WASHINGTON — Although the restrictive media landscape in the Arab world has shifted since the Arab Spring with the rise of social media and more diverse television coverage, Arab countries also have adjusted their crackdown tactics while media polarization has increased, a scholar of the Middle East said.
“If you were an Islamist, you were watching one station,” said Marc Lynch, professor of political science at George Washington University. “If you were a liberal, you were watching the other. And there’s no interaction.”
Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief for Al-Hayat newspaper, speaking at a discussion sponsored by the PeaceTech Lab and BBC Media Action, that there are three problems in the Arab media: ownership, censorship and polarization.
She drew parallels with American media regarding polarization, noting that broadcast networks did not ask questions about the civil war in Yemen in much the same way the U.S. media did not question the premises for the invasion of Iraq.
Karram and Lynch said the media polarization in the Syrian civil war only perpetuates the conflict, with each actor receiving news only from sources that confirm their viewpoints.
Improved coverage in the Arab world will require increasing the number of independent channels that are not linked to governments, improving investigative coverage and having more journalism schools, Karram said. The current crop of journalism schools are Western-imports in the Gulf that teach in English.
But, Lynch said, the realities on the ground are still the dominant factor in extremist recruitment. The risks taken through media channels by youth movements have increased regime crackdowns, Lynch said.
Alexandra Buccianti, co-author of the BBC Media Action’s policy briefing “After the Arab uprisings: The prospects for a media that serves the public,” said that for the Arab media to unite rather than divide, it needs universality, diversity, independence and quality programming.
Buccianti said the media has an important role to play in spreading narratives of refugees and increasing awareness of the crisis.
“You can’t probably find two more interesting words combined—media and politics—in the context of the Middle East and North Africa,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, senior program officer for Middle East and North Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The jury is still out on the role that the media will play moving forward. In some cases, it unites, and in others, it divides.”