New poll shows growing Arab trust in regional press

A poll by Northwestern in Qatar, due out tomorrow, shows growing trust in regional news outlets across the Arab world.

By , Staff writer

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    Palestinian journalists are seen through a glass window at the offices of the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera in the West Bank city of Ramallah July 2009. Arabs say the quality of their regional media is on the rise, led by Al Jazeera, which is making inroads in the US as its profile soars, a new poll shows.
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Although American trust in media has plummeted according to poll after poll, Arabs say the quality of their regional media is on the rise, led by Al Jazeera, which is making inroads in the US as its profile soars. 

According to a sweeping Arab world public opinion survey by Northwestern University in Qatar that will be released tomorrow, 61 percent of respondents said that the "quality of reporting in the Arab world" has improved in the last two years. But while regional media basks in goodwill, less than half of respondents (48 percent) consider their own country's media credible and only 43 percent say the media can report without interference.

Twenty-six percent of respondents ranked Al Jazeera as their top news source. Broadcaster Al Arabiya trailed at 15 percent. After that, news consumption fragments to a handful of international and local news organizations. 

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Northwestern in Qatar's first major regional survey since opening its doors in 2008, polled roughly 1,250 people each in eight countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates) on issues of the Internet and the media in the Arab world. The findings will be presented at the International Communications Association conference in London tomorrow. (Editor's note: The paragraph has been edited to make clear that 1,250 people were surveyed in each of the eight countries.)

Northwestern in Qatar receives funding from the Qatar Foundation, founded by Qatar's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who also funds Al Jazeera.

Everette Dennis, dean and CEO of Northwestern in Qatar, said that he has seen the regional media improve by leaps. Major broadcast networks like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are "doing a more detailed job of covering their own region" and "Some of the newspapers that were more kept cats or very cautious, subsidized media, are doing a better job, a more transparent job."

What propelled them forward may have been the arrival of hordes of members of the international media during the Arab uprisings, which exposed regional and local journalists to high-quality coverage on a part of the world they knew well, Mr. Dennis says.

"When you see outsiders doing a better job covering your region than yourself, that's embarrassing," he says. 

Puff pieces

Even before then business magazines, which used to be filled with press releases and "self-serving puffery" had become more critical, he says. The wealthier Arab countries are becoming much more a part of the global economy, but they couldn't be there if their business publications were not publishing more accurate information, he says. 

The survey also shed light on the region's complicated opinions on freedom of expression. Sixty-one percent of respondents agreed with the statement "It is okay for people to express their ideas on the Internet, even if they are unpopular," but less than half (46 percent) think they should be able to criticize their government online. 

While people in the region may agree with freedom of expression on the internet in the abstract, practically speaking many support greater regulation. Half (51%) of the participants in the study believe there is not enough awareness of the “laws, regulations and moralities that control one’s activities on the internet”, and, perhaps consequently, half (50%) also feel the internet in their country should be more tightly regulated than it is now.

Perhaps even more telling, only 16% overall disagree that the internet in their country should be more tightly regulated, ranging from a low of 7 percent disagreement in Egypt to a high of just 25 percent disagreeing in Bahrain. These low levels of disagreement suggest that there is no strong opposition to internet regulation in any of the eight countries under study.

"There is a paradox between people saying they wanted almost absolute freedom of expression online ... and at the same time saying there ought to be regulation in some instances," says Dennis. 

While poll respondents often favor something in the abstract, when it is brought down to a personal level the answer often changes, he says. And it comes down to more than that in this region, he says. 

"The meaning is much deeper in the Arab world," he says. "I think it's a tension between tradition and modernity."

"The younger, presumably more modern people do tend to favor almost unlimited expression online. They say ‘Let it rip.’ … Their parents, people who are older, tend to say yes, there should be a lot more freedom, but not in the case of criticizing Islam, for example.”

The survey did not include followup questions that allowed the university to get at the root of the contradictions; Dennis says they plan to explore it in a future survey.

An interactive website with the full survey results can be found at menamediasurvey.northwestern.edu.

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