Digital Divides and Censored Stories: Contemporary Challenges to Arab Media Access
Panel IV-19, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am
How are Arab states, citizens, and civil society responding to an increasingly troubled and constantly changing media environment? In recent years, authoritarian tactics of repression and censorship have intersected with more prosaic concerns of building readership and sustaining revenue for media outlets, threatening already-constrained media independence across the region. A core contention of this panel is that access to shared media is important to residents of Arab countries even under present constraints, and that current dynamics threaten to further erode access to critical perspectives on politics and society in public forums for debating issues of mutual interest. Multiple papers in this panel draw on the words of Arab journalists, columnists, and authors in the Arabian Peninsula—in interviews and their own writings—to outline the journalistic ethics and ethos that has sustained a meaningful role for print and broadcast media in contexts such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, albeit a role that is being crowded out politically by autocratic rulers bent on controlling public discourse and undermined economically by “Western” technologies and transnational media firms seeking to monopolize advertising revenue. Furthermore, as regional governments use a range of online and offline tools and tactics to shape access to information, some media outlets, social commentators, and literary authors aim to sidestep these with varying degrees of success. For example, while direct government censorship plays a significant and continuing role in shaping media content, adept authors likewise evolve techniques for writing in code or co-producing new discursive contours of the permissible in response to the government’s attempts at control. Digital media platforms of various types and from a multitude of origins also hold the potential to serve as alternatives to legacy media or government rhetoric in the region, however digital divides aligned with age, education, or nationality risk perpetuating existing offline inequalities by restricting access to information and limiting the range of perspectives and outcomes otherwise made possible through such technologies. Drawing on different, yet complementary media forms and methodologies, the presenters seek to demonstrate how media producers, consumers, and governments are each seeking to cope with the ever-shifting lines of today’s evolving Arab mediascape.
Over the past decade, the scope of debates in Saudi media outlets have narrowed significantly, with even relatively mildly critical statements relegated to anonymous Twitter accounts or exiled activists. These changes have been hard to observe outside the Kingdom, however, due to academic assumptions that media outlets have been effectively controlled by the Saudi state for seconds. This paper seeks to establish the agency of a particular class of media professionals—op-ed writers—in either resisting, cheerleading, or withdrawing from new discourses of legitimation promoted by now-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Across three newspapers with different orientations toward central political authorities in the Kingdom (Al-Watan, Al-Riyadh, and Okaz), close reading of op-eds reflecting on the role of columnists in Saudi society identifies a number of writers affiliated with all three papers who viewed themselves as providing critical feedback to state institutions, even while asserting their loyalty to the Saudi state and political system. However, the murder of critical columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 did not have a uniform effect on op-ed content, as we might expect if media production in Saudi Arabia is centrally controlled. Instead, op-ed writers of different orientations reacted in different ways: those who generally functioned as government “cheerleaders” even before the Khashoggi murder maintained or increased column space devoted to praise of Saudi leadership and officials, while those who tended to criticize government performance in the earlier period either ceased writing or turned to less political topics. These findings demonstrate the chilling effect of overt physical repression even in a constrained media landscape such as Saudi Arabia’s, while also pointing to the challenges individual writers face in navigating the Kingdom’s shifting redlines.
Censorship is routinely discussed as an ingredient of authoritarian political cultures that varies depending on the system that produces it. Liberal theories of censorship view it as an external, coercive, and repressive mechanism that can be challenged, amended, abolished by applying pressure through the channels of decision-making. On the other hand, ‘new censorship’ theories claim that state repression is merely secondary to subtler, more consensual forms of manipulation, evident in discourse euphemisation. From this perspective, censorship can be a co-productive determinant of discourse, rather than an evil imposed by governments and violating the fundamental human rights of free expression. The critical theoretical position may also propose that traditional liberal rationales for free expression are “instruments of Western patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism” (Jensen, 1993/2019, p.257).
The paper explores the explanatory power of these two perspectives in the context of literary censorship as experienced by authors in Kuwait.
Kuwait’s 2006 press law states that no prior censorship will be applied to print publications. However, the law’s provisions have long been at odds with actual practice: publishers and self-publishing authors of literary works routinely submit copies of their books for pre-publication approval to the Ministry of Information’s Censorship on Artistic Works Department. The practices of the ministry and the Kuwaiti publishing and bookselling communities have jointly created a customary law supporting censorship in the name of protecting the welfare of society from potentially harmful ideas.
Qualitative, semi-structured interviews conducted with 16 traditionally and self-published Kuwaiti authors of poetry and fiction about their encounters with censorship are analysed as the authors’ means for expressing and negotiating their experiences.
The interviews reveal that authors in Kuwait predominantly frame their experiences in terms of liberal thought. Faced with the guardians of public communication installed in the censorship department, their reactions range from shrugging off censorship as just a routine procedure through feeling frustration and anxiety to vocally criticising the system for being arbitrary, absurd, and backward. At the same time, the authors’ accounts point towards traces of censorship as articulated by new theories, particularly in their awareness of the necessity of writing in codes. The subtler, more consensual forms of censoring expression permeate Kuwaiti culture and society, but their restrictive impacts tend to go unremarked upon and unchallenged, for now.
Digital media technologies play a fundamental role in Kuwait’s plan to transition away from its dependence on hydrocarbon exports and toward a knowledge-based economy. The nation has already made significant progress in the realm of digital connectivity, ranking among the world’s most connected countries on several important measures; the advantages of which were demonstrated by the important role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in sustaining social, economic, and educational activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, less is known about the human elements of digital transformation in the country and the degree to which systematic “offline” disparities among local and expatriate residents continue to perpetuate socio-digital inequalities “online.” Using the Corresponding Fields Model as the starting point from which to theorize the domain-specific links between social and digital inequalities that can amplify or counter historical inequalities, this paper presents key findings from a national survey of 746 residents conducted between October 2020 and January 2021 across four domains of ICT usage (economic, cultural, social, and personal). Although access to the internet through digital media technologies is nearly universal, stark variations in how people go online exist according to age, gender, and nationality, with for example, smartphones serving as the only internet-accessible device for approximately one-third of Asian expatriates. Unlike many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, women in Kuwait do not demonstrate a significant gender gap in the areas of ICT access, uses, or outcomes, showing higher levels of personal internet use, owning more devices, and producing better work-related results with ICTs than men. Nevertheless, women do frequently score lower than men in the domain of skills, where age is also a highly significant factor. Educational differences also relate directly to the persistence of a digital divide within Kuwait, where less than 25% of residents are educated beyond the high school level. The least educated own the fewest number of devices, possess lower skills across every area, engage in the least amount of ICT usage for most personal and economic activities, and derive the least satisfaction from most outcomes pertaining that ICT use. Interventions to address digital inequalities are suggested, as efforts to ensure more equitable access, skills development, and the achievement of tangible outcomes that benefit diverse communities in Kuwait can further bolster the positive dividends of society’s digital transformation as a whole.