The proportion of people who support freedom of expression online is increasing in the Arab region. But the percentage of those who approve of freely criticizing governments is going down, a recent study found.
More than half of Qataris, Saudis, Emiratis, Lebanese and Tunisians support online freedom of expression, but the percentage falls below half in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Tunisia if that freedom includes criticizing government policies. In Egypt and Jordan, officials did not even allow the distribution of questions about criticizing governments.
The study results set up a question about what freedom of expression means in the Middle East. “This is due to the lack of understanding of freedom of press and freedom of expression and is often associated with poor critical thinking and media literacy skills,” said Jad Melki, chair of the department of communication arts and director of the Institute of Media Research and Training at the Lebanese American University, in Beirut. When someone supports freedom of expression as long as it does not raise controversy and does not conflict with prevailing beliefs and ideologies, he said, “this alleged freedom of expression simply supports the existing hegemony through silence.”
A Fear of Monitoring
The sixth annual study of Media Use in the Middle East was conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar. “The region is undergoing major events and changes, and the composition of the media is changing and so is the way people use it,” said Justin Martin, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar and lead author of the study. “It is important at this time to learn how people use the media, their opinions of such media outlets and their confidence in them.”
The study examined changes in the patterns of citizens’ use of the media and monitors their attitudes toward them and their preferred media content in 2018. It surveyed 7,635 people, 52 percent them male and 48 percent female, in seven Arab countries—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates—in 2018. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in all countries except for Qatar, where the interviews were conducted through phone calls.
The study revealed an increased in use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, used to protect users from those tracking the websites they are visiting. VPNs also can help users visit websites otherwise blocked in their own country. In Qatar, VPN users increased from 6 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in 2018, and in Saudi Arabia, VPN use increased from 7 percent in 2016 to 54 percent in 2018. In Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia, VPN use plateaued at around 10 percent or less.
In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, survey respondents are worried about the government monitoring their Internet use. The percentage of Saudi and Emirati Internet users who are concerned about the government monitoring their online activity hit 62 percent and 61 percent, respectively, and those worried about monitoring by telecommunication companies providing Internet access reached 58 percent and 47 percent. But only 16 percent of Qatari Internet users are concerned about corporate or government tracking of their online activity.
On the other hand, the study shows a marked decline in citizens’ confidence in traditional local media, such as newspapers, radio and television. Jordanians and Tunisians had the lowest levels of confidence in their local media during 2018 (42 percent and 39 percent, respectively). The proportion of Arab citizens who watch television online has increased since 2016, with Saudi Arabia recording the largest percentage of online viewing (51 percent).
Facebook and Twitter Use Declines
The study also revealed a continuous decline in the proportion of Facebook users among citizens of all countries. In 2013, 88 percent or more of survey respondents in the seven Arab countries used Facebook. In 2018, respondents in three countries reported a decline in the use of Facebook to less than 50 percent. In Qatar that figure declined to only 9 percent, the lowest percentage reported in high-income countries globally. The use of Twitter has also declined in Arab countries.
On the other hand, the percentage of citizens watching movies in cinemas has increased since 2014 in many countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, which lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas in April 2018. Forty-two percent of Saudis who responded to the survey said they had recently gone to a cinema.
The survey also indicated that the majority of Saudis and Emiratis enjoy podcasts (68 percent and 64 percent, respectively) compared to 30 percent of Qataris and Tunisians.
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Martin believes the study is important as it “provides an unbiased view of how people use social media and provides the region’s companies and media outlets with information to understand the needs of the public and thus improve how they communicate with the citizens of the region.”
A number of media experts and academics agree with Martin on the study’s importance. “The results of this study are real indicators for measuring the reality of Arab media use,” said Saber Haris, a professor of journalism and head of the public opinion research unit at Sohag University, in Upper Egypt. “The results are consistent with the local results of scientific studies in each country, especially with regard to the decline in the public’s confidence and the increased percentage of fake news.”
Melki, of Lebanese American University, believes that the value of this study lies in the fact that “it is conducted periodically, allowing the opportunity to track and compare the changes and trends over time.”
He also believes that the study is largely descriptive and avoids some of the most pressing topics, such as the relationship between political division and the use of media, as well as the gender differences in media habits, he said.
Martin emphasizes that the study researchers develop and update the questions regularly to better measure change in media use. “Next year there will be questions about how people interact with influencers on social media and about the technology that you can wear or use at home, like Alexa or Google Home,” he said.