How Al Jazeera is challenging and improving Egyptian journalism (Part One)
Courtney C. Radsch 22 June 2007

Courtney C. Radsch is a scholar and freelance journalist whose work focuses on the Arab media and politics. This article is the first part of the speech given at the “Al Jazeera and the New Arab Media” conference, organized last May by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

PART ONE

Introduction

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rarely talks about plans for succession, Saudi Arabia’s influence in Egypt, or Egypt’s responsibility in Darfur, yet last year he agreed to a wide-ranging, extensive interview with Al Arabiya in which he was pressed to explain himself on these and many other controversial issues. While presidential appearances in Egyptian media are certainly not new, in fact most of the content of Arab news until the turn of this century was protocol news, what was new was the journalistic style of the interview and the imperative to appear on a non-state-owned pan-Arab station. The fact that the interview at the Presidential Palace, which breached so many red lines and reached so many millions of Arabs, took place is one of the clearest examples of the new media logic that is challenging the political and journalistic status quo in the Arab world.

Using Egypt as a case study, this paper argues that Al Jazeera has provoked changes in the media ecology of the Arab world, creating a new imperative of competition in the news industry which has changed the nature of the Arab news media. Al Jazeera’s influence has been instrumental in terms of altering the rules of journalism, increasing professionalization, and modifying audience expectations. In adapting to these changes Egypt is developing a media logic that has put pressure on the political system to conform to it and elevated the importance of news as a form of soft power. Based on ethnographic research in Egypt, interviews and focus groups with Arab media professionals, academics, and advocates along with participant observation and content analysis, I analyze transformation in the journalistic field and the mechanisms and processes that link changes in the media system to major political changes envisioned for the region.

Distributional change and a new media ecology

As you fly into Cairo, straining to catch a glimpse of the pyramids, it is hard to miss the satellite dishes the crowd the roofs as far as the eye can see. Prior to 2003 there was one 24-hour news satellite station, Al Jazeera, today there are dozens. Al Jazeera first began airing in 1996 as rapid technological advances and increasing economic interdependency seemed to be shrinking the world into a globally interconnected information system. Al Jazeera instigated ecological changes in the Arab media system that took root in the fertile environment created by globalization, where neoliberal imperatives like privatization, liberalization and democratization coincided with the ever-increasing integration of global media markets and the Internet. Changes in communications technology, especially the proliferation of satellite television and the Internet, have meant that the average Arab citizen now has instant access to hundreds of private, independent information sources that were once reserved for the privileged bilingual elite.

Satellites have become less expensive to produce and launch, while bypassing the need to lay expensive cable or fiberoptics and other infrastructure to connect remote areas to the main communications system. Receiving technology has similarly become cheaper and easier to make, and government policy aimed at making television sets as available as possible means that even the poorest slums on the outskirts of Cairo boast numerous satellite dishes on each building. Satellite dishes are cheaper and more prolific than Internet connections, although the Internet is increasingly popular and levels of connectivity are rising. With more than 4 million Internet users, Egypt has the highest rate of Internet access among non-oil Arab states. The Internet, like satellite signals, is diffuse and knows no national boundaries, meaning that the state exerts less physical control over its information environments than in the past. Egypt also began experimenting with broadcast deregulation, loosening its grips on the media system and revising legal structures to permit greater press freedom. Thus it is the convergence of technological changes with permissive historical and societal forces that have favored the emergence of new organizational forms and institutional configurations. The media logic emerging from these configurations is premised on open, immediate, communication.

Furthermore, constitutive choices about the social and political uses of a communication technology, the legal and regulatory framework adopted, and ideational factors influence the path of development taken, the institutions created, and the alignment of interests. Thus constitutive choices create path dependency that can facilitate and accelerate the pace of distributional change in communication technology. Egypt’s decision to build a dispersed Internet infrastructure as opposed to having all connections go through a central node like in Saudi Arabia, create certain choice sets that constrain the political and journalistic fields even as they open new avenues of negotiation. In an attempt to link national development to global forces through information communication technologies (ICTs), he created a new Ministry and adopted policies designed to make computer and Internet access more affordable and widely available. Mubarak’s goal of integrating information technology into socioeconomic development is reinforced by initiatives funded by the United States, the IMF and the World Bank that seek to expand internet access, decrease illiteracy, and create a workforce that can compete in the knowledge economy. Furthermore, in the past couple of years several private satellite stations and the first privately owned radio stations have been allowed to broadcast, suggesting a significant shift in government policy regarding control of electronic media. These regulatory changes reflect the dominant distributional and epistemological orthodoxy of neoliberal globalization- privatization and aversion to regulation. By looking at distributional change within its historically contextualized framework it is possible to show how orbiting satellites and a dispersed Internet have permitted new journalism practices to emerge that are changing the rules of the game and undermining political authority.

State-media relations

Whereas the convergence between the state and its media system could have been assumed in the past, technological diffusion, the development of a regional news system, and the forces of globalization have converged on Egypt’s media system, altering the way journalism is practiced and what it means to be a journalist. This is not to say that the Egyptian journalistic field is completely unfettered by state intervention, censorship, legal and regulatory barriers. But the field is undergoing a change to its very nature as professional identities and practices, norms, and relations with other fields shift, altering the relative power of journalists in Egypt. Bourdieu defines a field as a structured social arena encompassing a system of social positions, laws, and practices in which people struggle for the field’s preservation or transformation, or in the case of Egypt, its creation. The primary task of the Arab media has historically been to create public opinion and successful communication from the state to society, and thus, until recently, most journalists were state employees and thus part of the political field (1). Communication occurred directly from the state through its people without being filtered through an additional layer, represented by professional journalists in societies where media ownership and employment is independent from the state. But as Egyptian journalists construct a professional identity separate from the state they increasingly appeal to the audience for validation, elevating the importance of credibility and independence in journalism and creating a new filtration layer between the state and its citizens. Thus, like politicians in the political field, journalists in the journalistic field must now appeal to people outside their field- the public.

Journalism and new forms of citizen media benefit from the new media ecology, whereas secrecy and informational control do not. Although radio and terrestrial broadcasting are susceptible to jamming and frequency overload, satellite footprints do not respect the sovereignty of national borders and are prohibitively expensive to block. Perhaps this is why Mubarak agreed to the wide-ranging interview on the pan-Arab Al Arabiya; authority must be seen and narrated. Rather than allow the framing of the possible succession of his son to be wildly speculative, Mubarak interjected the official perspective into the story so that subsequent narrations would have to juxtapose speculation with the official position. But even as information crosses boundaries it also negates them. As the boundary between private and public disintegrates media bring matters previously confined to the private realm into the public eye, and the Internet allows the most intimate details of a person’s life and thoughts to become fodder for public consumption. Those institutions, forms of authority, and social forces that can adapt to the visibility, immediacy, and accountability of the communication system will thrive, while those that do not will whither away.

The power of Al Jazeera

Control of the media and other influencers of public opinion form a dynamic part of the ideological structure of state hegemony and therefore such informational control has been a key strategy used by the state to maintain its hegemony. The power of Al Jazeera has directly challenged the power of the state to frame social reality and set the public agenda. The agenda set by the media gives primacy to the Iraq war, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Islam and reform, propelling them to the top of the political agenda. When an angry contingent of opposition MPs marched through the streets of Cairo to the doors of the Arab League demanding a meeting with Amr Musa, they could hardly be ignored since dozens of television cameras captured their demands for him to do something about the Qana massacre (2). Secretary-General Musa met with them and held a press conference afterwards. Later that week protests over the war engulfed downtown Cairo as hundred of demonstrators alerted by blogs, text messages, and phone calls converged on Tharir Square. News stations dispersed images of the protesting youth through the airwaves while photos and accounts of police brutality appeared online almost immediately. A week after the war in Lebanon started, President Hosni Mubarak, who had initially refused to condemn Israel’s military response to the kidnapping of its soldiers, made an about face and condemned the attack as unwarranted and extreme in the face of pressure from a public who formed their opinions and made them heard using a variety of communication outlets, from satellite television to the internet. Journalists had brought the war to the public, and the public responded to their government through the media. The institutionalization of the media within the state traditionally stabilized and perpetuated the political order, but as professionalization, competition, ICT development and momentum for reform increase, the logic of media is taking on a “life of its own”. Pressure for autonomy by journalists is shifting the relative power of sociopolitical forces in Egypt as a journalistic field distinct from the political field emerges and a journalistic identity develops. Journalists and media observers recognize this change and have sought to take advantage of it, which serves to reinforce and strengthen the power of the journalistic field.

Undermining state control

With the development of Arabic transnational television and the Internet, journalism has seeped across borders and begun wielding its power against the state. Al Jazeera is the most powerful example, but the growing significance of citizen journalism, like blogs, is also undermining state control over the information environment. As one of the most powerful agents in the Arab mediascape, Al Jazeera has had a significant impact on journalists, who resoundingly credit the station with setting the competitive standards in their field and doing the type of watchdog journalism to which they aspire. Since the turn of the 21st century, competition among information producers has intensified as hundreds of new satellite stations began broadcasting, the press moved online, and citizen journalism on the Internet emerged as an alternative to the mainstream press, the sum of which represents a significant distributional change in the Arab media system. With a vast array of choices for news, journalists feel the need to provide better coverage in order to attract viewers who can so easily switch to another channel. Despite the lack of audience data or ratings, journalists perceive the satellite stations as important competitors and act accordingly. Thus the perception of importance is as influential as quantitative proof. For example, after Al Jazeera appeared on the airwaves the Egyptian government created Nile News to compete with it using a similar style of news and more live coverage than was typical for state television. The imperative for the state is to figure out how to remain competitive when inexpensive and abundant satellite news is perceived as communicating directly to the people without the government as intermediary. With nearly 80 percent of Egyptians turning to Al Jazeera for their first or second news choice, citizens no longer need to rely on state news for their information needs. Thus while the Egyptian Network continues to attract some viewers, only 10 percent say they watch it first for news, and 25 percent watch it second, meaning these viewers likely compare government news with other sources. Thus it is critical that state news emulate the approaches of more popular stations, from live coverage to modern sets to breaking news.

Breaking taboos

Middle Eastern journalists resoundingly credit Al Jazeera with having opened up the media environment for other stations. They usually focus on the nature of the programming, radically different from that of government-owned terrestrial stations, which broke political and cultural taboos with coverage of the first Palestinian Intifada, call-in shows, Crossfire-format discussion shows, and critical coverage of Arab governments unheard of a decade ago. It also set the standard for Arab news in terms of being perceived as independent and critical of the governments in the region and abroad and by its emphasis on live reporting, coverage of ordinary people, and sophisticated aesthetics. Al Jazeera’s style and approach paved the way for more critical and creative news programming, a far cry from the traditionally dull formats of government-run news programs that featured routine activities of the head of state. Furthermore, the content of the news includes public discussions of traditionally private issues that challenge cultural categories of public discourse and bring formerly subverted topics into the public arena. People routinely speak of the ‘Al Jazeera effect’, like the ‘CNN effect,’ and its competitors seek to compete on its terms by adapting similar formats and approaches. For these reasons Al Jazeera is uniquely positioned as a powerful actor in the journalistic field, exerting pressure that has served to reorganize the field in relation to itself.

Learning from Einstein

The principles of Einsteinian physics help explain how “a very powerful agent within a field can distort the whole space, cause the whole space to be organized in relation to itself,” which is what has happened in Egypt. Changes in the modes of communication favor Al Jazeera because it has adapted to a dispersed audience, fills its 24-hour news cycle with information that stands out because of its newness, opposition to the status quo, and transgression of traditional boundaries. Not only was it posed to take advantage of the emerging information environment in the last decade of the twentieth century, it reinforced the changes taking place and helped usher in a new era of competition and professionalism. Satellite news media, but especially Al Jazeera, are distorting the logic of journalism as it has traditionally been practiced. Thus independent newspapers like Al Masry Al Yaum have found a market in Egypt for an independent, professional “newspaper of record” that is challenging the press to keep pace with its coverage, professional salaries, and reputation. Certain powerful agents that adapt or thrive in a communications environment exert such force of attraction that other agents in the field reorganize in relation to that agent.

Until recently, the primary task of the indigenous Arab media was to create public opinion and transmit information from the state to society. It has even been argued that television journalism in the Arab world did not exist prior to this decade, although that is exaggerated and only accounts for a contemporary form of journalism. Television is one of the most important mechanisms for manipulating public opinion because of its overwhelming symbolic power and scope. With more than 40 percent of the population in Egypt illiterate, the vast reach of television’s images, its de facto monopoly on information diffusion that transcends illiteracy and agenda-setting capabilities gives it a monopoly on what “goes into the heads” of most people, allowing journalists’ conceptions of the world to become the predominant frame of reality. The framing of particular information as “news” indicates that it claims to veraciously represent truth and reality. Through the use of images, television creates a “reality effect” by showing things and making people believe in what it shows. As Thompson argues, technically mediated communication, specifically television, changes responsive action and production of communication, is largely monological, and creates a “structural asymmetry” between producers and receivers that makes it relatively dissimilar from other forms of mass communication. The Internet collapses this asymmetry by blurring the distinction between producer and receiver, public and private, reality and fiction. Although people can interpret and make what they want of media messages, the primacy of visual proof in contemporary society and a message framed as “news” wields significant power. Such power extends not only from television, but from Internet news sources as well, which similarly offer visual and narrative “proof” to support claims of facticity and truth. Given the relatively small percentage of Egyptians online, however, control of the airwaves is a significantly more important form of power today.

(1) Although there has been a non-state and even opposition press in Egypt, all broadcasting journalism was done by state employees.
(2) The Qana Massacre is what the Arab media called Israel’s July 30th bombing of Lebanon that killed 30 women and children.