Organised by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Al Jazeera Mubasher, “The Challenges of Print and Digital Press in the Arab World” resumed its activities on day two, 29 June 2020, over the course of two sessions discussing other kinds of challenges facing the manufacture of Arab press, namely: freedom of expression, the relationship with the government, and the impact of the audience and users’ communicative behaviour.
In the last two sessions, panellists concluded that even talking about freedom of press is not possible under authoritarian regimes and that Arab press will remain as is unless these regimes are re-established on a new basis of democracy and modernity.
Panellists mentioned the rapid development of digital publishing techniques, the great capabilities that it provides, and its impact on journalism and the concepts of reading and writing. They suggested that the reading and writing commended to humans 5000 years ago on a fixed medium – such as stone engravings, writing on tanned leather or papyrus and text on print paper – has changed with digitalisation, particularly with the shift from desktop computers to smart phones and tablets. They also suggested that this great development came with a change in the concepts of writing and coding, which Arab press institutions did not realise or follow at an appropriate pace thus expanding the gap between them and the digital world.
Discussions also inferred that readers in this day and age are no longer passive, receiving the content of a media message without reacting, but have become interactive. In fact, they are often the producers of messages, competing with traditional media in one way or another. Moreover, the speakers minimised the dangers of this on the function of traditional journalism, which they believe enjoys legitimacy in the production of news that can be reliable if the standards and requirements of the profession are applied to it vis-à-vis the stream of fake news that are put out by individuals using digital publishing without regulation.
A part of the discussion of the second day of the conference was dedicated to the topic of artificial intelligence and its impact on digital journalism. In this regard, the dialogue deduced that some news agencies and international newspapers have made great strides in this domain especially in terms of collecting, arranging, classifying and utilising information. Some have even used artificial intelligence to develop programmes that translate and edit text, and that if Arab press does not keep up with this development, it will fall behind significantly.
The first session of the second day conference came under the title, “The dimensions of the freedom of expression and its repercussions on the structure and function of the printed and digital press.” The panellists were Mohamed Kirat, Professor of Mass Communication at Qatar University; Mohamed Abdelwahab Allali, Professor at the Higher Institute of Information and Communication (Institut Supérieur de l'Information et de la Communication) in Rabat; and Liqaa Maki, Senior Researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Former Professor of Mass Communications at the University of Baghdad with Mostafa Ashoor, Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter, as moderator.
The second session was entitled, “The communicative behaviour of audiences and users and its impact on the future of the printed and digital press.” The panellists were Sadok Hammami, Associate Professor at the Press and Information Sciences Institute (L’Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l’Information) at the University of Manouba; Ghassan Mourad, Professor of Digital Media and Computational Linguistics at the Lebanese University; and Mohamed Elamin Mousa, Associate Professor of Mass Communication at Qatar University with Mustafa Elshaikh, Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter, as moderator.
The dimensions of the freedom of expression and its repercussions on the structure and function of the printed and digital press
In this session, the discussion was centred around the state of freedom of opinion and expression in the Arab world and its impact on the printed and digital press.
Eventually, the discussion arrived at the conclusion that the media in general is a “subsystem within a comprehensive system” comprised of the state, authority, the government, and laws and legislations. Hence, talking about freedom of press is not possible if the entire system does not effectively believe in democracy, respect public liberties or separate and balance authorities but believes that every opposing opinion is dangerous and should be excluded through marginalisation and restriction or arrest and imprisonment if not murder. Accordingly, it can be said that if the entire system is authoritarian and tyrannical, there will be no free press or freedom of opinion or speech let alone an authority that contributes to continuous development and the interests of Arab societies.
Dialogue went on to address the topic of digitalisation, technological development and whether endorsement by investing in digital press could really help Arab journalism overcome its crisis. It was agreed that these efforts will be futile unless they come with a political environment and ruling regime that promote democracy.
The session also delved into the reality of freedom of press, especially digital press published from outside of the borders of Arab totalitarian states. Panellists indicated that digital press enjoys relative freedom but that those working in diasporic Arab media institutions are not protected from the stalking and prosecution of authoritarian regimes that seek the services of local and international companies specialising in hacking, spying and cyberwar. Thus, the “technical threat of digital media” is alive and well.
In addition, the session presented “digital press freedom” or the freedom available to social media users and how they have become senders and receivers of media messages using their personal accounts. Panellists maintained that “digital press freedom” is threatened not only externally by laws and legislations that restrict it but also internally by users’ misuse of it on one hand or its targeted and select use by regimes and organisations on another. In this context, the results of a study conducted and published by Carnegie Mellon University of a sample of posts on well-known social media pages were displayed, indicating that a large percentage of these posts are actually carried out by robots and that another significant percentage of them are reposts by other robots. The objective behind this is to sway public opinion towards certain ideas or to distract it from and confuse it about critical issues.
The communicative behaviour of audiences and users and its impact on the future of the printed and digital press
The fourth and last session of the web conference was dedicated to the discussion of the future of electronic journalism and news websites in light of the audience’s behaviour and digital culture and how they affect the printed press’s condition and position in society and future in media manufacturing tied to different institutions.
The session explored the problems of Arab press from the perspective of its relationship with the audience especially through the impact of technical development that has given users great capabilities and rendered them senders and receivers of information. The discussion concluded that this development has not affected Arab press negatively and that the latter maintains its function and position as an important and essential resource, which cannot be said about personal accounts that do not apply the conventional standards and requirements of the profession.
In addition, the session looked into the term “Arab journalism” that was mentioned in the three previous sessions. The prevailing opinion in this session was that journalism in the Arab world is not shaped by universal features; and that every Arab country, especially since the 2011 Arab revolutions, has its own political, social, legal, legislative, institutional, cultural contexts. Despite some similarities, journalism in each of these countries has its own exclusive nature. Hence, it is more accurate to call it “Arab journalisms” instead of “Arab journalism.”
Furthermore, the discussion tackled the topic of technical development in social media that enables users to play a role that resembles that of a journalist as mentioned above. Panellists once again asserted that the lack of reliability and professionalism and the influx of fake news on social media pages has undermined the relative weight of the capabilities of digitalisation. Meanwhile, they cited “traditional” press institutions as a source of reliable and original news if, once again, professional standards and objectivity are applied.
The dialogue then shifted to the change in journalism as a profession particularly in writing and reading due to current technical development. Here, panellists presented the development of users’ communicative behaviour, citing an era in which users were only able to receive information but not interact with it. They explained that users then shifted to Web 2.0 (which is characterised by an abundance of information, a great deal of classification, multimedia interactivity, and the rise of laptops, tablets and smart phones), later evolving to the current phase of Web 3.0 and soon, in 2021, to Web 4.0. After having been restricted to the use of a desktop computer, we are now in a new world that brought along changes in the means and notions. One example is the evolution of electronic media to digital media and then mobile media, signifying the move from “linear” reading (that is stone-based or printed on paper) to "skim reading” on screens that were fixed and non-interactive with passive users to interactive reading and active users that participate in the construction of content. This created a correlation in information and an involvement in its usage from the user’s perspective. In other words, we are in the process of personalising information (through collection, classification and circulation based on personal use). The user is currently concerned with his or her “privacy” and that press institutions are concerned with is their position in this vast and interconnected space.
In this regard, the panellists called this stage, “technological inevitability,” due to the fact that technology has become the main source of structural changes. Also, during the era of a technological, communication and information revolution, it was natural for us to shift from writing to typing and then technology given new expressive signs and cultural symbols that accord with the digital change in the “representation” of knowledge. However, nowadays, text is circulated through a mobile device and no longer requires its own medium but has spread all over the internet. With all of this, methods of teaching in the faculties of mass communication in most universities in the Arab world and the manners of many press institutions maintain only the minimum level of all of this, just enough to function at the surface.
Finally, the session, and the conference as a whole, came to a close with a discussion about the future of Arab electronic journalism; the knowledge, skills and capabilities digital users should have; and the relationship between that and artificial intelligence experiencing rapid development thus transforming readers and viewers into users if not content producers. This usage is specific to the instrument and its artificial intelligence allowing for the carrying out of tasks that humans had carried out with less time and effort especially in terms of find sources of knowledge published in the information network. Artificial intelligence, in this sense, has become a medium in the field of journalism and a qualitative addition to a number of fields in general.
The session presented examples of how greater media institutions use artificial intelligence in their work. The Associated Press was cited for its use of programmes created by artificial intelligence experts to edit and publish texts. Consequently, this session concluded that this journalism, in light of the decline of paper usage for environmental and health reasons and the swift adoption of digital journalism, needs those in Arab press institutions to take artificial intelligence and the great capabilities it offers into consideration in order for this journalism to find its place in the world of digital publishing.
At the end of the conference’s presentation of the challenges posed to the printed and digital press in the Arab world, it may be noted that the most prominent ideas and visions shared by the participating researchers and experts over two days were the following:
- It is more accurate to use the term, “Arab journalisms,” instead of, “Arab journalism,” because journalism in each Arab country has its own contexts.
- Both the printed and digital press in the Arab world will not be able to develop under totalitarian regimes that do not respect democracy or the freedoms of opinion and expression.
- In light of changes in the users’ patterns and calls for the preservation of the environment as well as concerns pertaining to the coronavirus, the future is in digital press and the best investments are those in digital press at every level.
- Social media is not an alternative to the digital press and never will be; traditional journalism, whether printed or digital, will always be a source of news.
- Diasporic digital media enjoys relative freedom but is still in the web of authoritarian regimes through hacking programmes, spyware and chaos.
- Given the economic crises, Arab press outlets have no choice but to consider cooperation and integration among themselves.
- Great technical development in the means of transporting information and exchanging knowledge created the need for an equal development of editorial methods and linguistic engineering.
- The use of artificial intelligence through applications and programmes can create prospects for Arab press whether in terms of saving time needed for the collection of information or the translation and editing of texts.
In addition to the aforementioned, further details of the conference and its four sessions are available on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies’ social media pages and in its publications.