A new information service that tracks the coverage of Arab newspapers, TV broadcasts and websites says the media is becoming less political and is increasingly under the control of private companies rather than governments. In the UAE, only 29 per cent of newspaper coverage is of a political nature, while in Saudi Arabia, politics accounts for less than a quarter of press coverage, with 54 per cent of coverage focused on social issues, according to a preview of the Arab Media Influence Report.
The report provides an assessment of the powers that control the Arab media and how news output influences audiences. "The report identifies who is influencing Arab media in terms of ownership, management and editorial influence. On the other side we're looking at who the media is influencing," said Mazen Nahawi, the the president of News Group, the Dubai-based news management company that published the report.
The preview report analysed the front pages of key newspapers as well as activity on social media sites in eight Arab countries during the first four months of this year. The key findings challenge some assumptions about the Arab media, said Mr Nahawi. "There was a misconception that the Arab media is highly politicised. But Saudi Arabia was the leader of all the countries surveyed in terms of covering social issues.
"Look at how apolitical these big countries are. You have a nice healthy mix [of topics covered in the press] in countries like the UAE, Saudi, Egypt and Algeria." Only the newspapers of Iraq and Yemen had a primary focus on political issues. Some analysts in the region played down the link between media ownership and coverage. Tariq Qureishy, an independent media consultant based in Dubai, said editorial decisions were unlikely to be linked to ownership by private companies but rather to the broader news agenda. "Financial stories are so much bigger than political stories at the moment," he said. "There is so much more going on in business news."
Another finding was that there has been a decline in the government ownership of newspapers, with 95 per cent of the top-circulation newspapers across the selected eight countries under private ownership. In Saudi Arabia, all the main newspapers are privately held, with similarly high levels in Syria and Yemen. "There is a tectonic shift in how the Arabic media is managed, in the ownership structures, and how the media itself is influencing the public. The big shift has been the decline in government ownership and the decline in government control of all types of media," said Mr Nahawi.
"[The Arab world's political leaders] are mostly young men, who are … tolerant of some measure of media freedom. The red line has been shifting little by little every day." The report also showed a steady growth of the number of newspapers and magazines on the market over the past 10 years. Sentiment on social media sites was also assessed. It found that anti-government users of social media sites during the Iranian election were "outnumbered by pro-government people on social media sites by two-to-one."
The full version of the Arab Media Influence Report, to be released in July, will cover 17 countries and focus on the analysis of Arab print publications, broadcast and social media. It will be updated frequently to track changing sentiment in the sector. Mr Nahawi said the bulk of sales of the report were likely to be to the commercial sector, although he expected demand from government agencies in the US and elsewhere.