If journalism is to play its proper part in developing democracies in the Arab world, the teaching of journalism needs to undergo radical change.
Eight years ago, students at a public Jordanian university that teaches journalism led a protest that lasted for three days. The students camped out and declined to attend lectures. The protestors’ demanded a new journalism curriculum, better teaching, and new professors. The students brought attention to the huge crisis in the study of journalism at Jordanian universities, which are considered among the best in the Arab world. This makes us wonder about the size of this crisis in other Arab universities.
That small protest led me to write an essay on those students who have broken the silence in the academic towers and were the pioneers in pushing for improved teaching of journalism. But I paid the price for that article, as some professors felt I was siding with the students and against professors. In the end, the protests resulted in nothing but superficial changes.
The big changes the Arab world has witnessed in the last four years have revealed the disfiguration the media in the region suffers from, and the importance of improving the teaching of journalism in the region. Among other problems, Arab journalism schools do not seem to have followed the transition from vertical communication—of citizens to journalists to publishing or broadcasting—to the new horizontal communication in which the citizens speak directly to other citizens.
The crisis of journalism education in the Arab world is different than what is being discussed in the West. Unfortunately, despite the increased recognition of the strong influence of the media in the Arab region in the last years, and the increased disputes over this role, there is no serious discussion about Arab journalism education. The only initiative—as far as I know—was started by UNESCO and Cairo University in 2011, to check the quality of Egyptian journalism departments. We have heard nothing of its results.
The revision of journalism teaching in Arab universities reveals the roots of the challenges facing the development of media in the Arab world. Journalism education has lost an opportunity to help the profession progress, so journalists could broaden the public’s ability to participate in political life instead of just resenting politicians. Journalists have lost many opportunities to enhance the chances for democratic change, to strengthen human rights, build civic institutions, and to help support pluralistic societies that value diversity.
If the quality of journalism teaching is in question, the quantity has exploded. In the Arab world, around 135 university programs teach media and journalism, most of which have appeared in the last two decades. Egyptian universities have 19 programs and the Jordanian universities have seven universities with widely different facilities, such as labs and studios. The academic journalism programs often spend too much time on theory and not enough on practice.
These programs do not measure their own performance and have not kept up to date with developments in the field. Many of them have not introduced digital media, although that is the format most Arab youth use to get their news. In judging the quality of Arab journalism programs, we have to remember that many Arab countries do not have a way to accredit academic programs or institutions. In the few countries that have accreditation organizations, the accrediting of journalism programs lags behind changes taking place in media.
The accreditation standards of one Arab accreditation organization still require universities to have darkrooms for photography. The curricula concentrate on theory, while the practical skills are under 10 percent of students’ time, at best. This emphasis results in poor quality students who have difficulty getting jobs. Arab journalism programs are also not adapting to new technology and business environments, at a time when the media business is changing rapidly.
These weaknesses can be attributed to the failure of journalism programs to communicate with national and regional media and with international institutions. Arab universities used to send out students to prestigious Western universities and then have them return to teach. But that practice has stopped. In Jordan it stopped 20 years ago. In Cairo University, which has the oldest journalism program in the region, most of their academic staff members are graduates of the program. Specialists in journalism who have Ph.D. degrees are rare, but the universities won’t let professionals who don’t have advanced degrees teach. In the meantime, many universities are rapidly expanding but are lax in checking the quality of new programs.
This style is also reflected in a lack of care in admitting students. Programs need to test students who want to be journalists and require them to demonstrate their abilities and their passion for journalism.
The Arabic political transformations of 2011 proved the potential of the media to create change. But the changes have also revealed the huge gaps in the media’s performance. The media was a strong ally for power in the past, and has often been incapable of being the ally of democracy. This raises a series of essential issues: The period of political shift towards democracy, taking place in many Arab countries, coincides with a vast global media revolution. But the Arab media are not doing their part to help establish democratic values, to provide platforms for public discussion and free and honest channels for information flow. Most Arab journalists themselves got a traditional education under the rule of dictatorial regimes.
Arab media are also witnessing vast changes in their institutional structure and ownership. Some governments are giving up their monopoly on owning the media. This will lead to real competition among the media and among journalists themselves. The goals that Arab universities should seek to achieve are to merge with the digital world, and pay more attention to the teaching of the essentials of journalism—values, ethics, and professional practices. It’s been said in the past that journalists who don’t learn their profession in good university programs will have to learn it later at the public’s expenses. That certainly holds true today. If Arab journalism programs don’t develop, then the public will pay and stay captive to tyranny and corruption.
Basim Tweissi is the dean of the Jordan Media Institute.