Just as the Renaissance in Europe was boosted by the development of print media, so has today’s modern media been key to mobilising Arabs during the recent and ongoing revolutionary transitions. But as much as media was a tool of change, it itself underwent transformation.
This transformation has been as rapid as it has been ungoverned. Thus there has been an important debate across the Arab World about the new role media is now playing and about how much it should be regulated. In this context, it is interesting to take a look at the case of Yemen and its media landscape.
The World Press Freedom Index of 2014, places Yemen at 167 out of the 180 countries included in the report. The country has advanced by only two points since last year when it ranked 169th.
This is little comfort for a country emerging from a revolution and a recent National Dialogue Conference which promised fair and credible constitutional change, a referendum and elections.
TV in Yemen has witnessed quite a lot of growth, as new channels have proliferated. As clashing parties in the country realised the potential media has in reaching and influencing the public, some have started their own TV channels. There are now about ten TV channels operating in the Yemeni space. Six of them were founded after the revolution. TV is the preferred outlet because of the low literacy rate in the country, which stands at 65 percent.
In Yemen the so-called Arab Spring marked the beginning of the end of an era of government manipulation and control of private and state-owned media. However, pluralism and a greater number of media outlets do not guarantee that the new media landscape in Yemen has become more open and focused on greater democracy and freedom. It would be difficult to jump to such a conclusion without appreciating the particularities of the Yemeni media and the nature of the political transition.The media in the country is still a work in progress, as is its political future and political foundation.
Yemen’s newly established media outlets were not created with the purpose to reinforce transparency, to educate the public or to promote a healthy dialogue in society.
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Rather, the motive was fiercely political and explicitly ideological. Political players manipulate these new media outlets to ensure ideological gains and to support their political interests. Thus, despite the newly found media freedom in Yemen, one cannot feel that all new media outlets necessarily promote freedom in other aspects of Yemeni society.
Media often does not provide a platform for Yemeni’s to communicate their disagreement with the government; instead, it often turns into a battleground for fierce political and ideological clashes between the major political players in the country.
This has resulted in reducing the credibility of media and in turn the public’s perception of media in general. This credibility crisis is attributed to journalists themselves. Due to their lack of experience and misunderstanding of ethics of their profession, some Yemeni journalists have proven ill-equipped to translate their newly found freedom into professional practices and they have been unable to distance themselves from cantankerous political agendas.
With their current practices of journalism, it becomes really hard to draw a distinction between journalists working in this new emerging media and those working in the state owned media. The latter were turned into servants of regime politics and propaganda, the former are now promoters of partisan propaganda. This is reflected in the poor coverage and reporting which appears unnecessarily sensational and rather unprofessional. This has left many of the public in a state of confusion, as it has become difficult to distinguish between real news and rumours.
The boom in the Yemeni media landscape was not matched by a change in the art and science of journalism itself. The country still lacks professional cadres who can practice responsible journalism. Unfortunately, one cannot see this situation changing, as media reform is not on the political agenda of any of the players in Yemen’s transition.
What lessons can we draw from Yemen’s experience to apply to other Arab countries in transition? First and foremost, quantity does not mean quality, nor freedom or democracy. Outlet proliferation does not guarantee diverse, objective media that will promote democratic institutions and open debate. Nor does it automatically mean a more educated audience which is able to choose and judge on information sensibly.
Therefore, states in transition need to focus on media reforms that guarantee media independence from politics and state institutions; access to good-quality journalism education; a balance between regulation and free information flow and access; and last but not least, mechanism to empower audiences to make educated choices on media consumption.
Good media policy contributes to governance and participation by providing people easy access to the latest developments and an opportunity to form their own views. Poor media policy risks the country’s political future if government or other actors press their points too hard. Thus it is essential for Yemen and other Arab countries to act quickly to develop media and preserve its independence.
Murad Alazzany is an associate professor at Sana’a University, Yemen.
Robert Sharp is an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA), Washington DC, USA.