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University of Cambridge - Al Jazeera Media Project

University of Cambridge - Al Jazeera Media Project

 

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In 2013 the Centre for the Study of the International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa (CIRMENA) at the University of Cambridge received a 1-year grant from the Al Jazeera Media Network to launch a new project: “Media in Political Transition: Focus on Tunisia”. In 2014, upon the successful completion of this project designed and directed by Dr. Roxane Farmanfarmaian, the Al Jazeera Media Network awarded a further £480,000 to extend the project for another 3 years in order to expand study to Morocco and Turkey.  In addition, the award included the engagement of an Al Jazeera Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at POLIS.

The idea for this study as a project conducted by the University of Cambridge and funded by the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies (AJCS) started with the upheavals of 2011. Across the Arab world, publics expressed the desire for a new political culture and social freedoms, using media in innovative ways to share and project their message.

What emerged is the first longitudinal, comparative study of state-media relations to be conducted in the region; its intent is to provide an in-depth understanding of communicative organisation, state-social interaction, and transformations in political and cultural narrative as experienced inside each target state, and in terms of shared experiences regionally. This study is not only timely and necessary in order to better comprehend the changing nature of one of the most important instruments of state power, but unusual in the possibilities it holds for practical applications in an under-researched, yet powerful sector.  Further, it is unique in bringing together locally based media scholars from universities in Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia, as well as the University of Cambridge, into a joint  research project exploring common themes and theoretical approaches. In this way, and for the first time, a loose network of media scholars across the southern Mediterranean has taken shape and is engaged in knowledge exchange both empirically and analytically in the course of a shared research programme.

Although events in the states affected have taken different turns, the underlying change informing all the societies concerned continues to include heightened awareness of civic power, recalibration between publics and centralised authority, and rising use of social and conventional media as forms of public expression, political transition and community/civic exchange. The key question posed therefore, is: How is political transition impacting the media, and how is it a reflective process? Indeed, as investigation has proceeded, a second, broader question has arisen: Is Hallin and Mancini’s view of ‘Mediterranean’ culture, as characterised by a ‘high degree of proximity between the media field and the political field, and a relative domination of the former by the latter’,[i] still observable and a useful mechanism by which to understand social structures in the states, and region, under investigation? Or should a new set of paradigms or theories be encouraged that evolve from the region itself, if they more accurately reflect its social structure, religious orientation, and alternative norm prioritisation?

First Phase: Tunisia The purpose of the research aimed to explore how the media in Tunisia is carving out a space within the new architecture of the state, what that means for the media in terms of its definition of  itself as a sector, and how the media as a narrative instrument is contributing to the developing public sphere as a new politics emerges. Put simply, the focus was to trace how the media changed from being an ‘official’ organ of state, to a ‘public’ good, from an institution insulated from market forces, unrelated to any level of professionalism and devoid of its own politics, to an institution that is the crucible of political, cultural and professional tension over information dissemination, identity creation, and the ethics of expression. In addition , the purpose was to add to the body of existing theory on media as a critical factor in emerging structures of good governance.

Importantly, the first tranche of research tested the research design, which was conceived as a  framework that can be extended to like studies of other states in the Middle East and North Africa, in order to broaden the range of case studies, and to enable comparative analysis of local media in the region’s fast-changing political systems.

Second Phase: Morocco and Turkey Even as the transformation in Tunisia has taken a generally pluralistic, transparent and inclusive course over the past three years, Tunisia’s regional neighbours have faced different challenges and trajectories since the upheavals of 2011. The purpose of extending this research was to enable a comparative study based on the same research definitions employed in Tunisia, and following many of the same disciplinary themes: internet freedom and surveillance, political narrative, social media use, the rise of Islamic media, gender issues on television and within the larger public sphere, the professionalism and partisanship of the sector, and the internal competition of political elites to capture the state. By looking at Turkey and Morocco, a more complete picture is emerging of how government-media relations in the region have responded to new political tensions and shifts in popular narrative in response to the events of the Arab Uprisings and Gezi Park. Indeed, the strength of this project lies in the ability it offers to investigate change in three very different forms of state organisation – Turkey’s fast transitioning semi-democracy, Morocco’s monarchy, and Tunisia’s pluralistic post-revolutionary experiment after severe dictatorship -  as well as their interpretation of media as an instrument of state power, and mechanism of social expression. 

The field research and analysis as conducted in Tunisia was designed to serve as an exportable template that would work in different political and social settings.  It is organised around a framework of three axes: structure, function and agency. 

  • Structure is defined as the laws and regulatory environment that constitute the relationship between the government and the media.
  • Function is defined as the nature of the sector itself, its public and private enterprises, the characteristics of its market, the funding sources, its political agendas, its elite networks, and its professionalism.
  • Agency is the role and conduct of the media as narrator of political culture, and instrument of public discourse and identity building.

Based on the premise that each implies the others, and all three continuously interact, the research focus has been to unpick them as separate areas of investigation in order to understand how and why they have developed as they have, while at the same time seeking to comprehend how the linkages between and among them have contributed to particular outcomes in the political-media landscape post-2011. On-site interviews, attending in-country workshops and syndicate meetings, engaging with actors in government and universities, discussions with NGOs and with other research centres and survey companies, utilising on-site libraries and publications, all these will provide the basis of the data collection and analysis for each state – as they have for Tunisia.   Original comparative analysis on six subject areas chosen as representative of the political-media nexus and studied in depth in each of these Mediterranean states, has never been conducted previously.

The Principal Investigator (PI) on the project, Dr. Roxane Farmanfarmaian, is an Affiliated Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Farmanfarmaian was Al Jazeera Center for Studies’ first Visiting Fellow in 2012. For further information click here.

Outputs

The findings of the first research tranche were presented at a workshop organised by the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in Doha in February 2013, a conference at Trinity Hall in Cambridge in July 2014, and a conference in Doha to launch the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies media department in September 2014. 

A special issue on Media in Tunisia, and published in 'The Journal of North African Studies' in December 2014, included all the papers of the first tranche. For more information click here.

An Arabic version of the special issue was produced in July 2015 by AJCS.

Initial findings for the second tranche were presented at a workshop at Trinity Hall in Cambridge in December 2015; a final conference is to be held at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in Doha in January 2017.

A volume of all the studies, and comparative analysis of themes spanning the three states investigated, is expected to be published in both English and Arabic in fall 2017.

 [i] Quote from Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini (2013) ‘ “Comparing Media Systems” between Eastern and Western Europe’, in Gross, Peter and Karol Jakubowicz, eds., Media Transformations in the Post Communist World: Eastern Europe’s tortured path to change (Plymouth: Lexington Books); p. 19.