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Media Literacy in the Arab World: the ‘Media Literacy of the Oppressed’?

Twenty years ago, no Arab university offered a course in media literacy. Now at least 150 do. Jordan, the Arab world’s pioneering media-literacy country, teaches the subject from infant school onwards. But is it the same as the subject taught in the West? Jad Melki, director of the Institute of Media Research and Training at the Lebanese American University, thinks it isn’t.

Melki, who is also an associate professor of journalism and media studies, first studied media literacy at the College of Journalism in the University of Maryland in the United States.

“The most important thing for us is not to just teach [students] the Western concept of media literacy, because what we need in the Arab world is very different, especially in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan—war-torn countries, countries that are not stable economically, politically or otherwise,” Melki told Al-Fanar Media.

“I call it the Media Literacy of the Oppressed: … We are in the Global South. We have a lot of different problems. What is taken for granted in the Global North sometimes doesn’t even exist in the Global South.”

Jad Melki, director of the Institute of Media Research and Training
at the Lebanese American University

“What we do tell them is they need to build the capacity to build their own media literacy that addresses their societies, a media literacy curriculum that is rooted in their problems, in their social issues, political issues, economic issues—not to just import curricula from abroad on issues that are less important or less relevant to their societies.

“I call it the Media Literacy of the Oppressed, … third-world countries, countries that are not benefiting from the centre. We are in the Global South. We have a lot of different problems. What is taken for granted in the Global North sometimes doesn’t even exist in the Global South.”

Melki has written a book the “Media Literacy of the Oppressed,” published by Routledge, that is coming out in the next few months. He hopes it will also be translated into Arabic.

War Coverage and Media Bias

Melki is very pleased with the results he sees from ten years of media-literacy work in Lebanon.

“Now what I am seeing with things that are happening in Palestine—the genocide, the massacres, the killing, and all the media—the false and the true, the biased and the objective. … Some earlier participants on our courses have actually e-mailed me. One said, ‘As I watched the news today, I remember everything I learnt in your lab, all the analysis of images, of news story bias, of sources.’

“I am very proud of the team that worked with me on that and what we have achieved so far. I am hoping that it contributed at least to some extent to keep a check on reality and a check on media bias in this conflict.”

محو الأمية الإعلامية في العالم العربي.. تجارب ورؤى أكاديمية
Jad Melki, director of the Institute of Media Research and Training at the Lebanese American University (LAU).

Melki said it depended on the news event, but on the current Gazan war most Lebanese would be following the TV news channels Al Mayadeen, Al-Manar and Al Jazeera—“All pro the resistance, but Al Jazeera more balanced, and Al Mayadeen and Al-Manar more partisan.”

Many would also be getting information from social media. “A lot subscribe to WhatsApp groups, Instagram and TikTok and Twitter (now X). …”

“I do not recommend particular organisations. I urge them to pick diverse sources and to fact-check and to learn about the credibility of those sources and their political leaning and biases. We also teach them about selective exposure of audiences. It is not just the media, we tend to select media that confirm our own views, so we talk about filter bubbles and echo chambers.”

Melki said that depending on the funding, which in the past has come from the Norwegians, the Canadian and U.S. Embassies, or DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, there were usually about 100 people a year at the Institute of Media Research and Training course, about half of them journalists, academics and activists.

“These are also the people who influence other people, who alert other people to biases, to echo chambers, false information and AI and to fabrications. Academics are the people who teach media literacy so there is a multiply factor.”

Early Training in Jordan

The one Arab country that has gone beyond university media literacy courses and teaches the subject at school is Jordan. Mirna Abou Zeid, dean of Jordan Media Institute, told Al-Fanar Media that in Jordan even children as young as 4 or 5 get some sort of basic lessons about media literacy.

Abou Zeid said Princess Rym al-Ali, the Algerian wife of Jordan’s Prince Ali bin-Hussein, introduced media information literacy to the country. Four years ago, she tasked Basim Tweissi, the former dean of Jordan Media Institute and minister of culture, to come up with a national strategy. The strategy has four pillars: youth, education, media, and civil society.

“We introduced artificial intelligence to show them how it can spread information and disinformation, and how disinformation can be combatted.”

Mirna Abou Zeid, dean of Jordan Media Institute

The subject is taught in schools, which nominate teenagers to enrol in the institute’s summer programmes. Typically, there might be five weeklong courses of 20 to 30 people, she said. The number depends on funding from donors, who have included Deutsche Welle, USAID, and the European Union.

Jordan Media Institute also runs a Media Information Literacy Academy in the summer, which last year attracted journalism students and faculty members from 10 Arab countries. “We introduced artificial intelligence to show them how it can spread information and disinformation, and how disinformation can be combatted.”

Media Literacy in the Arab World: the ‘Media Literacy of the Oppressed’?
Mirna Abou Zeid, dean of Jordan Media Institute (JMI).

The participants were then asked to come up with video and games about media literacy. “The faculty who were taught then asked to develop a critical-thinking curriculum and methods to teach their students.”

In 2018 Jordan Media Institute won a UNESCO award for its work on media and information literacy. Two years ago, the Council of Arab Media and Information Ministers decided that all Arab countries should have national strategies for media and information literacy, and they asked Jordan to share its experience in the field. Jordan was also supposed to run Unesco’s Global Media and Information Literacy Week this October, but it had to be postponed because of the fighting in Gaza.

Credibility and Rubbish

Abou Zeid said that when students start studying the subject “the main difficulty is to give them the ability to discern what is a trusted source and what is rubbish. With time they become able to admit that sources do not have the same level of credibility, and we teach them that they should not share content before they have assessed and verified it: critical thinking.”

“If we take the coronavirus pandemic. We found that legacy media, because of their ethical charter and professional guidelines, are more trusted. Reliable sources are those that accept that they will be held responsible if their information is inaccurate or causes harm,” Abou Zeid said.

محو الأمية الإعلامية في العالم العربي.. تجارب ورؤى أكاديمية
Jordan Media Institute (JMI).

She added: “With Gaza, we explain that because things happen so fast, sometimes journalists are not in the field to verify the information, so they should treat it cautiously, and to protect themselves from propaganda they should evaluate the source and the objectives behind the information. Also, for the time being, because what we are seeing is so horrible, we try to get them to protect themselves emotionally, especially against hate speech and digital violence.”

“I believe that the advancement of societies and democracy require informed citizens who can make informed decisions. If we consider that most of our information comes from the media … we need to help our citizens evaluate the information to make better life decisions,” Abou-Zeid said.

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