Book Review: “Arab National Media and Political Change: Recording the Transition” (Fatima El-Issawi, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

By Sahar Khamis

A lot of the literature dealing with the role of the media in the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings focused on the notion of “cyberactivism,” or how and why new media, especially social media, exhibited the potential to act as catalysts for speeding up public mobilization against authoritarian regimes.

Moving beyond assumptions of technological determinism, which focus on what social media can or cannot do to aid socio-political transformation, Fatima El-Issawi’s book: “Arab National Media and Political Change: Recording the Transition” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) sheds light on an extremely important, yet understudied, dimension, namely: The “voice” of the media actors and players, i.e., those who are producing mediated messages in mainstream media in some of the transitioning countries in the Arab region.

In an attempt to give “voice” to this important, yet largely understudied, sector in the Arab media industry, El-Issawi takes us on an exploratory journey which spreads geographically to cover three countries which witnessed the “Arab Spring” upheavals, albeit with different outcomes and varied results, namely: Egypt, Libya and Tunisia; spreads temporally over a period of three years, from 2012 till 2015; spreads methodologically to include in-depth personal interviews and ethnographic field observation; and spreads thematically to cover the multiple roles played by both print and broadcast journalists before, during, and after the eruption of the uprisings in their own home countries, as well as their multiple, and sometimes conflicting, understandings of their own complex roles, identities, and professional obligations.

In doing so, the author builds upon her own professional expertise, as a former journalist and correspondent with several international media outlets, in addition to her academic tools and analytical lens, to provide us with an in-depth, thorough, and rich picture, capturing the complexity of the mechanisms of Arab journalists’ shifting identity positions, and the underlying variables behind them.

Some of the most important findings which emerged out of this in-depth, field study are the following. First, the book exposed not only the complex shifts and transitions within the socio-political spheres in the three countries under study, as well as the equally complex shifts and transformations within the mainstream media arena, rather it helped us to better understand the parallels, crossovers, and overlaps between these complex, ongoing phenomena. In doing so, it avoided naïve assumptions of causality, which either credited the political transitions to the roles of media actors and their mediated messages, or credited the changes in the media sphere to the political transitions, or both. Rather, it simply helps us to better understand the correlations and intersections between these different factors, and how and why they go hand in hand.

Second, the book helps us to listen to the media actors in mainstream Arab media institutions in these three transitioning countries in their own voice, and enables them to tell their stories in their own words, rather than having someone else describe their roles or tell their stories for them. This, in turn, helps the reader to better understand how they themselves define their own roles, identities, contributions, and challenges, through their own eyes and their own narratives.

Third, the book brilliantly reveals some of the push and pull mechanisms, or some of the conflicting influences at play, which have an impact on Arab journalists’ performance of their multiple duties, such as the role of the concept of “regulatory media reform,” and how and why it is understood and practiced differently in different Arab countries, across different phases, at the crossroads between “the legacy in the past” and “the burdens in the present,” as the author puts it. In doing so, the book opens our eyes to some of the challenges pertaining to controlling and regulating media systems in the Arab world, and how and why the margin of media freedom has been alternating between shrinking and stretching. The book tackles the concept of “regulatory media reform” through a comparative framework, which examines aspects such as media funding, ownership regulation, coercive legal dispositions, and attempts to liberate national media from the grip of “Ministries of Information,” as they manifest themselves in the three studied countries.

Fourth, interestingly enough, the book doesn’t just tackle these push and pull mechanisms within the political sphere, as seen in the tug of war between authoritative regimes, on one hand, and the media actors, on the other hand. Rather, it equally reveals the tug of war which can take place inside the newsroom of different media organizations, as a result of the difficulty of reconciling old and new habits, and different ways of practicing journalism. In other words, what journalists “were used to doing” in the past, and “the new models introduced by professional training and audiences’ changing expectations.” The author argues that the internal resistance to change within some of the Arab media newsrooms is best reflected in the return of the so-called “patriotic” journalist model, contrary to the Western “watchdog” model, with the latter being negatively painted by some journalists as a denial of the so-called “patriotic duty,” a duty which entails suppressing any negative news, glorifying the leaders, and downplaying the importance of the regime’s accountability and the responsibility of those in power.

Fifth, it illustrates how Arab media players, namely journalists and talk show hosts in mainstream Arab media outlets, could be best thought of as both mirrors and molders, or reflectors and shapers, of the prevailing political dynamics and transitions in their respective countries, as well as the difficulties and challenges posed by these processes. One good example the book gives in this respect is how some of the prominent talk show hosts in Egypt contributed to the increasing margin of division, fragmentation, and polarization between the different political forces and players after the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013, in what has been described by some as a popular revolution, and by others as a military coup.

Finally, the book sheds light on the ever evolving, ambivalent, blurry, and hybrid identity-formation process among different media actors in the Arab world, not just at the intersection of many political, social, and cultural influences, but also across different spheres, such as the mainstream media sphere and the citizen journalism sphere. For example, it discusses how the spillover from the realm of citizen journalism to the realm of mainstream media led some Arab media actors to (re)define their own roles and identities, in addition to their style of practicing journalism. Some of them started to adopt a personal, emotional style that mimics that of bloggers, for example, thus creating a new, blurred, hybrid identity, which cross-cuts the categories of “journalist” and “activist” simultaneously.

Overall, this book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in better understanding the complexity, hybridity, and fluidity of both the Arab Spring transitions, as well as the numerous forces and multiple influences which are both shaping, and reflecting, them continuously, such as the equally complex, hybrid, and fluid roles of Arab journalists and mainstream media actors.

 

Sahar Khamis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the co-author of the books: “Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and “Egyptian Revolution 2.0: Political Blogging, Civic Engagement, and Citizen Journalism” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone

 

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