The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) organized seminar on May4th, 2004 within the scope of Ibn Roshd Salon under the title, “Did the Arab Satellite Channels Replace Political Parties in Directing the Arab Masses?’’ The seminar was headed by Bahey El Din Hassan, head of the CIHRS. In the opening of seminar, he addressed the apparent regression of the role of political parties in the Arab world since many years before the emergence of the space channels. In the meantime, the Arab space channels have started playing an increased role in influencing the masses with respect to national issues, especially those of Palestine and Iraq.
Dr. Safwat El-Allem, professor of public relations and advertising at the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University, identified the characteristics of the space channels that make them influential on public opinion to the extent that causes questioning as to whether these channels can replace the parties in successfully directing the masses. He pointed out the prevalence, widening, and spreading of these channels everywhere 24 hours a day exceeding the capacities of any political party to spread its ideas and influence the masses. Dr. El-Allem also added that these channels exceed national borders, which extends their geographical coverage. This creates a state of harmony amongst the knowledge presented to the public by the news concerning many issues. This extended coverage also allows for the news to be simultaneously broadcasted in a timely manner by all channels. This trait is most evident during the times of political crisis. Another important positive aspect of the space channels is that they present different opinions equally with practically no censorship. Whereas political parties may be under the influence of their organizational structure and political and electoral agenda to which all its members and leaders are committed.
The channels offer a variety in presentation of concepts and media messages. However, economical considerations often place the interests of the advertiser as a priority. Therefore, the concepts maybe altered in light of coding systems or the needs of the audience.
However, political parties benefit over the space channels in their united perspective and clarity of their political agenda. As a school of thought, political parties serve as educational facets for the public, where they can be reached effectively. Political parties also enjoy a specific organizational structure. Another benefit is the ease of communication within the party. In contrast, the communication between the public and the space channels is limited and conducted in an unorganized manner based on the extent of influence that the channel has.
Dr. Allem ended his talk with the following question: “Can the Arab media systems allow for alternative space channels to replace the political parties or that these channels, with some exceptions, that are not influenced by the Arab system of communication which is supposed to reflect the political trend of each of the Arab countries? He accentuated that any defect in the media system is a reflection of the practices of the political system in the Arab world.”
The Inexistence of Political Parties
Dr. Layla Abd El-Megeid, former Dean of the Faculty of Mass Communication at 6 October University, started the discussion. She spoke based on her personal convictions that there should not be any political parties in reality in the Arab world. Even in countries that accept political multiplicity, the presence of political parties is only on the surface. These parties also exist outside of current times and in the shadows of systems that do not believe in political multiplicity in the first place. Since the return to multiplicity in parties in Egypt in 1976, existing political parties have not been able to fully convince the average citizen or the elected individuals to join parties, a truly new way of thinking. Then, Dr. Layla moved on talking about the Arab space channels. She pointed to the existence of 120 or more Arab channels most of which serve as methods of entertainment and leisure.
Dr. Layla also clarified that there are many issues related to the Arab space channels, especially the news channels. Many groups of people were not able to access these channels. She pointed out her doubts towards the participation of citizens in the programs on these news channels and whether they are truly engaging the citizens or just pretending to do so. Besides, media messages of the space channels are dramatized and exaggerated. Thus, this sentiment does not support the positions and perspectives of the space channels. Sometimes, the perspective of the channels is contradictory to that of the official Arab media.
Dr. Abd El-Megeid added that there are many groups who do not possess the means by which to follow the space channels, now an issue of democracy and the value of cultural democracy, the access to knowledge presented by these channels.
She also pointed to the lack of known knowledge about the ownership of the Arab news channels. The sources of funding are unclear and their independence is questionable. Some of these space channels play a substantial role in engaging the viewer with only a fraction of the full picture. Sometimes, the channels do not present balanced information. Opinion and fact are often mixed up together due to the fudging of information and the skewing of issues. As a result, the information presented is not always based on real facts.
However, Dr. Abd El-Megeid did not dismiss the benefits of these space channels. The gains are mostly evident in the area of advertising, the spreading of facts and realities that are hidden by nationally owned means of communication. Due to the lack of real political parties, the space channels have gained a major role in directing the Arab masses.
The Mixing of Roles
Dr. Wahid Abd El-Megeid, Vice-President of the Egyptian General Organization for Books, confirmed that there is an obvious defect in the roles of both the space channels and the Arab political parties. He pointed out that the period of transition in society is a major contributor to this problem of mixed up roles. This time period is characterized by the switch from the era of “followers” to an era of “citizens.” Also contributing to this problem is the fact that the general Arab opinion deals in an unorganized way with many of today’s issues. The political regulatory power is lacking. Great power arises from the reliance on the space channels as part of a political and media strategy. There is constant pressure by groups demanding their voice to be prominent on these space channels.
The purpose of this is to reveal the specific levels in these groups. Constant communication with news space channels is a method used by groups to impose themselves on the media and the people.
It is evident that some presenters on the Arab news channels, especially El-Gezeira, broadcast opinions that contradict their personal perspectives concerning many issues. Dr. Wahid Abd El-Megeid also added that the space channels work in a market that is in part related to the awareness currently lived out by society and in another part in relation to the nature of the transitional period in society.
Governmental constraints on political parties do not alone explain the weaknesses of these parties. There is decadence in political performance on all levels. Currently, Arab society is infused with extremism, fanaticism, and superstitions in a way never witnessed before. The call for privatizing the media has lead to trends like that of the Muslim Brothers Group to take control over the media.
Framing Leisure Time
Salah Eissa, writer, journalist, and Chief Editor of the Cairo Newspaper, warned the attendants of the seminar from the mixing of roles in different social institutions, especially in professional syndicates and political parties. Each role has its specific division. These divisions must be consummate, each part performing its tasks correctly and completely so that the media can move information and the news freely. Thus, the political party can be animated amidst audiences and powerful pressures can be administered to express ideas when syndicates offer services to its members without heaving to play the role of a political party.
Salah Eisa also clarified that the general situation in the Arab world is built on the idea of framing spare time leading to the need for creating imaginary organizations under the name of parties that, in reality, have an empty existence. The authorities in power are surely in charge of what the average citizen receives in terms of information and perspectives proven by the existence of censorship on external sources of information within the channels. He added that Arab groups refuse the idea of parties in the first place. What is in place is nothing more than vague outlines representative of parties that will always remain as a minority whose only purpose is to breathe.
Eisa considered that fixing the political order is grounded in confronting the disfigurement and mixing of roles across various institutions. He also said that the space channels gave birth to a disfigured form of political thought opposite to what is needed. As the Arab news space channels played a big role in dissolving the idea of parties, they have become a means by which ideas are given and taken away from the streets.
Amina El-Nakash, writer, journalist, and member of the Political Bureau for the Tagamoe Party, critically stated that it is not fair to burden political parties with the responsibility for the political emptiness in the Arab world. She also stated that this is substantial mixing and flagrant injustice towards political parties because the Arab political order in summary is dictatorial and against individual freedom. The society is also against democratic reform that is happening in the rest of the world.
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