Online Media Expands, Digital Divide Persists
A new report by Northwestern University in Qatar provides interesting insights into the Middle East’s media industry landscape, which is evolving and diversifying at a breakneck pace, as Internet and social media use soars. Meanwhile, privacy, regulation and freedom of expression remain deeply contentious questions.
The report, like another series of reports oriented more to consumer media use, are the fruits of Northwestern’s efforts to overcome barriers to media research. They lay the foundation for both scholarly and public policy discussion of media’s future in the region.
The report on media industries in the region focuses in particular on five countries: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt. It estimates the advertising market in the Middle East and North Africa region at $5.5 billion, with the lion’s share of that going to television, the most common and most trusted source of information and entertainment. The region has 50 million households with television and the field is dominated by satellite television channels—in 2014 there were 724 of them. Talent, reality and game shows have seen a huge spurt in growth, at the expense of news and documentaries. The Arabic film industry remains resilient, and the small-budget, independent film scene is increasingly dynamic.
The region is also one of the fastest growing online markets in the world. Internet users jumped from 68 million in 2010 to 123 million in 2015. But the report notes “a perceptible digital divide across the region,” with Internet penetration in the Gulf Cooperation Council states at or near the levels of developed countries, while parts of North Africa lag far behind. Smartphone penetration in the GCC countries is one of the highest in the world (Saudi Arabia leads the world for YouTube views on mobile). But this is not the case elsewhere. In 2014, the World Bank calculated that 60 percent of the people in Algeria, Djibouti, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, “cannot afford fixed and/or mobile broadband services.”
Many traditional media outlets have yet to take full advantage of digital possibilities. Arabic content remains one of the most under-represented languages online in terms of its share of the world’s websites. But the Arab world embraces social media with a vengeance: Arabs are well represented in the world’s top Facebook pages, Twitter profiles and YouTube channels.
A problem for both the study and the development of media in the region is the difficulty obtaining verified figures and enforcing regulations. Circulation numbers for newspapers and magazines are self-reported, and widely believed to be inflated. There is no accepted audience measurement system for radio audiences. The music industry is hampered by the pervasiveness of illegal downloads.
Everett Dennis, dean of NU-Q, said that gathering the data and getting permissions to conduct research wasn’t easy. The university contracted the consulting firm Monitor Deloitte to carry out fieldwork. Northwestern and the Doha Film Institute—its partner in the project—also built on existing relationships. “A level of trust has been built up” with media companies in the region, explained Mr. Dennis. Requests for information needed to be made face to face, and the university held a dinner and discussion in Dubai with industry leaders, in which they explained the purpose of the project. It helps the university further its goal of creating a talent pool of media professionals for the region, but it can also be a “service to industry and to academe and to the public,” said Mr. Dennis.
Northwestern University established its branch in Qatar in 2008; it offers undergraduate degrees in communication and journalism. It is one of half a dozen prestigious American universities that have opened branches in Doha. The Washington Post recently reported the emirate pays more than $400 million a year to subsidize their operations.
NU-Q began carrying out surveys of the habits, attitudes and preferences of media users in the Middle East in 2013, and has done so annually since then. The project began when university officials looking for existing surveys and found that the “data was so inadequate and so dated so we just threw up our hands and said, ‘let’s do our own,’” said Mr. Dennis. The fourth report in the series is forthcoming in April.
One of the issues the project sheds light on is the expanding regulation and surveillance of media. As more and more citizens communicate online, regimes in the region have increased their online surveillance capacities and passed draconian cyber security laws that can lead to prosecutions for remarks made on social media.
Interestingly, citizens appear to support increased regulation of the Internet. Those who agreed with the statement “the Internet in my country should be more tightly regulated than it is now” ranged from 39 percent in Tunisia to 66 percent in Saudi Arabia. Those who agreed with that statement were also a majority in Lebanon, Qatar, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. But in every country but Qatar, huge majorities (89 percent in Saudi Arabia, 75 percent in Egypt) also said concerns about privacy had changed the way they use social media. Saudis were the most concerned about both the government and companies checking what they do online.
By presenting data, these reports offer “a template for discussing these very controversial issues,” said Mr. Dennis.
The media industry survey is focused on ad revenues and market share, but it raises broader questions about the economic viability of certain forms of media in the region, and their ultimate purpose.
The report found that there is a strong concentration of media ownership in television, newspapers and radio. A significant amount of media is still government-owned, and private outlets often have strong ties to the ruling party or family.
The columnist Rami G. Khouri, who is senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, contributed one of the report’s analyses. He wrote that “the fundamental role of newspapers remains as the flag carriers of incumbent political power elites.” But the business model of newspaper is as troubled in the Middle East as elsewhere, Mr. Khouri told Al-Fanar Media, noting that two historic Lebanese newspapers have recently announced plans to close or go entirely digital.
Similarly, writes Daoud Kuttab, director general of Community Media Network and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, Arab governments have long “centralized radio broadcasts from the capital, leaving all other communities on the receiving end of radio rather than engaging with it. Instead of radio being the voice of the voiceless, it became an instrument of government propaganda.” Today “Online radio has mushroomed in countries like Egypt, which continues to ban any form of FM broadcasts by any party except the government or a handful of pro-government business people,” notes Mr. Kuttab, who suggests that community radio (and podcasts) could one day be “the perfect answer to many of the problems facing the Arab world.”
In fact, the imminent disruption of traditional media by new technologies is one of the most interesting research questions for scholars to address, said Mr. Dennis.
The region is witnessing a “two-way flow of ideas and knowledge; as media increasingly fall beyond control of government, people express themselves much more openly. It is not a good thing when governments put their citizens in jail for tweeting,” said Mr. Khouri, referring to a recent conviction in Saudi Arabia. Yet Mr. Khouri believes attempts to restrict expression online are doomed to failure. “Governments definitely want to control things but they’re not going to be able to do it,” he said. “It’s not really media they want to control but people’s minds.”