The Role of the Media as Watch-dogs, Agenda-setters and Gatekeepers in Arab States

Lawrence Pintak
Publication Date
May 16, 2008

Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research, The American University of Cairo

In this 19-page paper on contrasting the media as the "mouthpiece of tradition”, with the possibilities of its role as a watch-dog, agenda-setter, and gate-keeper in Arab States, Lawrence Pintak writes about: the political pressures resulting in self-censorship among journalists and their acquiescence on local issues; his survey of their perception of their role; the possible role of media in incremental change; and implications and future research. The document is part of the publication of papers for a conference on “The Role of the News Media in the Governance Reform Agenda", which was co-sponsored by the World Bank Communication for Governance and Accountability Program (CommGAP) and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Boston, United States (US).



According to this document, the media across the Arab states, due to state ownership and control, have not, historically, been forces in agenda-setting on issues at local, state, or regional levels. "Before the advent of Arab satellite television, the idea that media might drive public opinion in a direction other than that dictated by government was essentially unthinkable, much less that media would have an agenda-setting effect independent from that of those in power." The author describes a "seminal moment for the media" when a cellphone video of police abuse of power drew intense media interest and brought about the conviction of policemen. With the advent of satellite television and the broadcast of the channel Al-Jazeera, governments temporarily lost control of the broadcast media. Electronic media then took a role in opinion formation. Though owned by the government of Qatar, Al-Jazeera "...brought to the region’s television screens a diversity of voices and a kind of questioning journalism never before seen in the Arab world. Its raison d’etre was political and social change..." Seeing a new role for journalism through exposure to Al-Jazeera, there was, among journalists, a desire to break new ground, "particularly evident in the newsrooms of the handful of semi-independent newspapers that began appearing in the region, such as Al-Masri al-Youm in Egypt and Jordan’s Al-Ghad..." and in the more than 300 new Arab satellite channels.



Though studies have linked "shifting public attitudes toward the now-faltering democracy agenda across the region" to the exposure to satellite television, the document states that media-fueled aspirations for change and real change are two very different things. "But while media has yet to create broad political change, its impact on policy is beginning to become evident – even if still nascent enough that one can easily cite most instances when it has been apparent." The document describes coverage of cross-border conflict within the region and internal civil issues as affecting the decisions of various governments.



Media are described as limiting their coverage in their own localities: "...they ignore local issues - like water, sanitation and roads... They also avoid soiling their own nests." Political influence on local reporting has been "facilitated by the adoption of an Arab League Satellite Charter, authored by the Egyptians and Saudis, who control the two main satellites in the region, Nilesat and Arabsat. The charter contained vague language warning against jeopardizing 'social peace, national unity, public order and general propriety' and ordering that channels must protect 'the supreme interests of the Arab countries.' Other sections warned against offending 'moral, social and cultural values' and 'threatening national unity, spreading propaganda and harming the overarching interests of the country.' Similar catch-all phrases had long been used to shut down newspapers, block Internet sites and jail journalist." [Note: Footnotes have been removed from this section by the editor.] The charter has been used to arrest journalists and activists who organise through the internet (including on social networking sites such as Facebook), as well as to close down media such as satellite stations and other print and broadcast media.



As stated here, "The Freedom House map of press freedom in the Arab world is monochromatic; most of the region is colored dark blue for “not free,..." Thus, reporters, media managers, and editors engage in a high degree of self-censorship resulting form the political and legal climate of hostility toward the media. However, research by the author shows, "a press corps determined to drive political and social change," particularly evident in these results: 1) rank the most significant job of an Arab journalist - result - "Encourage political reform"; 2) rank the most important issue facing the region - result - "political reform"; 3) rank the greatest threat facing the region - result - a tie between "United States policy" and "lack of political change"; and 4) rank the most significant challenge to Arab journalism - result - "lack of professionalism".



The document concludes with recommendations, including the following:

  • " is needed, in terms of government-to-government encouragement of legal reform and the protection of individual journalists, training programs to enhance the skills of working reporters and editors, education reform to prepare the next generation of Arab journalists, and projects that foster a healthy relationship between media and other civil society actors."
  • "Surveys of decision-makers, content analyses that compare coverage and the evolution of policy, and similar research projects are all needed to begin to create a better picture of a government-media relationship likely to have long-term implications not only in the Arab world but also for Western policies in the region."



Pippa Norris's website on the Roles in Media Conference, accessed on November 25 2008.

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