The Dark Ages: Media Literacy and Conflict in the Middle East
Author: Karim El Mantawi
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 12/06/2007
Category: Essay II
In this age of dish antennas and satellite broadcast, national boundaries are no longer firm barriers. Messages beam across the globe and bounce off invisible satellites. Rather contrary to the global village myth, these messages are expanding the gap between communities and posing threats to all requisites for conflict prevention in the Middle East. Infant and reckless broadcasters like Al-Jazeera and Hezbollah’s own Al-Manar are on the rampage, and zealous audiences are receiving the fire with no education to counter the flames. The last decade has witnessed the birth of numerous satellite channels. In addition to the privately own stations, Arab governments from Abu Dhabi to Mauritania have their own satellite stations (reclaimthemedia.org). Antagonism and escalatory messages transmitted by Arab satellite broadcasts, coupled with a lack of media literacy, present a grave challenge to peace in the region. Tragic to the setting is the fact that the lack of media literacy, an essential tool for resisting the hype, exists on both sides of the mass communication paradigm – the sender (mass media industry), and the receiver (audiences).
Viewed through models of conflict, the state of Arab satellite media poses itself as a proponent of conflict escalation. According to Abdalla’s C.R. CIPABIO Model of Analyzing Conflict (Abdalla, 2004), the media is regarded as a contextual element that influences conflict. The model fails to recognize the mass media as a translation of behavior and a platform for the expression of attitudes and feelings. The antagonistic broadcast of the Arab broadcasters presents itself as a fierce weapon of cultural and emotional violence directed towards archrival Israel and the West. Their delivery of contentious messages across borders represents escalatory behaviors and fuels negative sentiment. This demonstrates a failure to produce responsible media messages, an integral component of a media literate entity (Silverblatt, 2004). Furthermore, the mass media has allowed itself to be abused for tit-for-tat contentious tactics and as mouthpieces for conflicting parties to issue threats and steer conflicts in escalatory and transforming manners (Pruitt 2004, p.70), essentially transforming into a weapon on the frontlines of the information war.
As conflict transforms, so too does the positioning of the media in Abdalla’s C.R. SIPABIO (Abdalla, 2004), where it leaves the realm of contextual factors and becomes an issue in itself. When conflict escalates, so too do the issues on debate, going from specific to general (Pruitt Ch. 5, p. 89), with Arabs and Israelis accusing each others’ media instruments of boosting the spiral of lies and hate (and in doing so, using the very same media instruments to deliver the accusations). These accusations have no direct relevance to the actual issues around which their conflict revolves, namely land and security. Such boosts are a major cause of structural changes in emotions and psychology of mass audiences (Pruitt Ch.6, p.102), changes that translate into public opinion and pressures and eventually into changes at the policy-making level. Were a literate broadcast to transmit in an educated manner, it would be this same media illiteracy that allows for the masses to be easily swayed in the opposite direction as well, a direction of de-escalation of tensions. It can be deduced then that a comprehensive media literacy approach may not be necessary for both sender and receiver in the mass media marriage, in order for a removal of obstacles to peace to be achieved at the satellite broadcast level. A media literate broadcaster beaming messages down to a media illiterate audience would act responsibly and push for positive peace. Similarly, a media literate audience receiving messages from an illiterate satellite source would decipher the antagonistic messages and resist the spoiling of peacebuilding potential.
Shock is a major factor that may prompt a stalemate and a consequent de-escalation of conflict (Pruitt Ch. 9, p. 175). Sensationalist images on satellite broadcasts carry strong shock value. They are beamed across the Middle East several times daily. We must question, however, if the same shock element doest not provoke a desire for revenge rather than a desire for resolution. In the case of the media arena in the Middle East, the results have been clear. Shock after shock has targeted television audiences, all with only an escalatory result. A literate media industry would instead focus on becoming a tool for optimism (Pruitt Ch. 9, p.175), thereby acting as a catalyst for de-escalation. Optimism and hope would be promoted in the media’s editorial line and would encourage a move towards Galtung’s positive peace (Ramsbotham, Oliver, Woodhouse, Tom and Miall 2005. p.11). This requires also a change to the traditional journalistic formula. As Byrd suggests, journalists should add an ‘S’ for Solutions and a ‘C’ for Common Ground to the traditional ‘five W’s’ formula (Who, What, When, Where, Why) when reporting the news. She urges reporters to go beyond describing a conflict merely in terms of poles of opposition (van de Veen).
Positive peace and the notion of peacebuilding require a commitment to reconciliation, one that is conducive to the dismantling of a culture of war, a core principal of peace education. The culture of war that exists in the Middle East today could not survive in the presence of a media literate audience that could critically dissect messages of the mass media. A necessary incorporation of media literacy syllabi into public educational systems must occur, requiring state ratification. It is at this point that we wonder – is it in the interest of the state, Egypt, for example, to support a media literacy initiative in its own educational system? Although in a state of negative peace with perceived enemy Israel for 28 years, the Egyptian government is reluctant to allow for any progression towards positive peace. There is currently no reason to believe that the government is eager to introduce media literacy education, or to provide any ministerial support to any independent initiative (Tawfik 2004). Such is the challenge that the new media illiterate generation will be consumed by the hatred of satellite newscasters that they will be blinded from the potential that exists for a move towards positive and lasting peace.
Media literacy can alleviate the threats to peace in the Middle East by empowering citizens. It seeks to educate on the process of mass communication and to create an awareness of the impact of the media on the individual and society. It seeks to raise awareness of media content as a cultural ‘text’, “an insight into the attitudes, values, behaviors, preoccupations, patterns of thought, and myths that define cultures” (Silverblatt, 2004). In understanding these principals, the individual becomes critical of the media content he or she is exposed to, and more aware of the emotions and attitudes aroused by reception of content. Individuals and societies can then question the reasoning behind the broadcast, bearing in mind that it transcends national borders, and decipher the often hidden meanings in the messages. Audiences then make a free and educated choice on how and if to react to a media message.
The infringement on the right of individuals and societies to choose their understanding of the mass media in the Arab world has not dawned suddenly with the recent appearance of the satellite broadcasters. On the contrary, the previous lack of independent media altogether had kept audiences in an even darker age, with state controlled media often the only source of information. However, it is the timely coincidence of the birth of the Arab satellite broadcasters (some of which are privately owned, e.g. Al Arabiya) with the heightened media tensions of post-9/11 global politics, that the phrase ‘media wars’ was coined, and it is in these times that a dire need for a more media literate society must rise above all corporate objectives in the media industry so that a ‘media peace’ may evolve. In the new Middle East, traditional censorship is a thing of the past, being replaced only by a neo-liberal model of control, one where information is sent with such high degree of complexity that its de-coding is impossible by the illiterate masses. Such complexity has blinded even the media itself of the active role it now plays in psychological and information warfare.
It is only in 2007 that UNESCO realized the need to incorporate media literacy into its education advocacy agenda for the Arab states. Inviting to a regional seminar on literacy issues the director of Al-Jazeera and focusing on the broadcaster’s sister channel for children’s broadcast, UNESCO managed to address both parties to the equation- both the educators that regularly attend it’s seminars, and the providers of the satellite broadcast content that would eventually face scrutiny (UNESCO 2007). The addressing for the first time in the region of the issue of media within the literacy framework is a giant leap, and no doubt a brave willingness to cooperate on the part of the content providers is integral to the success of this initiative. Such initiatives provide hope that future Arab generations, empowered by media literacy education, may indeed dismantle the culture of war that communicates and disguises itself as information carried by the mass media.
Bio: Karim El Mantawi is a masters degree candidate from the University for Peace in Costa Rica.