Kamal Hamidou, Head of the Qatar University Mass Communication Department, answers a variety of questions linked to the media landscape, highlighting quantitative and qualitative imbalances in communication flow between incoming and outgoing messages to and from Arab countries. In this interview, the above-named expert also looks at the importance of the television station Al Jazeera, both domestically and abroad.
Keywords: Al Jazeera; Arab world; international communication; media; Qatar.
Characterizing the media in Arab countries
Jorge Marinho (JM): Compared to Western countries, how do you characterize the independence of Journalism in relation to political and economic power in Arab countries in general, and specifically in Qatar?
Kamal Hamidou (KH): Overall, the media landscape of the Arab world is characterized by the presence of two types of media: state media and private media groups. The first type is generally composed of media that act as spokespersons for the governments in place. They strive to more often highlight the development actions and policies undertaken by state institutions, as well as to justify the national and international political choices of the governments in place. These media are generally characterized by strong conformism with a consensual tone and a measured language.
The Media of private groups are characterized for their part by programs geared more towards entertainment purposes. Except for rare cases, political or news programs follow the same rules of conformism as those observed by state media. Qatar, like all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries with their monarchical or quasi-monarchical specificities, has a unique media system classified by William Rugh in his book entitled Arab Mass Media in the category of the loyalist press. It is a press system where journalists remain loyal to the first level of governance of political systems in force in GCC countries, but which allows criticism against the lower levels. That being said, Qatar was one of the first Arab countries to abolish information ministry as a media supervisory authority who oversees media work. It had also relaxed the legal arsenal that curtailed freedom of speech in the country. However, journalists, mostly foreign citizens, practice self-censorship and do not make full use of the margins allowed by politicians to approach public affairs.
JM: Currently, given communication's high degree of relevance in our societies, how do you value media analysts, considering their ability to detect certain actions, which are not always evident to the general public, carried out via the media and the effects of messages on target audiences, alerting society and decision-makers linked to these issues?
KH: Throughout the whole world, and in particular in Europe and the USA, we have seen what looks like a generalized subjugation of the media during the two last decades; a large number of analysts in these countries nowadays take on more the costume of penholder of the system in force than the role of enlightening public opinion. We also noticed a palpable qualitative and quantitative decline around the world in journalistic contributions, aimed at defending the common interest and monitoring the way public affairs are run. Indeed, the first two decades of the beginning of the 20th century indicate to us a scarcity of investigative works that shake up public affairs by denouncing corruption, embezzlement, conflicts of interest, or quite simply criticize the bad policies put in place by governments and their negative repercussions on the long term. This puts the media and journalists in a blatant anachronism with respect to the expectations and to their supposed role as the fourth estate, as well as their supposed role in nourishing democracy in liberal political systems.
JM: Do you feel that national and cultural identity can, in the middle and long term, to a greater or lesser extent, be weakened by certain contents that, through domestic and foreign media, are broadcast in a given country?
KH: The loss of identity is not only the result of social networks and global media contents, it is a fatality that began long time before the advent of the internet or cross-border media, consequently to the modernity and the “economic rationality” inherent to the modernity as defined by Max Weber. These consequences have, in turn, affected modern human socio-cultural conditions. In the 1920s, Max Weber had rightly predicted the “disenchantment of the world” we are experiencing nowadays, and this disenchantment tends to accelerate more and more in the eras of post modernity and hypermodernity. That being said, traditional media have long since started an action of enculturation as well as a large-scale alienation towards the modern man, whether through the contents of the local media, the global cross-border media or through media intended for particular civilizational or linguistic areas. Nevertheless, social networks are taking a further step in this endeavor; they are creating the multidimensional man capable of living with a double or even a triple temporality between here, there, and elsewhere, just as he is capable of making coexistent the specific values ??of its membership group with those of its reference groups.
The Importance of the television station Al Jazeera
JM: For Qatar, what does Al Jazeera mean, in deeper terms, to the extent that, among several aspects, this is the location of its head offices? Do you feel that not only is Al Jazeera just another television channel, but also that it carries symbolic value?
KH: Decidedly, Al Jazeera constitutes a symbolic value for Qatar and for the whole Arab world. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the channel symbolizes the turning point in the televisual landscape in the mid-nineteenths. Despite the relative decline observed in its global audience over the past decade, it remains one of the most popular pan-Arab channels, especially during the major events that affect the region. For Qatar, the channel conveys a brand image that goes beyond the Arab world. This brand image has been largely reinforced by the group to which Al Jazeera gave birth, namely "BeInSPORTS" group, previously called “Al Jazeera Sports”. These two media groups are part of the tools of the Qatari public diplomacy and the Qatari soft power in the world. Sport and the media as well as companies or institutions like Qatar Airways, Qatar Investment Company (QIC) as well as world football club sponsoring have become for Qatar a real “world showcase” that sells the Qatari destination to tourists, media and investors from the whole world. These brands have allowed the whole world to locate this micro-country on the world map since the mid-1990s, just as they have allowed it to grow on the international scene. The state has successfully established itself as a major player in the court of the world’s great nations, thanks to the its international media strategy, its active diplomacy and its fast-growing political and economic weight that gave the country important weight on the international scene.
JM: What specific features do you point out in the Arab television station Al Jazeera?
KH: The peculiarity that sets Al Jazeera apart from other global news channels is its spectrum of coverage that excludes Qatar's domestic affairs. The channel would gain even more credibility if it included in its daily agenda topics relating to internal public affairs in Qatar. However, this observation is not specific to Al Jazeera: the competing channels in the Gulf countries like Sky News Arabia and Al Arabiya have the same approach, and this is due to the specificities of the media systems existing in the Gulf countries as mentioned above. The other particularity is the channel’s ability to anticipate technical changes and to integrate them in a very innovative way into its professional practices. This was the case with its rapid positioning on social networks, as well as the case with the use of the AJ + technology to allow the distribution of short but very effective content, suitable for both traditional media and new interactive networks such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. This new tool has enabled Al Jazeera to reach out to audiences in the favorite ground of the digital natives and young people, known for having abandoned the use of traditional media in favor of content broadcast on tablets and mobiles.
JM: As part of international communication, what importance do you attribute to the Arab television station Al Jazeera, regarding Western viewers?
KH: For Western viewers, Al Jazeera constitutes a very interesting alternative to Western media, as it allows them to be confronted with a different media agenda and a different editorial line than those to which they are accustomed. This allows them to see international events from the perspective and point of view of others, and thus, free themselves from media discourse intended for the Western viewer, almost oriented by ethnocentric visions or ideological positioning of Western journalists. Al Jazeera broadcasts in several international languages, especially in English. It had even launched a cable channel in the United States, which unfortunately was subsequently closed for various reasons. If we observe the role of Al Jazeera from the point of view of its role in international communication, we can see that with the human and material resources it has at its disposal, Al Jazeera effectively contributes to the creation of an efficient and long-awaited flow from South to North. This reverse flow constitutes a real contribution to the efforts of rebalancing the international flow of communication after years of domination of the North-to-South flow. This goes a long way in maintaining diversity at a global level, which makes Al Jazeera, therefore, perfect in its credo and its role of making audible the voice of those who do not have one, but at an international scale.
JM: Also with regard to international communication, what importance do you attribute to the Arab television station Al Jazeera, regarding Arab viewers living in Western countries?
KH: Al Jazeera's geopolitical agenda focuses on a spectrum that primarily covers the Arab countries of the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region, and then broadens its scope to topics that concern Muslim countries. Subjects that cover the Western countries and the rest of the world are featured only incidentally, particularly during the major elections in these countries or during the major politico-media controversies that involve subjects relating to Islam or to the Arab diaspora settled in the West. In terms of broadcast and reception in the world, we need to distinguish between two types of Al Jazeera channels as well as two types of audiences in order to properly understand the effect of Al Jazeera on these audiences. We have, on the one hand, the channel that broadcasts in Arabic language and, on the other hand, the channels that broadcast in other languages. In terms of audience, we must also distinguish between viewers who left their countries to emigrate more or less recently to Western countries, and people of the second or third generation of Arab immigrants who were born in Western countries. The majority of viewers of the first group do have access to the classical Arabic language used in Al Jazeera’s programs, which allows them to watch and understand its contents. Most people of the second category of viewers have a very limited mastery of their mother tongue, which considerably reduces their access to this channel, while they have the possibility to follow Al Jazeera English if they master English language enough. However, Al Jazeera English is a channel primarily intended to speak to the Western mind, which explains that this channel do not use same language and the same agenda used by the Arabic-speaking channel. This means that for the Arab diaspora and for Westerners with an Arab origin, Al Jazeera may constitute a fallback channel for subjects dealing with the Arab and Muslim world. However, the channel is not the one they use to get information on issues related to public affairs in their host countries.
JM: In your opinion, is there an imbalance between that which Arab countries receive from Western countries, via the media, and that which they manage to broadcast to Western countries? If so: What should be done to reduce this imbalance?
KH: There is an obvious imbalance, decried for a long time by many scholars in many works concerned with the issue of rebalancing the communication flow in the world. This imbalance is not new and it is likely that it will continue for a long time. It comes from production capacities that are largely unfavorable to Arab countries and to Southern countries as a whole. This imbalance is not only quantitative; it is also qualitative because the inverted flow, as minimal as it is, suffers from several caveats. First, there is the incompatibility between the Western mind and the Southern mind regarding the content and agenda of the programs. For instance, we can mention in the field of entertainment, the case of Bollywood and its inability to penetrate the Western market, despite the high production capacities acquired, and despite the quality of its production that is increasingly present in its films. In addition, we note in the field of information that most of the efforts made by the Arab countries and the Southern countries at destination of the north address primarily diasporas or citizens of Arab origin or Southern countries. Only few programs address the Western mind from its intellectual standpoint and with the required standards that make them more attractive for Western audience. Admittedly, Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Documentary English are starting to nibble at the market share of the Western audience. However, we are still far from the account for the moment to really speak about rebalancing. That being said, the successful experience of Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Documentary featured in English constitutes a model to follow in trying to reach Western viewers, by offering them contents with different a agenda and focus, but with the appropriate intellectual standpoint and the professional quality that make the Western mind open to receiving these contents.
JM: The way you see it, is contemporary Arab culture (Art, Science and technological achievements) properly disseminated, through the media, and favorably welcomed in Western countries? If not: What should be done to improve this situation?
KH: Media coverage of contemporary achievements of Arab countries in literature, arts, sciences and technology remains insufficient in Western countries. Media in these countries place more emphasis on past contributions of Arab scholars and man of letters in the Golden Age of Arab civilization during the prime periods of the Umayyad, Abbasids and the Andalusian period, as if the time machine of the Arab world stopped in the 13th century. This does not go in the direction of the wishes displayed here and there for the use of the media as a means of making others known and of reducing the cultural divides between peoples. At the same time, for almost three decades, we have observed an over-media coverage of the negative aspects that highlight Arab implication in wars, terrorism, corruption, illegal immigration, etc. Most of the time, the Arab world is described as a static world where nothing is done except violent acts, chaos and endless revolutions. Mention is rarely made of Arab doctors who save lives in Western hospitals, Arab scientists who work for NASA in the USA, teachers-researchers working at Western universities etc. The media also fall short in speaking about Arab painters who exhibit their paintings in the most famous galleries in the world, writers who publish the most beautiful poems and novels, and entrepreneurs who succeed in investment projects and who contribute to the national economy of Western countries. This stems from the prevailing stereotypes and racism in Western societies and from the desire of certain politicians and certain media to maintain a cultural and ideological animosity with the Arab world, with the aim of using it as a tool of mobilization during electoral periods. This situation can only change if Arab countries have their own media, with the necessary means and techniques that make them able to speak to the Western soul and Western reason using the appropriate language.
JM: In your view, to enable the dissemination of contemporary Western culture to be favorably welcomed in Arab countries in general, and specifically in Qatar, is it sensible to consider certain specifics of the Arab context, and, if so, which ones do you point out?
KH: Contemporary Western culture is already widely present in most Arab countries, including Qatar and the Gulf countries, which are mistakenly viewed as closed and more conservative countries. Likewise, Arab societies have long been largely alienated by values ??specific to Western culture. Asking for more integration of Western cultural values ??into Arab societies is tantamount to wanting to establish absolute western cultural dominance, which neither reason nor common sense can admit. So the question does not arise in these terms; otherwise, we will fall into a paralogism. Moreover, this alienation is, in part, at the origin of the identity crisis that the Arab world is living, torn between the proponents of an uninhibited Western modernization and the proponents of a return to the authentic values that forged the Arab-Muslim identity at the time of its splendor. This antagonism is not just a debate of literary salons in the Arab world, since it has engendered violent struggling in some countries that reached the stage of armed conflicts between the belligerents. Western culture has already taken root in the Arab-Muslim world aided in this process essentially by colonization/protectorate processes, then by immigration, then through the elites trained in Western universities, and finally by the power of media and Western cinema since the 1970s. Furthermore, we have to mention that the rejection of Western culture by the Arab-Muslim world is not a rejection in principle because it is the culture of the other, which happens to be the Western one in our case. Even the most religious or intellectual purists call for the use of the best values of Western culture. The rejection concerns only deviant values, considered as decadent and as factors preventing humanity from accessing human virtue, as the ultimate outcome of moral values.
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Author: Jorge Marinho, Ph.D in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism