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Newspapers and Print Media: Arab Countries

NEWSPAPERS AND PRINT MEDIA: ARAB COUNTRIES

Arab mass circulation print media, that is, newspapers and magazines that are intended for audiences in the Arab world.



Historical Development

The first printed periodical publication carrying news written by and for Arabs was Jurnal al-Iraq, which began appearing in Baghdad in Arabic and Turkish in the year 1816. Two Arab newspapers began publishing in Cairo in the 1820s, and these were followed by newspapers in Algeria in 1847, Beirut in 1858, Tunis, Damascus, and Tripoli Libya in the 1860s, Sanʿa in 1879, Casablanca in 1889, and Mecca in 1908.

Lebanon and Egypt have been leading centers of print media, publishing important newspapers earlier than most Arab countries; they continue to hold leading positions in journalism into the twenty-first century. The first Arab daily newspaper appeared in Beirut in 1873, and al-Ahram, which still appears as a leading daily, started in Egypt in 1875. By the twenty-first century only Egypt had dailies with circulations over half a million copies. Its two leading "national" dailies, al-Ahram and al-Akhbar, each distributed over seven hundred thousand, and al-Jumhuriyya sold about four hundred thousand copies. During the last decades of the twentieth century, the oil-rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf quickly expanded their print media, to some extent benefiting from Arab talent they hired from such countries as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine, and quality daily newspapers proliferated. Circulations there remained small, however; for example, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman have had successful dailies only since the 1970s, and their circulations have never exceeded a few tens of thousands.

Among the smaller Arab states on the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia has the oldest newspaper traditions, and some of its leading newspapers have relatively long traditions. In the Western region of Saudi Arabia, such newspapers as al-Bilad and alMadina were flourishing as early as the 1930s, and the dailies Ukaz and al-Nadwa had appeared there by the 1960s. In the early 1960s, Al-Jazira and al-Riyadh dailies started in Riyadh, and al Yawm started in Dammam; as of 2003, all seven of these newspapers still existed. In Yemen, governments in the south and the north have published daily papers since the 1960s, but they were of limited circulation and generally of poor quality.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has established a minimum standard of one hundred copies of daily newspapers per one thousand inhabitants, but by the year 1966 only Lebanon and four Gulf states, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emi-rates, had passed it (worldbank.org, March 2003). By the twenty-first century, five Arab countries had dailies with more than one hundred thousand in circulation. Assuming multiple readers of each copy, an estimated thirty million Arabs, or more than 10 percent of the total Arab population, are regular readers of dailies.

Common Characteristics

There are significant differences among Arab countries in the use and structure of print media, reflecting underlying differences in wealth, population, literacy, political systems, and cultural conditions. The following characteristics generally prevail, although variations and exceptions occur throughout the region.

First, most Arab print media exist on a relatively weak economic base. They suffer from small literate populations and, in most places, limited incomes. Sales are therefore limited and, in addition, the practice of advertising in the media has not developed very extensively. Even as some Arab states and individuals became wealthy during the second half of the twentieth century, advertising remained modest and businesspeople did not see media as a lucrative investment. Although newspapers were no longer an expensive luxury for the middle classes, as they were during the middle of the twentieth century, price and literacy still limited circulations.

Second, Arab media tend to be closely tied to politics in a number of ways. The first newspapers were published by governments with the intent of informing bureaucrats and the public. The first indigenous Egyptian newspapers, Jurnal al-Khadyu and al-Waqaʾi al-Misriyya, appeared in the 1820s as government publications. The practice also emerged elsewhere. In Algeria the government started publishing al-Mubashir in 1847; in Tunisia the government started al-Raʾid al-Tunis in 1861, and in Damascus the government started Suriya in 1865. In Iraq the government began issuing Jurnal al-Iraq in 1816. Private individuals and families did begin to publish newspapers, but in the nineteenth century they appeared only in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Morocco. More private papers emerged later, but after World War II, in the era of Arab nationalism and anticolonialism, Arab governments tended to want to control their own newspapers; government-owned papers still exist in most parts of the region, where they are still seen as important political instruments.

Some newspaper owners have tended to seek financial patronage from domestic and foreign governments or from local political parties. The Arab political parties that emerged after World War II sought to disseminate their views through the press, and party newspapers still exist in a number of Arab countries, although many of them are relatively small circulation weeklies.

Third, from the beginning, Arab newspapers have tended to include a significant amount of cultural content, traditionally publishing short stories, poetry, and serialized novels. Scholars and literary figures often write in the newspapers. At the same time, the profession of journalism, including the habit of aggressive reporting and the presentation of objective, unbiased news, has not been as fully developed in the Arab world as it has in some other parts of the world.

Finally, the structure of Arab print media tends to be fragmented, with most of the readership of individual newspapers confined to the paper's country of origin; many papers have small, specialized audiences. Most newspapers are published in one or two cities in each country because of the concentration of literate readers and because of barriers to distribution.


Organization

Arab print media can be divided for purposes of analysis into four separate organizational categories. One type can be called the "mobilization press." This type of media is under the tightest government control and supervision. Newspapers of this type never criticize or print negative information about senior officials. They avoid criticism of basic government policy, and only occasionally complain about the way lower-level individual government employees manage their responsibilities. There is no significant diversity among newspapers, all of which are owned by the government or by its political agents. The regime in fact controls all essential levers of power in the country, including the press. It sees itself as the vanguard of the people and regards the press as a tool of political mobilization of the public; it is not content with passive acquiescence but expects active editorial support for its policies. This type of print media is found in Syria, Sudan, and Libya. Before 2003 the press structure in Iraq was the clearest example of a mobilization press. The 2003 war in Iraq and the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein changed the Iraqi media scene, as genuinely private newspapers emerged for the first time in decades. As of 2003 the Iraqi system was still in transition.


A second press type can be called "loyalist," because although most newspapers are privately owned, their news and commentary loyally support the government in power. They eschew criticism of the top leadership, although they do complain about shortcomings of the government bureaucracy and express occasional mild criticism of government ministers. There is little diversity among the daily papers except in style. This type of print media is found in the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Palestine. From the final years of the 1990s, however, a more liberal trend began to appear in these countries, initiated by some of the younger leaders who have gained more influence.

The Palestinian press, however, has some unique characteristics. Palestine was ruled by the Ottomans until 1917, then for thirty years by the British, then by Israel and Jordan until 1967, when Israel also occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian journalism found outlets in several Arab countries, but not in Palestine itself until the middle of the 1990s, when the Palestinian Authority assumed responsibility for some of the territory, and government-sponsored and private print media emerged there. Palestinian publications as of 2003 remained subject to controls of various kinds not only by the Palestinian Authority but also by Israel, since Palestine has not yet achieved independent statehood.

A third type of print media can be called "diverse," because its most distinguishing characteristic is that newspapers represent a considerable diversity in content, style, and political orientation. Essentially all are privately owned, and many but not all are quite critical of the government. The clearest example of this type of press is found in Lebanon, but during the twenty-first century it is found also in Morocco, Kuwait, and Yemen. Behind the press is a political system that includes active political parties and an environment of freer speech than in most other parts of the Arab world.

A fourth type of print media can be called "transitional," because its structure has been undergoing change in recent years; it is the subject of debate and discussion in the country and may change further. Some print media are owned by the government, some by private individuals, and some by political parties. Some freedom of expression exists, but a variety of governmental controls and economic pressures restrict that freedom. Laws on the books allow the government authorities to take action against journalists and editors, and court cases are relatively frequent. This type of press is found in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Algeria.

Offshore Publishing

Finally, there is an additional and separate category of important Arab newspapers that are primarily based in Europe but published for readers throughout the Arab world. This phenomenon began during the 1970s when the Lebanese civil war forced some Lebanese publishers and journalists to leave their country and set up "offshore" operations in London, Paris, and Rome. Some did not survive, but others did. When the civil war ended, some moved back to Beirut, such as the weekly al-Hawadith ; others kept their bases in Europe. The improvements in satellite and computer technology during the 1990s made it possible for these offshore publications to overcome distribution obstacles because they could do the editorial work in Europe and print the paper in various cities in the Arab world for local distribution. Editors were concerned about local censorship and taboos, but they were nevertheless somewhat freer than locally published papers, and some of them varied their content depending on the target country.

By 2003, three major Arab publishing houses in London were producing newspapers and magazines for distribution throughout the Arab world. All were owned by wealthy Saudi nationals. The Saudi Research and Marketing Group, chaired by a Saudi prince, has produced the daily al-Sharq alAwsat since 1977, and it also produces more than a dozen other publications, including the popular weekly magazine al-Majalla. Another publishing house, founded originally by a Lebanese family but now owned by another Saudi prince, produces the daily al-Hayat plus a weekly magazine, and it has a joint venture with a satellite television company. A third Arab daily that appears in London and is aimed at a pan-Arab audience is al-Quds al-Arabi ; it is edited by Palestinians and tends to focus on Palestinian issues.


Non-Arabic and Specialized Publications

Most Arabs read newspapers in Arabic, but there are some important publications that appear in French or English. On the Persian Gulf, where thousands of English-speaking South Asians reside, there are many daily newspapers published in English, aimed primarily at those expatriates. Two of Kuwait's seven dailies are in English. In North Africa, where the French colonial legacy can still be seen, and French is still spoken by many people, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria all have important newspapers in French. By 2003, of the eighteen dailies appearing in Algeria, eleven were in French, including five with circulations of more than one hundred thousand. Seven of the nineteen dailies in Morocco were in French. Of the sixteen leading dailies in Lebanon, one was in English and one in French. Even in Egypt, where most readers prefer Arabic, The Egyptian Gazette in English (which began publication in 1880) and Le progrès Egyptien in French (which started in 1893), are still appearing, although with limited circulations.

Every Arab country produces its own weekly and monthly magazines. Some have political agendas but most are special-interest publications that have no particular political agenda, but rather deal with specialized subjects such as sports or women's issues. The most common type is the weekly pictorial variety and current-events magazine, such as Egypt's al-Musawwar and Lebanon's al-Hawadith. Scholarly journals such as Egypt's al-Siyasa alDawliyya, religious magazines such as the Saudi al-Daʿwa, and literary and intellectual publications such as Kuwait's al-Arabi appeal to specialized readers.


Conclusion

In short, print media vary across the Arab world. Government, generally quite strong, influences the media in different ways. In one country there may be uniformity among publications, and the media play an advocacy role in support of the government. In another country, government influence will be more subtle and indirect. In some Arab countries, publications exist that express views in clear opposition to the government. The fundamental factor explaining these differences is the prevailing political system of the particular country in which the media are published.


Bibliography


Alterman, Jon B. New Media, New Politics?: From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World, Policy Paper no.
48. Washington DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998.

Kamalipour, Yahya R., and Mowlana, Hamid, eds. Mass Media in the Middle East: A Comprehensive Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Rugh, William A. The Arab Press: News Media and the Political Process in the Arab World. 2d edition. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

william a. rugh

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