Challenging authority in cyberspace: evaluating Al Jazeera Arabic writers.

Author:Lo, Mbaye

Literature Review

In 2003, Al Jazeera's coverage of the US invasion of Iraq helped to make the network one of the most popular media networks in the Middle East. Since then, its Arabic and English channels and sites have been studied extensively, both in scholarly work and in popular culture. In general, these studies can be classified into four categories: studies on the origins and development of the network, studies that compare or contrast the network with other news agencies, analyses of the effects of the network's growth, and analyses of the network's audience.

When studying the evolution and origins of Al Jazeera, many studies use the growth of satellite TV in the Arab world and Qatari politics as a starting point. In 2003, Miladi conducted such a study when he traced the network's inception and historical development (Miladi 2003). Similarly, in 2007, Zayani and Sahraoui analyzed the origins and development of the network's organizational culture as a means of understanding its inner working culture and practices (Sahraoui and Zayani 2007). Earlier, in 2005, Miles had traced the history and development of Al Jazeera and its attempts to provide a counterbalance to Western media dominance (Miles 2005).

Other studies, like Ghareeb's, have focused less on the organization's historical development but more on its effects on contemporary politics and media (Ghareeb 2000). Likewise, Zayani examined the effects of Al Jazeera on international politics and media by exploring how the network's rising popularity has destabilized the hegemony of Western media (Seib 2005). In a 2002 book, El-Nawawy and Iskander carried out a more in-depth research on Al Jazeera's impact on international media (El-Nawawy and Iskander 2002).

Still other studies look at the organization and its impact through the lenses of its audience. Abdul-Mageed and Herring studied readers' comments on Al Jazeera's Arabic Web site as a means of assessing the impact of the network's articles (Abdul-Mageed and Herring 2008). Auter, Arafa, and Al Jaber analyzed the demographics of Al Jazeera viewers in a 2004 study, while Johnson and Fahmy explored how the network's supposed political agenda affects its credibility (Fahmy and Johnson 2008).

Some studies have focused on analyzing Al Jazeera by comparing or contrasting it with other major news organizations. Works by Qusdi (2003), Barkho (2006), and Carney (2006) contrast Al Jazeera's news coverage with the coverage of major western media outlets, like BBC and CNN. Other studies performed by Barkho (2007) and Gerhard (2010) explore the similarities between Al Jazeera and Western media outlets as a means of gaining a better understanding of the organization. Still other works, like Abdul-Mageed and Herring's 2008 article, compare Al Jazeera's English coverage with its Arabic coverage.

Although the intensity and quantity of these studies testify to the importance of Al Jazeera and its increasing role in the Arab media landscape, as yet no study has been designed to explore the nature and identities of the network's content providers, especially those of its Arabic political writers. Since Al Jazeera's main language is Arabic, its primary audience is Arabic speaking and its popular impact has been historically noticed in the Arab world, exploring the background, style, and content of its Arabic political authors is crucial in measuring the organization's influence and rigor in challenging the political status quo in the Arab world. This article probes this side of the network in order to assess its role in mainstream Arab politics and high culture.

Satellite Television and the Rise of a Freer Arab Media

Since Al Jazeera's rise is related to the growth of satellite television in the Arab world, its impact on the Arab street is situated in the larger context of the history and role of satellite television in expanding Arab public sphere. Satellite television first garnered attention in the Arab world in the early 1990s. As the first Gulf War unfolded, many Arab viewers witnessed Iraqi forces being driven out of Kuwait through CNN's live coverage of the war in 1991. Prior to this, Arab viewers depended on localized and government-controlled TV broadcasting to receive their news. The apparent popularity of the CNN model caught the eyes of some private businesses and most Arab governments, thus causing a proliferation of 'independent' satellite channels and a growth of state-controlled satellite televisions. The first privately owned satellite channel, the Middle East Broadcast Center, was established by Saudi businessman Sheikh Walid al Ibrahim out of London. The government of Egypt also launched NileSat, a satellite channel that incorporated local programming with government official ceremonies (Kraidy 2002, 2). The models for these two channels were adopted by many Arab countries, where either the state or a private businessman (often connected directly or indirectly to the state) developed satellite channels (Miladi 2003, 152). This trend of establishing privately owned satellite channels through the state or a businessman groomed by the state included the case of Qatar's Al Jazeera network founded in 1996.

By the end of 1997, there were over 60 Arab satellite channels (Ayish 1998, 47). By 2005, the number had reached 150 (Economist 2005). As of April 2011, there were an estimated 538 Free-to-air channels (or channels that do not require extra payments or subscriptions) in the Arab world, with 501 of those being fully operational. Over two-thirds of these channels are privately owned, and the remainder are owned by various government agents in the region. Egypt hosts 17.6% of these channels, followed by Saudi Arabia, which hosts 17%. The United Arab Emirates comes in third with 14.4%. Approximately 66.7% of all these channels have an online component and presence in cyberspace (Arab Advisors Group 2011). Routine programing has grown in scope and content to include various news, sports, reality shows, soap operas, sports, films, music, and commonly religious programs. Many programs are translated or domesticated Western-produced programs, like films, European sports, and reality shows that are adapted for local and regional audiences. Thus, it is no surprise that some of the most popular programs in the last decades have been reality shows like Super Star, Star Academy, Arab Idol contest, and Turkish soap operas dubbed in Syrian Arabic (Kraidy 2006).

While the state-controlled satellite channels have remained subservient to governments, the development of privatized satellite channels, although often restricted by censorship, has challenged state control over the media and over information and news broadcasting. Leading 'privatized' satellite channels such as al Arabiya, al Hayat, and al Hurra (controlled by US), although limited in their scope of independence from the state, have negotiated a level of delineation over the public space as they have become more reliable, transparent, and vigorous in providing and disseminating news of Arab interest through active and professional journalism. This, in turn, has driven official state channels to alter their traditional broadcasting styles in order to remain competitive locally and regionally, thus the Arab public sphere is no longer monopolized by a single agent.

Public Sphere: A Platform for Challenging Authority

By fostering the plurality and variety of voices broadcast over Arab media, the rise of satellite television in the Arab world served to strengthen the Arab public sphere, or the area of social life in which citizens can openly and freely discuss issues of public interest and government function (Hauser 1998). The correlation between the rise of satellite television in the Arab world and the rise of the Arab public sphere is especially relevant in the context of the Arab Spring, since the public sphere is widely considered to be a prerequisite for democracy (Hauser 1998, 83).

The idea of the public sphere as a prerequisite for democracy is rooted in Alexis de Tocqueville's argument that a prosperous democracy necessitates a vibrant civil society, which in turn requires a public sphere. In his argument, Tocqueville connects the public sphere, civil society, and democracy by highlighting the importance of social associations (Warren 1999). For Tocqueville, the concepts of political and civil association are correlated (Tocqueville 1969, 516). As he notes, "in all countries where political associations are forbidden, civil associations are rare" (Tocqueville 1969, 520). As Tocqueville sees it, segments of civil society tend to band together to pursue similar political interests. As larger numbers of these associations band together, the political issues they promote tend to become more visible (Tocqueville 1969, 516). These associations then function as alternative forms of democratic governance, suggesting an organic relationship between associations and good governance (Filali-Ansary 2000; Fukuyama 2000).

For Tocqueville, such associations are only made possible through the existence of a public realm, to which the norms of both the state and society adhere (Hyden 1997). In this open realm, a group of private people join together to form a "public." This conceptualization of joining together leads Tocqueville to equate all types of association with all forms of open public space (or the public realm). Tocqueville did not assume the existence of primordial space, but rather believed that all civil and political arenas would be annexed to the public realm (Tocqueville 1969, 508).

Habermas (1991) expanded this argument by using the growth of democracy in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe to study the rise and decline of the European public sphere. Interestingly, Habermas's case study in some ways explains the theoretical implications of the recent rise of the public sphere in the Arab world.

Essentially, Habermas argued that...

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