From Velvet to Jasmine: Contextualizing Media Development between Eastern Europe and the Middle East
One year ago, Tunisian president Zine el Abidine ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, resigned his position, and Tunisia embarked upon its transition to a new political structure. The “Arab Spring,” as it came to be called, has inspired many academics, development professionals, and others to draw comparisons to the events in Eastern Europe that roughly 20 years ago resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
More than a dozen years ago I began working on media development projects in transitional Eastern Europe, and I see the same hopefulness in the partners I worked with then in the people I have met from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. As managing editor of the media sustainability index, where I can draw on annual studies of the media in Eastern Europe since 2001 and from the Middle East since 2005, indeed I do see similarities and lessons to be applied. But this must be undertaken with care.
I spoke on this topic at a conference with journalists from the EU’s neighbors in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Below is a summary of the observations and recommendations I made in my remarks.
Eastern Europe and the Middle East are diverse regions. Eastern Europe in the early 1990s was composed of very different countries and still is today. Compare the starting point of a stable and relatively prosperous country like Poland with Albania, which began as one of Europe’s poorest countries and suffered the failure of massive Ponzi schemes and armed conflict several years after transition began. Or contrast Poland today, a member of the EU, with its stubbornly authoritarian neighbor Belarus. Likewise this is true in the Middle East: Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen may all share some similarities, but they also have striking differences in demographics, history, political structure, etc., too. Their transitions have been unique to date and are likely to continue to be.
Present-day Middle East governments are not the Communist governments of 20th century Eastern Europe. Put into the context of media development, this means that before the Arab Spring, most countries in the Middle East had some form of private broadcasting and a regulatory structure to support it. The Middle East countries have supporting NGOs, media lawyers, and in some cases robust advertising markets exist. In most Middle East countries some form of dissenting voice in the media has been tolerated historically. In addition, the common regional language allows for media such as Al Jazeera to serve as a check on information reported by local media, as a model to emulate, and as a training resource. Such infrastructure, even if imperfect in the Middle East, was lacking entirely in 1980s Eastern Europe. The Middle East, therefore, has some clear advantages.
Middle Eastern proponents of transition to democracy face some disadvantages as well. One is the international relations picture. Newly independent countries in Eastern Europe, particularly those not formerly part of the USSR, were immediately embraced by the European Union, NATO, OSCE, and other regional organizations. The goal of membership in some or all of these served as an incentive for leaders to make commitments to real democratic change. In the Middle East there is no comparable regional union and the relationship with the EU is murkier: it seems unlikely that the EU will expand south with anywhere near the rapidity with which it expanded east.
These examples are not meant to be exhaustive, but they show that comparisons between the two regions must be approached with care.
Keeping the cautions in mind, these are some general lessons to bear in mind:
• Adopt a holistic approach to media development. Media outlets are complex organizations that require smart marketing practices, a friendly legal framework, and advocacy and support organizations as well as the usual journalism training.
• Get buy-in from editors and their commitment that they will enforce lessons learned from trainings. Follow up trainings with in-house consulting to help trainees apply what they have learned.
• Be vocal, media professionals, when working with donors to design and implement cost-effective and contextually appropriate programs for media development. It is not impolite to help donors spend their money more effectively.
• Consider the context. Lessons from Croatia might be applicable in Tunisia but not its neighbors. An approach taken in Kosovo might be useful to tailor to Yemen, but be unnecessary elsewhere.
• Share a controversial story with other media than tout an exclusive. In a country where attacks on the media occur, when a handful or more media outlets break a controversial story it is harder for government or criminal forces to issue reprisals.
• Invest in market research and audience statistics. These are some of the most important elements of a level playing field in the media. It allows the best media to better access revenue sources that fit their business model. It undercuts cronyism in funding flows. It also helps media build consumer loyalty by understanding their audience.
• Pressure new regimes to institute media law reforms and do not turn a blind eye to crackdowns on the media made in the name of allowing a government to solidify. A “noisy” transition is more likely to be one that is closer to consensus, and therefore more stable in the long-run, than one that is accomplished with an abiding, uncritical, or muzzled media sector.
• Look at lingering pressure points in Eastern Europe, such as concentration of ownership of key media into the hands of ruling-party cronies in Russia, to help anticipate similar developments elsewhere.