Towards a conceptual approach of Arab media systems comparison


With the term “Arab Media” we refer to mass media in the so called MENA region – the Middle East and North Africa – a region that comprises more than 300 million people in more than 20 states stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of Iran. People living in these states are of different ethnic origins and adhere to different religions. States are shaped by different forms of ruling, reaching from hereditary monarchies to federal republics. Some of them are considered the richest countries on earth, whereas others belong to the poorest in the world. Thus, the “Arab world” is by no means a homogenous entity – nor is its media. With this paper, we aim to provide a conceptual approach that allows for a systematic comparative analysis of these media systems.

For a long time the only and probably the most widely read attempt to classify Arab media systems has been the one by William Rugh, the first version published as early as 1979. According to his latest version (2004), there are four main models to classify Arab media systems: the mobilization, the loyalist, the diverse and the transitional model. Few other authors have made interesting contributions to further differentiate the types of media system and the dimensions of analysis such as Ayish (2002). What does exist is a number of single case studies of one Arab country or comparisons of two states. Often, these studies refer to Rugh’s classification or Siebert, Peterson and Schramm’s early typology (1956) or Hallin and Mancini’s work (2004) and speak about an “authoritarian” or – to a lesser degree – about a “polarized-pluralist” character of the respective media system. Yet, these classifications do not take the heterogeneity of the region into account.

A comparative analysis relies on common dimensions that are used to carve out the main characteristics of a specific system and that can be put in relation to yet another system. Therefore, we reflected about the dimensions and criteria typically used to analyze media systems, in general, and Arab media systems, in particular. We carefully weighed up the different approaches outlined above to see whether the respective dimensions help us to grasp both the heterogeneity and commonalities of the media in the MENA region. Our investigation led us to analyze the media in each country according to the following dimensions:

  • Historical (transnational) developments
  • Social composition, languages and geography
  • Political system and legal framework
  • Economy and ownership patterns
  • Technology and infrastructure

Through an in-depths analysis of 18 countries we will highlight in our presentation main patterns characterizing Arab media systems, which reflect not only a variety of authoritarian governing structures but also a digital divide and a strong transnational connectivity. By doing so, the contribution aims also to critically review the dimensions been used and will thus contribute to methodological reflections of media system comparison.