civil society.

This narrowly technical, instrumental view of the media that prevails among most civil society institutions is attributable to the absence of a proper strategic understanding of the great potential offered by the media to enable the broad public to absorb a critical culture that affirms the ability of civic action to create alternatives to government and market-oriented policies.

This can be done by rebutting and critiquing official media coverage and posing political, social, cultural and economic alternatives that can promote the rights-based system of civil society while also having an impact on state policies and allowing them to escape dependency on international organisations.

Active media outreach by Arab civic organisations is important because they are dealing with a public that may be illiterate — perhaps up to half the population — and also lacks cultural literacy. This requires exceptional, unconventional cultural and media efforts to ensure that these organisations do not fall into the trap represented by globalised concepts and terminology and its mainstream media mechanisms, or imitate the official media with its distortions and hyping of government policies.

Some field studies have found that most civil society groups lack an awareness of media and outreach. They have found that volunteer activists take an overwhelmingly superficial view that is uninformed by official media and does not realise the actual function of citizen media. As a result, their deployment of the media is lacking and they fail to use its diverse possibilities to foster public opinion supportive of civic action.

At the same time, one study looking at media treatments of the issues and challenges facing civil society found that the media does not have a full understanding of the nature of the role played by civil groups in confronting the state’s dominance and control of society in terms of security, legislation and administration. The media still views civic action as simply charitable work. This can have negative repercussions on media coverage of civil society activities, which is consequently limited and fleeting, with no media-based campaigns.

There is little interest in grooming media workers who believe in the philosophy and role of civic action because of official dominance over media practices and Arab governments’ desire to tighten their control over print and audio-visual mass media. Moreover, market players have increasing influence through advertisements that cut into the media time that could be allotted to public education and awareness-raising efforts. In turn, this denies readers and viewers their media and cultural rights. Advertisements have also had a hand in corrupting many Arab media figures by turning them into mouthpieces for multinational companies and international ad agencies.

Arab media typically disregards activities by civic organisations in rural areas, focussing on associations centred in the capital, run by big investors, businessmen and government-affiliated figures and dependent on foreign funding. Arab media also tends to avoid discussion of the contentious relations between civic organisations and governments, focussing instead on coverage of celebratory activities.

I believe that the effectiveness of media discourse concerned with civil society issues will remain limited and without mass public impact, regardless of how well it cleaves to conditions of objectivity such as clarity, specificity, diversity, the use of evidence and engagement with the public’s everyday concerns.

At best, citizens have become merely followers of an incredible array of information and news that does not meet their daily needs and does not change their reality for the better. Man does not live by media information alone. The unclothed bodies, scared souls and trembling hands do not belong to their nation, which withholds from them security and dignity, and in turn the citizens do not care to protect or advance it.

The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.

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