Television Viewing Patterns and What they tell us about the Scope for Liberal Islamic Scholarship in Egypt
The electronic media has the potential to influence public opinions. Egyptians use the media to educate themselves about their government. New electronic media refers to radio, television, podcasts and the internet. The internet is a dynamic source of information. It enables people to access the resources required to make well informed decisions. Due to the rapid growth of information and communication technology, Egyptians have been introduced to new schools of thought.
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Before the advent of informative television programs, Egyptians may have viewed the western world as an oppressive regime which used the media to corrupt the minds of its consumers. The electronic media has introduced Egypt to the rest of the world. It has given Egyptians a chance to make well informed decisions that are based on facts. Rumor-mongering political figures have less influence now than they did before.
According to Hamada (2001), television serves as a public forum through which Egyptians are able to engage in various social and political discussions. More than 15 years ago, controversial programs were censored by the Egyptian government. Information was passed through a strict political filter. The government only allowed culturally appropriate films to be broadcast. Egypt was under an oppressive regime.
Egyptians have begun to voice their opinions. Information and communication technology has influenced Egypt’s political system in many ways.
Before satellite television was introduced, Islamic scholars had strong reservations towards sex. Men were only allowed to socialize with women on rare occasions. Interactions between young men and women were strictly forbidden. Premarital sex was a sin that had to be punished based on strict Islamic laws.
The western world has exposed Egypt to a more liberal approach towards marriage and sexuality. Islamic leaders are now more lenient than they were before. There have been some changes in Egypt’s traditional approach to courtship as well as other rites of passage.
Some scholars have argued that Islam is the most influential religion (Labib, 1997). Modern technology has therefore been used to sustain the spread of Islam. However, new electronic media can be used to corrupt as well as improve the minds of many religious groups. Islam is no exception.
In Egypt, new electronic media has given rise to what scholars refer to as progressive Islam. This relates to Egyptians who have been given the opportunity to express their own opinions. Technology can therefore be used to “to enhance public communications and enrich democracy” (Blumler and Gurevitch 2001). The media can be used to empower the people of Egypt. It is a powerful tool that can be used to topple oppressive establishments.
According to Shukri (1996), Egyptian audiences were once restricted to a single news reporter who was aided by only one cameraman. News coverage was limited to regional events such as civil wars. Shukri (1996) argues that the Egyptian government was desperately trying to censor controversial radio broadcasts.
Broadcasts that conflicted with Islamic beliefs were either shut down or officially banned. The advent of satellite television led to a paradigm shift in Egypt’s authoritarian system of government. CNN’s coverage of the 1991 conflict involving America and Iraq encouraged Arab nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take a keen interest in the news. In order to avoid clashing with the Egyptian authorities, CNN had to be re-transmitted via terrestrial television. The government could no longer control the flow of information.
Egyptians are now more liberal than they were forty years ago. They have learned to exploit resources that were once accessible to only a small number of people. Satellite television has given rise to uninhibited news broadcasts. New privately-owned channels have been launched in order to ensure free and objective news coverage.
Al Jazeera, which was launched in 1996, is one of the aforementioned news channels. Its controversial broadcasts were once criticized by some of Egypt’s political figures. It now has a rapidly growing audience. There are more Arab journalists now than there were before. Arabic media houses have begun to produce programs that appeal to Islamic viewers. The audience is also able to access western channels which are not controlled by the Egyptian authorities.
Satellite television broadcasts have given rise to political programs aimed at educating the Egyptian public. Objective talk shows give the public a chance to formulate their own opinions. According to Habermas’s theory of the public sphere, the dissemination of information fuels the expansion of democracy within a given nation. Egyptians now have the right to participate in political debate. These kinds of discussions were not possible during Egypt’s previous autocratic regime.
Al Jazeera provides its viewers with objective and reliable sources of information. Competition between popular Egyptian channels and Al Jazeera has ensured that Islamic news remains objective. Al Jazeera has raised the bar for quality news broadcasts. Al Arabia’s political talk shows provoke their audiences in a positive manner. Audiences are no longer kept in the dark.
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The media has encouraged the Egyptian government to improve its foreign policy on more than one occasion. Laws that were once enforced through strict Islamic guidelines have been reviewed and adjusted to suit the needs of a more democratic nation. The western world defines democracy as the freedom to engage in open discussions.
Democracy therefore refers to a system of government that treats everyone as an equal member of the society. Electronic forms of communication have paved the way for Egypt’s democratization. The media has, in turn, paved the way for many Egyptian channels.
According to Habib (1997), Egyptians should be allowed to formulate their own opinions based on what they see. The government should allow its people to participate in open political debates. Egypt’s political leaders should encourage open forums. Surveys have shown that people are more likely to pay attention to the news if it affects them directly.
Egyptian viewers are no different. The Egyptian government once favored national development over democracy. Social amenities were more important than the civil rights of the Egyptian people. Egypt therefore had a well-developed infrastructure. The country also had a well-developed healthcare system. The people, however, were not at liberty to openly criticize their government. The electronic media has made it possible for Egyptians to openly criticize their government. The flow of information has given rise to popular participation.
Researchers have argued that a society is more likely to achieve democracy if information is passed on to the public (Habib, 1997). The Egyptian government has been encouraged to view the public as an objective audience that is not easily corrupted by the media. The Egyptian media has therefore been granted the freedom to act with neither fear of censorship nor oppression. Nevertheless, Egypt’s news coverage still focuses on issues of Islam. Offensive broadcasts are still viewed as propaganda.
Egyptians, who were once oblivious to the outside world, now have the freedom to express their individual opinions. Podcasts and chat rooms are some of the platforms that they can use to discuss their political views. Al Arabia is one of the many channels that have contributed to Egypt’s enlightenment.
Egyptian consumers tune in to Al Arabia in order to educate themselves about the rest of the world. This has encouraged learning institutions to cater for American students in Egypt. Cairo University is one of the few institutions that have taken part in this initiative. Some scholars have argued that such initiatives can be used to encourage global unity (Labib, 1997).
The electronic media has also encouraged other Islamic nations to participate in free and periodic elections. Islamic nations like Egypt and Palestine are exposed to the western world via satellite television. This encourages such nations to participate in the process of democracy.
Private investors have encouraged liberal thinking among the Egyptian people. Organizations tend to advertise their products through electronic means. The Egyptian government is therefore unable to filter what it considers to be inappropriate for its public. Foreign investors sometimes sell their products through western-themed advertisements.
The Egyptian government has been forced to cope with liberal concepts rooted within these marketing strategies. The public is therefore exposed to western concepts and ideas that were once thought to corrupt Islamic teachings.
It is virtually impossible to stop the spread of such information. As a result, state-owned media houses such as the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), have worked tirelessly to enforce Islamic values. According to Blumler et al (2001), ERTU reflects a one-sided societal view of Egyptian politics.
Habib (1997) asserts that new electronic media was spawned from the incremental growth of information and communication technology (ICT). Some Government-controlled media houses almost collapsed because Egyptian audiences had been exposed to liberal ways of thinking. Audiences are drawn to controversial news broadcasts.
Foreign organizations are therefore more likely to invest in privately-owned media houses. However, the Egyptian government still filters broadcasts that have been blacklisted by Islamic leaders. Liberal Arabic channels are still able to bypass these restrictions. Technology has enabled Egypt to interact with the rest of the world. The internet is one of Egypt’s greatest platforms for sharing information. It is the catalyst that fuels the spread of ideas.
Chat rooms and social networking sites are some of the many ways through which the Egyptian public is able to communicate with the rest of the world. They have paved the way for globalization. The Egyptian government has found it impossible to stop the spread of information.
This is due to the fact that many people are able to access the internet in Egypt. Some people tune in to radio talk shows that encourage the freedom of expression. The internet is notorious for its outrageous and controversial content. As a result, many sites have been outlawed by the Egyptian government.
The internet is also a source of controversial information that can be used to serve the selfish needs of certain individuals. Propaganda is one of the many ways through which electronic media can be used to spread fear and intimidation. The spread of propaganda can lead to riots. Several pieces of information can be altered in order to create controversy. Controversial updates can be used to sell stories or boost a channel’s ratings. Controversial news can also be used to expose the audience to matters of public interest.
Blumler et al (2001) argues that the media has the potential to change the political system within a given society. Policy makers are often influenced by the media. Such technological advances can be used to expose corruption. Most researchers argue that audiences are objective consumers who cannot be easily manipulated (Hamada, 2001).
Habib (1997) and Labib (1997) agree with this argument. Blumler et al (2001) argues that the media plays a vital role in Egypt’s democratization. Shukri (1996) does not agree with this interpretation and states that the media does not have the power to change Egypt’s political system.
Government-owned television stations have the potential to inhibit the democratic process. They would much rather censor controversial broadcasts than give people a chance to make their own decisions. These media houses are owned by conservative Islamic moguls. These moguls often feel threatened by the ever-present influence of the western media. According to the Global Media Journal:
It is a fact that Egyptians are bombarded with a huge number of Arab satellite television channels. Most of them are privately owned, while some are owned by different Arab states, in addition to many foreign channels. If we consider the language barrier and the inability of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians to access the non-Arabic satellite television, it makes sense to disregard non-Arab television from this research.
Accordingly, the picture of Arab satellite television can be perceived in this way, because the television ownership is divided between the state and the private sectors. The state-owned channels are still defending the government news and views, preventing deviant and hostile attitudes and opinions from being heard.
, Arab state-owned channels are far from being a public space. The private channels are owned by the wealthy businessmen whose main interest is to gain and maximize revenue from advertising. The tendency towards maximization of profit determined the policy as well as the content of the programs of private channels which is non-informative, noncontroversial and mainly cheap entertainment (Hamada, 2008).
Very few news channels have the courage to criticize the Egyptian government. Channels that launch verbal attacks against Egypt are either banned or outlawed.
Stations like Al Jazeera emphasize on modern politics. Such stations encourage open discussions that involve the public sphere. Shukri (1996) argues that conservative audiences do not support such stations.
Controversial content is often viewed as anti-Islamic propaganda. Objective audiences, however, take part in live forums in order to gain a broader understanding of their government’s policies. Egyptian talk shows take a more discreet approach towards criticizing the current regime. Talk show hosts are not allowed to discuss anything that offends the government or the country’s religious beliefs. Despite Al Jazeera’s efforts to expose oppressive regimes, it still fails to highlight Egypt’s local concerns.
According to Blumler et al (2001), Al Jazeera emphasizes on matters revolving around foreign policy thereby overlooking the local concerns of Egyptian citizens. Blumler et al (2001) argues that Egypt’s social amenities remain unchecked while liberal news stations cry foul about matters of international proportions.
Egypt still suffers some constraints with regard to voicing public opinions during live political talk shows. Viewers with controversial opinions are not allowed on the air. Traditionalist Muslim leaders prefer to avoid discussions concerning politics and religion. However, Egyptian leaders have been put under a great deal of pressure to participate in political forums.
According to Labib (1997), Egyptian policy makers have been forced to acknowledge the rights of the public. Call-in talk shows such as those evident in Al Jazeera have been revolutionary in providing the Egyptian people with civic education. They act as a platform for political forums. Policy makers are therefore expected to meet the demands of the public.
Habib (1997) argues that conservative stations are becoming obsolete. Al Jazeera gives the Egyptian people a chance to express their views and opinions concerning matters of political interest. Talk shows and open forums enable people to engage in constructive debates. A few decades ago, Egyptian viewers did not have access to many sources of information. Their knowledge of politics was therefore limited. Dramatic themes were evident in nearly all forms of Egyptian entertainment.
New television stations have exposed Egypt to alternative forms of entertainment. These channels have been criticized by many Egyptian traditionalists. They have been accused of spreading immoral western ideas on more than one occasion. However, they are very popular among Egypt’s youth.
Young people enjoy western comedies and tend to ignore traditional broadcasts. Political talk shows are not as exciting as they should be. Pro-active viewers are sometimes given less than they deserve. Al Jazeera has therefore created several platforms that can be used for exciting political discussions.
Some scholars have accused Egyptian channels of ignoring local news coverage. These channels have also been accused of broadcasting international news that barely affects the Egyptian people. Most channels are unable to remain objective for fear of censorship or cancellation. Other privately owned media houses tend to bend to the whim of the Egyptian government by failing to broadcast controversial information.
Hamada (2001) argues that the electronic media has given rise to a quasi-liberal political system in Egypt. Egyptians are more liberal now than they were forty years ago. Privately-owned media houses have precedence over state-owned organizations. Egypt is now a part of the global village.
It is no longer cut off from the rest of the world. Arab television stations have increased their band width. Many viewers tune in to Arabic stations every day. Egypt is no longer the social pariah that it once was. The Egyptian government is slowly giving in to the western principles of democracy. Some of Egypt’s religious leaders have even adopted new forms of communication. Electronic forms of communication have contributed to the spread of Islam.
Public opinion is no longer influenced by fear and intimidation. The moral teachings of Islam can now be disseminated through live video feeds, podcasts and radio broadcasts.
However, some elements of democracy are still ineffective against Egypt’s political system. Hamada (2008) asserts that “state-owned channels are still defending the government news and views, preventing deviant and hostile attitudes and opinions from being heard.” Nevertheless, the country’s development is still rapid and uninhibited. The Egyptian government can no longer silence the media.
Blumler, J. & Gurevitch, M. (2001). The new media and our political communication discontents. Democratizing cyberspace, information, Communication & Society, 4(1).
Habib, A. M. (1997). The Impact of Television Satellite Networks and Channels. Development of News Services in the Saudi Television: An Analytical Field Study, 1, 173-78.
Hamada, B. I. (2001). Islamic cultural theory, Arab media performance and public opinion. Public opinion and democracy, 4(2), 46-57.
Hamada, B. I. (2008). Satellite Television and Public Sphere in Egypt: Is there a Link? Global media journal, 7. Web.
Labib, S. (1997). Preliminary Thoughts on the Establishment of the Al-Ahram International Channel. Global Media Journal, 7(12), 15-16.
Shukri, A. M. (1996). The Telecommunications Technology: The Production of Programs for Radio and Television. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 10, 22-23.