Media and Civil Society in the Arab World: Bridging the Gap

Article Summary
A disconnect in the Arab world between the media and civil society was the focus of a recent conference in Tunisia, Denise Yammine reports. Participants at the conference, entitled "Communication for Change in the Arab Region," discussed citizen journalism and community radio as two options for improving access to media outlets for women, rural communities and minority groups.

The term "civil society" has always been ambiguous in the Arab world. This ambiguity has failed to reflect the people's mobilization to defend unresolved social, economic and well-being issues. Many Arab journalists and activists agree that the concept of civil society faces daunting challenges. The "politicized" Arab media has widely marginalized civil society, deeming it a "cry without echo." Has this relation changed in the wake of what has come to be known as the "Arab Spring?"
The winds of change have been blowing for a year and half now. However, it does not seem that the relation between the Arab media and civil society has taken a different turn in the region, simply because the trade unions and associations have played a key role in the Arab uprising, or because civil society and the rebels shared the same demands, which were strongly adopted by the Arab media. Nevertheless, one thing is for sure: the coordination between the media and civil society has become more pronounced in the post-revolution period.

Based on this reading, the conference of "Communication for Change in the Arab Region" was held at the invitation of the Inter-Press Service News Agency (IPS) in Tunisia  two days ago [March 12, 2012]. The meeting shed light on the major gap between the media and civil society. "The time has come to bridge this gap as the region has been undergoing fundamental changes, which have allowed associations and activists to get rid of the constraints of the past."

Media representatives and activists from civil society from Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria have highlighted the fluctuating relationship between the media and civil society, stressing that it needs to be repaired. "Many organizations have for so long been dependent on Western funders, while most of the media outlets were affiliated with local authorities."

Baher Kamal, the IPS Director General's Advisor for Middle East and North Africa, considered this problem as a "huge gap which can only be narrowed with time, until both parties - civil society and the media - reach a common ground. While civil society does not trust the media, accusing it of constantly whining and weeping, the latter does not take the social community seriously." "Restoring the relation between the media and civil society should be done sooner rather than later," said Kamal.

It is about time that the Arab press started to address civil society issue more seriously, in order to give weight to causes such as execution, violence against women, addiction, democracy, electoral transparency, freedom of expression, child rights, poverty and unemployment. On the other hand, non-governmental organizations should not depend on closed conferences funded by Western parties, which end up in intellectual standardization, or even worse, in the issue never leaving the corridors of the conference.

Dedicating a branch within the media concerned with issues within civil society, would help promote direct coordination between both parties. However, the problem lies in the manner in which such civil issues are covered. "Media coverage is mainly limited to the news aspect of the incident rather than the substance that may attract the audience."

There is no doubt that the emergence of  the concept of "citizen journalism" in the Arab world - as a reaction to the suppression of the ousted regimes, and a result of the Arab activists' heavy participation in social networking and media-sharing websites - has greatly contributed to the integration of the roles of civil society and the media within a single template. This issue has been raised by AMARC (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) at a seminar on the sidelines of a conference on "civil society and media." The seminar was the first step towards introducing the concept of "community radio" to the Arab region, following its wide expansion in Europe.

"Community radio has been created by marginalized groups that have been overlooked by commercial or capitalist mass-media broadcasters," said Sawsan Zayada, AMARC Deputy Director. "The radio station would provide rural, ethnic or female communities with a mechanism to tell their stories and voice their concerns, raising the banner of their cause in pursuit of justice and equity. The community radio is nonprofit and is not owned by anyone. It belongs to all marginalized groups," she added.

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