In their book De-westernizing Media Studies, James Curran and Myung-Jin Park, have invited a number of media critics from around the world to comment on recent media developments in different countries and regions. The book is indeed an interesting read for anyone who’s interested in the relationship between mass media and society in a globalized world.

This book is part of a growing reaction against the self-absorbtion and parochialism of much Western media theory. […] Whether it be middle-range generalization about, for example, the influence of news sources on reporting […], the same few countries keep recurring as if they are a stand-in for the rest of the world.

I’ve looked at a few chapters dealing with the situation in the Middle East, Egypt and – for comparison – Sweden. A special emphasis is put on developments in satellite-distributed television, and how that technology changed the possibilities for regional governments to maintain control over its citizens’ consumption of media. Why is it that we in the western world tend to dismiss Middle East media, and claim moral superiority of our own?

First of all, Sreberny (2000:65) conveys the point that the Middle East is a geo-political term rooting back to the days of colonialism, and it does not necessarily mean that the countries within, and their respective cultures, are homogenic. The common denominator is the Arabic language, but beyond that the countries are very different in culture. This is important to understand, because the great diversity of the region also means that what is allowed in one county might be illegal in another. (Sreberny 2000:68) Traditionally it is a region with very little of what resembles (western) democracy, and the concept of free speech and press freedoms are not self evident as in some other parts of the world.

However, developments in media technologies have not left the Middle East unaffected; the best example is the huge impact of satellite-TV in the region during the last decade. The first Gulf War in 1991 was imperative in creating a new era. The war created a surge for news – a demand that in large was satisfied by tuning in to the American news network CNN, much to the governments dismay, it seems. (Sreberny 2000:70)

The different governments response to this sudden influx of foreign content was very different throughout the region. At a very early point, the stance in Egypt for example, was to adopt an “open window policy” to satellite distributed television (Amin et al. 2000:183). This allowed Egyptians to purchase or rent equipment to freely receive foreign programming, including American and Israeli television. The tendencies to accept satellite-TV, or at least allowing it a higher degree of freedom than given to other media, seem pretty consistent throughout the region. However, some countries are more repressive than others: Saudi Arabia banned satellite dishes in 1994, with reference to them being a “threat to traditional values”. Instead, the country along with Jordan and Qatar, opted for terrestrial retransmission of satellite channels through MMDS – a distribution system that enable a central authority to filter content of which it does not approve (Sreberny 2000:72).

Appreciating the existence and cultural importance of these values are crucial for the understanding of the region. Traditionally printed media – while monitored by the governments – appealed only to a paternalistic elite: literate and educated. Often the members of this elite was already closely tied to, or part of, the governing structures. Television, on the other hand, bypasses the need for literacy, and do appeal to a much broader mainstream. Also – as Sreberny (2004:74) points out – it introduces the women, who have traditionally been left completely out of the public sphere due to a high rate of illiteracy (and also for the simple reason of them being women), to become much more informed and active.

Islamic cultures are very culturally defensive due to, in large, the strong traditions. In Egypt the mistrust against foreign cultures are almost hysterical, according to Amin (2000:185). But for a western reader, it is important to emphasize that what is incomprehensible is often cultural modes of expression and narrative, such as for example occasionally glorifying and romanticizing the villain while revolting against society in movies – simply differences in decoding within the cultural sphere. It is not always about freedom of speech or authoritarian critique.

To battle the challenging foreign culture outlets and to lessen the dependency of western media as a source for news, as was the case in the first Gulf War, the governments realized that they needed to create Arabic alternatives to the international satellite channels (Amin 2000:183). A plethora of channels emerged in the beginning and middle of the last decade, and within just a couple of years there was no shortage of news and entertainment in Arabic. Here it seems as if the common denominator of the Arabic language helped since the market became larger than for any individual country. So, in effect, globalization brought about an increased regionalization where the Arabic countries, for good and bad, became more closely linked to one another.

Both Sreberny and Amin are positive to the medias effects on democratization in the region. Amin (2000:185) ends on a note that television is bound to speed-up the processes of both democratization and privatization, while Sreberny (2000:75) focus on the new groups of people that are invited to take part in the public sphere. Its emancipatory effects on women are a symbol for the changes to the public sphere.

It is important to remember that increased pluralism in the media inevitably encourages the individual to consider and evaluate his or her society against others societies. And that, they seem to be saying, is always a good thing.

In a Swedish Perspective
The Middle East and Sweden differ greatly in both theory and practice when it comes to the relationship between the government and the public sphere. In Sweden there is no censorship; no gag order on critique against the government; anyone can buy a satellite dish at anytime and tune into whatever he or she fancy. Having said this, a direct comparison between the governmental structures is hard, not to say impossible. So, my aim within these paragraphs will be to find similarities not by comparing variables directly between the two, but I will try to find cultural parallels within the respective regions, especially concerning the attitude toward television in general, and about foreign cultural influences in particular. Are the reactions to increased globalization by the Middle Eastern governments any different then those in Sweden, if they are both studied within their cultural setting?

Sweden was for the longest time dominated by a few government backed public service channels, with the mission to provide high quality programming to the folkhem (Dahl 2000:252, 258). Commercial channels were looked upon with great suspicion and were not allowed to broadcast. In fact, there was a belief that commercials and advertising was destructive for society, and that consumerism was to be avoided at all costs.

However, the emerge of satellite and cable networks in the late 80’s, and particularly the launch of a satellite based Nordic channel, TV3, added pressure to introduce commercial terrestrial broadcasting to counter-balance the commercial messages. What’s interesting is that the launch of a third terrestrial channel manifested the belief what television should, or should not be; in order to get its concession to broadcast, the commercial channel TV4 had to conform to certain demands on “quality”. The contract between TV4 and the Swedish government explicitly states, for example, exactly how many hours of culture must be broadcasted in relation to other material. In effect, high and low culture was defined and put in writing.

In Sweden, just as in the case was in the Middle East, the expansion of the domestic media came only as a counter reaction to external events and not a day sooner. In Sweden, just as in the Middle East, the government rationalized this through being “protective” of its national culture, and implicitly claiming it to be superior to others. In Sweden, just as in the Middle East, national channels are trying to keep up with international channels in providing a “national perspective”. So, if the Middle East and Sweden is analyzed within their own cultural sphere and traditions, maybe the differences are not as great as if the progress is benchmarked by measuring a few fix variables.

De-Westernizing Media Studies
The book is indeed interesting since it attempts to provide the readers with a somewhat more nuanced way of looking at the world. It seems to be remarkably easy to become normative when discussing globalization in media. Especially if democratization is present as an implicit or explicit ideal, since the arguments often revolve around modernization theory, and this book makes it somewhat easer to avoid the most obvious traps. The scholars represented in the book are often from, or are specialized in, the countries they report on, and it shows.

» Amin, Hussein & Napoli, James. (2000) “Media and Power in Egypt” in James Curran & Myung-Jin Park (eds.) De-westernizing Media Studies, London: Routledge
» Dahlgren, Peter (2000) “Media and Power Transitions in a Small Country: Sweden” in James Curran & Myung-Jin Park (eds.) De-westernizing Media Studies, London: Routledge
» Sreberny, Annabelle (2000) “Television, Gender and Democratization in the Middle East” in James Curran & Myung-Jin Park (eds.) De-westernizing Media Studies, London: Routledge