Media Literacy Offers the Arab World a Way Forward

Since its inception in the mid 20th century, media literacy has become a mainstay of many media programs throughout the globe. But the Arab world has been an exception. A decade ago, no Arab university offered media literacy. Even the term was alien to most media educators, according to a study I did in 2005.

When I asked some colleagues about the idea of introducing media literacy curricula and research to my university, the American University of Beirut, their response was discouraging.  Media literacy is a fluffy field for parents who worry about their kids’ television habits, they said. As a parent worried about my three children’s media consumption, I fit the bill perfectly, but as an educator and activist concerned about generations of Arab children growing up under the influence of distorted media, I felt media literacy had an important role.

The first media literacy course introduced to the American University of Beirut in 2009 was modeled almost fully after a curriculum developed by my Ph.D. advisor at the college of journalism in the University of Maryland, College Park. Susan Moeller infused her course with diverse themes that tackled issues in students’ daily lives, including media ownership, news construction and politics, photography and war, body image, self worth, violence, sex, gender, race, sexuality, and propaganda. She had me and my colleague Paul Mihailidis, both of us her doctoral students at the time, help her develop the curriculum. Together, we pushed for a more global scope, incorporated digital literacy competencies, and instilled a civic activism edge. We weaved into the conceptual lectures a set of concrete assignments for the students.

Our guiding philosophy was that media literacy was much more than just teaching students how to access, analyze, and evaluate media messages. That had been the traditional definition of media literacy for decades.

Media and digital literacy should stress how to critically read, watch and listen to media messages, decipher their underlying ideologies, assess their embedded commercial, political and propagandistic intentions, and shield media consumers from some of their harmful, hateful and hidden consequences. But media and digital literacy also give individuals the power to intelligently manage their media habits, use digital tools effectively for personal, political and commercial purposes, and engage in global and national discussions.  Individuals learn to effectively express their opinions and advocate their beliefs. Media and digital literacy offers the knowledge and competencies needed for marginalized individuals and disenfranchised communities to balance the power of big business, concentrated wealth and unbridled authoritarian governments.

Media and digital literacy is media education for the masses. It is the silent revolution that can counter the ideologies of greed, hate and death and fight for generalizing and globalizing social justice and egalitarian systems.

Just one year after introducing it in the university, the media literacy course was a hit among students, and soon after it became a general education course open to all campus. But up until 2011, media literacy remained largely limited to a couple of elite universities in the region and badly needed refocusing on the local, which can only be achieved through homegrown research. So, in 2010, a group of passionate Arab and international media educators and students began to develop media and digital literacy education in the Arab region. Many were understandably skeptical, with terrorism, civil war, uprisings, and autocracies all over the region. Who was going to see media literacy as a priority in this gloomy context? A generous grant from the Open Society Foundations and later al-Monitor and the German DAAD gave us some hope. We ran a conference in 2011 with the theme of “Digital and Media Literacy: New Directions.” After that, the term “media literacy” became a term Arab media professors took seriously. But many said they didn’t have the digital skills to teach it, and also they needed curricular material on the subject in Arabic.

So, in 2013, we started the first Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut (MDLAB) to help with these issues. The goal was to train a dozen or so Arab media educators and together build media literacy curricula, not only in Arabic, but also grounded in Arab cultures.

At first, we had major doubts. How would the project be received? Will Arab academics perceive this as an American university importing curriculum from the West? Will we be able to run discussions about sensitive topics—ranging from gender and sexuality to sectarianism and terrorism—in a room filled with Arab academics from every side of the political, cultural and sectarian divide? Then there was the risk of running it in Beirut during a time when political violence and car bombs were almost routine daily news. Just two days before the academy, a Turkish pilot was kidnapped in Lebanon, triggering an international crisis. Two car bombs exploded just five miles away from campus. I thought we would be lucky if we could pull it off as a one-time event. I was wrong.

The response was overwhelming. Double the number of projected participants attended. Academics and graduate students from Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon eager to learn and participate in the discussions fully embraced the tenets of media and digital literacy. We quickly realized how badly media literacy was needed in the Arab world. “This movement cannot stop,” said one Damascus University professor. “We critically need this type of teaching if we ever hope to counter the cultures of hate, ignorance and death in our region.” I thought, “Wow! This guy, who doesn’t know if his university will still be standing when he goes back to Syria, if his family will still be alive, or even if his country will still exist by the time he leaves… If he can see media literacy as a movement that can help pull our societies out of this bottomless hell into which they’ve descended, there was no way we’re turning back.”

Just one year later, Damascus University was among the first institutions to introduce media and digital literacy to its curricula, an incredible feat given the bureaucracy Syrian academics have to maneuver to make any substantial curricular changes, not to mention the civil war.

Today, some two dozen Arab universities teach media literacy. Some have introduced full courses. Others have used the modules developed at MDLAB to infuse their traditional media courses with media and digital literacy curricular material. More importantly, MDLAB helped many academics to refocus our media literacy curricula on the priorities of Arab societies. At the American University of Beirut, core curriculum now includes the topics of terrorism, sectarianism, extremism and war and emphasizes human rights, tolerance and global citizenship. The credit for such amazing success goes to the many international and Arab colleagues who have helped in this effort, from some global stars in media literacy to some of my former students.

We are excited that this year MDLAB will include among its participants teachers from the International College, a preparatory school affiliated with the American University of Beirut, and the first Arab school to officially name media literacy as a strategic priority. Our goal is to get each Arab country by the end of this decade to have at least one school and one university offer media literacy as a core curriculum.

But we are far from reaching our goals. Offering a course or even more at the university level is not enough. Arab media education itself needs to be rooted in media and digital literacy, and media literacy courses need to be required for all university students, not only for journalism and communication majors. We need to create more accessible online courses and modules in Arabic to reach a broader audience. What’s more, media and digital literacy need to move all the way down into elementary schools. We need to develop a critical mass of teachers, academics and researchers capable of pushing media literacy education and research to the next level… to a level where we can truly “counter the cultures of hate, ignorance and death in our region.”

And to my esteemed but skeptical colleagues I say: you’re right. It is all about our kids… and grand kids… and their kids. What more worthy a cause to dedicate our research, teaching and life?

* Jad Melki is an associate professor of journalism and media studies at the American University of Beirut and the founder of the Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut.


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