Talk shows, Islamist women and post-Arab Spring media

More than six years ago, protests across the Middle East and North Africa were organised, publicised and written about – often in a negative manner – through a variety of media.

Emboldened by online social networks and as surveillance technology was not quite as performative as it is today, millions poured onto the streets to demand more rights and greater freedom of expression.

Traditional media outlets, controlled by the government, had for years failed to serve the public and provide the truth.

After such monumental uprisings, many of which led to overhauls of governments, has the media changed much? Do women have a greater role? And is there greater press freedom?

INTERACTIVE: Where are journalists under attack?

These were some of the questions a team of scholars explored over four years from 2013 as part of a research project to discover more about media in political transition.

Led by Salah Eddin Elzein, director of the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, and Roxane Farmanfarmaian, lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and director of the Centre for the Study of the International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, over two dozen researchers investigated the situation in Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia.

Al Jazeera spoke to Farmanfarmaian about today’s media landscape, the findings of the “Media in Political Transition in the Southern Mediterranean after 2011” research, and what the future holds.

To view the research, presented in an interactive format, click here.

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Social media 




Media landscape of the future

Al Jazeera: How would you characterise the role of social media since the popular uprisings that began in 2011?

Farmanfarmaian: There was an explosion of social media across the Middle East and North Africa following 2011 that was clearly an expression of the desire for social protest and political change.

Since then, governments have become more savvy in how to control and narrow the range of social media activists in the three states we explored.

The drive and purposes for becoming involved were also deflected.

People wave flags during celebrations marking the sixth anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis [File: Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters]

In Tunisia, the outcome was an obvious success story with the shift in government reflected in its abrupt adoption of a free media.

While in Morocco, there is more central authoritarianism and power; there’s less room for social media activists there. Likewise in Turkey, after the Gezi Park protests, there has been learning on the part of Erdogan’s government on how to reduce the number of opposition groups and activists engaged in social media use.

Yet, a huge area has opened, occupied by entrepreneurial activists and young people who are using social media sites and the internet to not only promote freedom of expression, but also offer good news coverage, commentary, investigative journalism – we see that in all three countries.

“We are the internet generation. We know how it works and we know how to make it work for us,” one Tunisian freelance journalist told me.

Al Jazeera: Some of your research focused on gender, especially women on television talk shows. What did you discover?

Farmanfarmaian: In Tunisia under Ben Ali, there were no talk shows. They tend to be free-form and under an authoritarian regime, it’s scary to say things live. When the revolution took place, there was an outpouring of new talk shows, partially because they’re quite cheap to do in the studio.

One development was women’s talk shows. Our researcher observed what a rough and ready model it was at the time; they didn’t know how to run talk shows at that point.

Many of the Islamist women had not had a chance to fulfil a recognised role in Tunisia until then. They had spent time abroad, they weren’t able to wear hijab – there was no voice for them.

Before the revolution, any women on television had a very different look. Until then, they were very westernised.

Today, there is real debate over how the women’s movement had been fought and interpreted. Islamist women felt they had to carry on the fight underground or go abroad, that the nature of the gender rights they were prioritising wasn’t quite the same as those by more westernised women who argued for internationally defined rules and freedoms.

Meanwhile, the westernised women felt they had held the road open and fought that fight in the absence of those [Islamist] women.

There were real differences debated by these two women groups on talk shows – and even showed up in how they countered men. 

There is huge debate about the norms and values of religion – what’s acceptable in the press, and the women’s role. 

Men were condemning women for being too politically active. Things got pretty hot on these shows in Tunisia. 

In Morocco, it’s a more subdued situation all around. Expression is free, but only within an accepted range.

There are both highbrow and populist shows hosted by women – some wear hijab, some exclusively focus on women’s issues, some don’t.

Violence against women, protecting rights in the workplace and pay parity are some of the issues tackled. It’s more couched in a gradual exposure of the problems, as an opportunity to bring them to public debate – but certainly not in revolutionary terms.

In Turkey, the talk show is a flourishing instrument of public TV. But it’s much more superficial, reflecting the changes taking place there, incorporating ‘New Turkey’ narratives into public expression.

Researchers looked at a show by Seda Sayan – it epitomises the conflicting issues surrounding women and is vastly popular across audiences of every age.

The host has had shows on a number of different channels.

There is a voyeuristic element that attracts viewers. Sayan is a singer, very religious, dresses provocatively and has long blonde hair. She brings on guests who are extreme, even sometimes cultish. She comes from an abusive family and often talks about practising forgiveness.

[She reflects] the multiple identities that Turkey is grappling currently with – combining modern, somehow westernised and yet also deeply traditional sets of values. 

The show has been closed down several times for being too outrageous. 

(Advertisers once quit deals with Sayan’s show after she supported a man who murdered his spouse, saying the victim was not a good wife. The show was pulled off the air.) 

Al Jazeera: In the case of Tunisia, many argue there has been a vast improvement in terms of press freedom. Do you agree and do you think this exists elsewhere in the region?

Farmanfarmaian: There is a big [positive] difference in Tunisia, but the freedom of expression that came from the first bloom of revolution has been toned down enormously, partially because there have been public responses against the use of the media in ways that push the edges of religious tolerance. Public acceptance of threats to traditional or conservative practices is lower than many originally thought. New red lines on the press are primarily originating from the street.

Then there has of course been an upsurge of terrorism across Tunisia’s borders … Anything that questions the actions of the security forces against terrorism have now been removed from debate in the press.

But the great difference in Tunisia is that investigative journalism is still possible, growing, and there is room for it.

In a place like Morocco, investigative journalism has been constrained to the social arena, and to websites with very small audiences.

Q&A: Tunisian Amira Yahyaoui on press freedom and fake news

Outside the political dimension, the authorities encourage sharp journalism, for example on radio shows, seeing it as a way to improve local problems, build awareness and make officials more responsible. So, non-politicised reporting is blooming in Morocco.

In Turkey, there is an agenda being promoted in an atmosphere of enormous political contention. We see increasingly narrowed space in terms of who can talk and what line of political approach they take. In shutting down of those accused of supporting the Gulen movement, for example, radio and television channels with an Islamic but alternative view of the government were removed; secular media with an ethnic approach (Kurdish/Syrian for example) – those, too have been removed. 

There has been a rise in Islamic reporting, small advertising-based news channelling supported by entrepreneurial activity and endowment activity. Endowments were never allowed to be owners of channels – a new law since the failed coup now allows it.

Al Jazeera: On the subject of Turkey, it grabs international headlines almost every day. It’s difficult to find balanced coverage of events there. Why is this, and how would you characterise the media? 

Farmanfarmaian: The key element is that close to 50 percent support Erdogan. For too long the legacy of Ataturk had separated the fundamental belief systems that Turkey represented, that people felt, that were part of its culture, from its government.

It’s been a long process. Erdogan has become the emblem of the people and government that brought those strands together.

He may be doing it with a heavy hand, even those that support him recognise the risks and threats have been enormous – but also how significant the change is.

This is new territory – it needs a new language such as the New Turkey discourse. It can’t go back to the values of Ataturk. 

There is upheaval internally and externally that impact Turkey’s tolerance for media freedom. Turkey is uniquely hemmed in geopolitically – it’s gone from no problems with its neighbours to having the most problematic neighbours in the world.

In terms of freedom of expression, the government’s perspective on the rights of the population to project their views will likely narrow before it loosens. The geopolitical situation – Syria, refugees, to name just two issues – have no solution yet. We can anticipate this will cause further friction – and no matter what political system a country has, when it is facing threats to its borders and its sovereignty, one key liberty that inevitably suffers is media freedom. 

Al Jazeera: If you were to imagine the media landscape in the countries you have researched in 10 years’ time, what would it look like, and what would that depend upon?

Farmanfarmaian: It’s very dependent on political tolerance and the level of authoritarianism and democratic practice – how willing is the government to open up a space for popular expression.

I would imagine that if Tunisia can continue on track, it will be the freest environment for political expression in the entire region. [But] it is very hemmed in by unsupportive neighbours – it’s small, and terrorism is going to be the critical force. 

Since the revolution began, Tunisians have told me over and over again that the most important gain of the revolution was freedom of expression. It needs to develop a tradition of good media practice, however, to ensure media freedom continues.

A cameraman films in front of a destroyed TV van at Taksim square in Istanbul in June 2013 following anti-government protests [File: Kostas Tsironis/AP]

It’s not just about opening up the environment, it requires building a tradition of strong reporting, good investigative journalism and courts that will protect journalists.

In Morocco, the situation since the revolution period has gone deteriorated. There is less freedom of expression, fewer opposition voices in the media landscape, fewer journals critical of the government. There is simply not a range of media operating as a form of public conscience as there was before. We don’t see that getting better from the perspective of a “western” question. Journalists that have been critical have been dismissed, put on trial, face perpetually delayed trials and experience house arrest. It’s a soft but definitive way to keep voices shut down.

In Turkey, it’s more radical. Until the situation improves in terms of a sense of security, the media situation is unlikely to open up significantly.

In Egypt too, there is deteriorating freedom of expression that is following a pattern we see throughout the southern Mediterranean: increasing centralisation of media into big conglomerates through crony capitalism tied closely to the financial and government power centres. Media is increasingly at risk of being a public relations tool for public officials and corporate leaders.

Overall, the landscape is not likely going to change in the short term based on the trend lines we’re seeing. 2011 is unlikely to be repeated, especially with civil wars taking place in Syria and Libya. Certain gains were made in 2011 and 2013 during the Gezi Park uprisings, but some outcomes were negative and the public is not ready for more uncertainty at the moment. And what happens in the media is inevitably very much a reflection of what happens in politics

Source: Al Jazeera