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Opinion: Controlling the Media Scene | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Saudi man explores a website on his laptop in Riyadh February 11, 2014. Syria’s civil war has led to a new, greater threat of Islamist radicalism in Saudi Arabia that requires a more aggressive “war of ideology” on the Internet, says the man responsible for online monitoring in the kingdom. Remarks by the head […]

The head of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police, wanted to convey a simple message: society needs authority to deal with chaos. Without authority, he said, people would not even be able to protect their behinds.

This controversial statement kept people busy for a week, with more than a million funny comments. In the past, the head of the religious police was not obliged to be so descriptive in his statements, and nobody would have been able to see the response to such an out-of-context statement. Today, however, we live in an interactive world where what we write echoes instantly, regardless of whether the response is logical or abusive

In the past, the media scene was easy to control, and dominating it was achievable either by controlling it through decisions—such as granting or denying licenses for printed or audiovisual media—or through big investments. Nowadays, no licenses are necessary to communicate with the public in the open media space. On some platforms, only minor investments are needed to create media outlets that can, through partnerships and recycling news, represent a fair chunk of the media market.

Are the critics of the old media scene satisfied with the new one? Not quite. The media market has grown exponentially and is scattered among thousands of individuals. Between trade and entertainment, other groups who had dreamed of breaking the government and business monopolies found themselves lost.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is one of the biggest users of smartphones. It is even considered by a United Nations report as having the highest cell phones per capita: 180 cell phones for every 100 residents. Of course, this doesn’t reflect the real value of the digital market, as the digital media market is still crawling in terms of growth and transformation. In my opinion, despite what others say, we will revert to the old situation in due time: the era of the domination of big organizations and licensing authorities. This is because data exchange is slowly changing from being an individual activity to a public market activity, and the market will definitely lead companies to expand, develop and dominate.

The regional market is chaotic; it has not split into two markets as some predicted. Those in charge of the market are embroiled in personal attacks against each other with never-ending scandals and pornography, verbal and audio-visual, spreading more than any time in the past. Nothing is controllable anymore in terms of organizing the digital market.

At the moment, chaos reigns and everybody is striving to control the biggest possible chunk of the media. Some are building themselves media kingdoms while others seek to form groups or intellectual blocs to gather people with common interests.

In this era of technological openness it is no longer easy for one person to impact public opinion, because of the magnitude of plurality in reporting. Hence there are no dominant opinion trends—those who opposed the current of unipolar media wanted and wished for this.

Chaos, or plurality if we want to be more accurate, is a characteristic that best describes the current situation. With an unlimited number of broadcasting and receiving devices, the losers do not only include government bodies and their satellites but other forces that had hoped to see the end of monopolies so they could have the opportunity to exist and exert greater influence.

The only agent that remains impactful, efficient and a catalyst is the content now available—be it a message, a tweet, a video or an item in the newspaper or on TV. The content developer is the only body that dominates the scene. This has always been the main challenge facing traditional media; to find creative content developers, copywriters or scriptwriters, or just people with new and fresh ideas.

With time, every party will be content with his audience, backing off from colonial ambitions to control multiple audiences.

Because of the multiple horizontal fissions, which are often positive for the development of the industry, new media or communication channels have emerged. Some are extremely profession-oriented: forums for doctors, astrologists or special interest groups, for example. There are also those who are only interested in informing and impacting public opinion without any professional rules or ethics and without an understanding of the difference between integrity and falsification.