Arabic is raising its voice above the media hubbub
Judging by the minimal pronouncements of Kim Jong Hun, the World Cup team coach, and the rare public appearances of Kim Jong-il, officials of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - also known as North Korea - are an enigmatic, taciturn bunch. But all that is about to change. North Korea has joined celebrities, statesmen and businesses - along with a large swath of the public - on the micro-blogging site Twitter. Nearly five thousand followers of @uriminzok (Our Nation), from Canada to the Philippines, can now follow the pronouncements of the state. Doubtless Korean readers on Twitter are grateful for the chance to (re)read such gems as Kim Jong-il's musings on the North-South Joint Declaration of 2000.
Of greater interest is uriminzokkiri's Youtube.com channel which, considering North Korea is one of the most secretive countries on Earth, makes intriguing viewing. From psychedelic children's cartoons (featuring an animated pig with a school satchel bowing respectfully to a dog in a blue coat and glasses), to a moving concert with performers dressed in military uniforms playing the gayageum, a Korean string instrument, these videos are a window into North Korean society.
Such media content has a serious side, as evidenced by the North Korean news broadcasts on the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March, which South Korea and the United States blamed on Pyongyang. The views of the North Korean government, which denied the allegation, are now available online to anyone who cares to look, unmediated by television networks based abroad. Viewers looking for the North Korean perspective on the incident have, for good or ill, a clear alternative to the western or South Korean narrative.
A small example, but one replicated elsewhere. Both at home and abroad, the dominance of a few media sources in the delivery of reliable news is fading. While western media companies are consolidating ownership, the way people consume their news is diversifying. International broadcasters and media, especially large outlets such as the BBC, CNN and brands such as The New York Times, are finding they can no longer control the news agenda. In their home markets and on foreign soil, their ability to frame the message is being reduced. They are losing the message.
Foreign markets used to be places where English-language broadcasters could rely on being the loudest, clearest voices in the media babel. No longer. International TV and radio broadcasters such as the BBC, CNN and Sky News are under intense pressure and competition from local-language media and English-language media. Satellite television has enabled millions to access quality news in a familiar language. Globo, a Brazilian-based Portuguese language TV station reaches tens of millions around the world; TV5Monde reaches millions of francophones. Even speakers of smaller languages can solidify links with the diaspora: Turkish broadcaster TRT reaches out to Turks and speakers of other Turkic languages such as Azeri, Turkmen and Kazak.
In this regard, the Arab world is unusual, even unique, in that one language is used by many countries. Since Al-Jazeera started in 1996, there has been an explosive growth in Arabic-language media. Well-produced, well-funded journalism has reshaped the Arab world, giving the Arabic language a boost. Writing in this newspaper last week, Elias Muhanna, the Lebanese academic, pointed out that Arabic has never had as many users as it does today, with millions of young people absorbing news online and on TV in their native tongue. More will follow: TwoFour54, an Abu Dhabi-based media company, is trying to expand the Arabic-language production in the region, across television and radio and into film and computer games.
The other change, where the pressure has been most keenly felt, is in the rise of English-language international media. The Al Jazeera brand is probably the best known, with Al-Jazeera English watched in newsrooms across the western world. But there are others: since 2005, Russia Today, Germany's Deutsche Welle, France 24, Japan's NHK World, China's CCTV and Iran's Press TV have all set up English-language news channels. They also all broadcast in Arabic (with the exception of Press TV, which has Al-Alam, a sister broadcaster) and other major languages.
With the launch last month of China's CNC World, another English-language news channel, the market is crowded. These international broadcasters, like the BBC all state-funded, have allowed countries to project their messages far beyond their borders, to spread their brand, uninterpreted by others. Although some broadcasters, such as China's CCTV, are not much watched outside of their diaspora, that could quickly change: Al Jazeera shot to prominence because it was able to cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in more detail and with greater access than any other broadcaster.
English-language sources in many countries mean that viewers can be captured in the English-speaking world. More importantly, these outlets can frame the discussion themselves, previously the prerogative of western media. And now, even the folks back home aren't listening. Western media are finding themselves losing control of the message in their domestic markets. A fragmenting media landscape, the rise of niche internet sites and a lack of trust among citizens towards big media, have meant that large media organisations find their audiences declining and their journalism doubted.
Consumers are now more aware of alternatives - and can access them easily - meaning they are also more aware of the editing process, of the selection inherent in the news. When the story broke this week of an ex-Israeli soldier posing happily alongside handcuffed and blindfolded detainees, news outlets initially blurred her face. Given that many of those who read the story did so via the internet, a simple online image search revealed what would previously have been kept hidden. That juxtaposition, though small, feeds the feeling that the media are not telling the whole story.
Faced with this new cacophony of voices, media brands have one of two options: they can shout louder and more furiously, sacrificing accuracy for volume and speed - this is the model the conservative Fox News channel in the US has taken, along with many tabloid newspapers - or they can speak softly and clearly, capturing audiences with the quality of their journalism. This seems to be the approach the BBC and the grey lady of The New York Times are taking.
The upside of diversity is the challenging of parochialism, of only seeing international events through the local lens of Europe and North America. Viewers can access information that is grounded in a language and culture they are familiar with. But fragmentation brings with it challenges. As enclaves of like-minded believers form, they may distrust information that does not fit their world view, with no one trusting in any authentic version of the truth. When all news is just comment, one view is as valid as the other.
And that is not the case. The broadcasters in Seoul and Pyongyang may have their own versions of what happened to the Cheonan naval ship, but the evidence hauled up from the Yellow Sea proves only one of them right. Faisal al Yafai is an award-winning journalist and a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010. * The National
Published: August 21, 2010 04:00 AM