IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2003


Panorama : The Mediterranean Year

Mediterranean Politics

Economy and territory

Culture and Society


The Mediterranean, its Identity and its Media

Mohammed Noureddine Affaya

Université Mohammed V-Agdal,

What are the identity stakes that are conveyed through the media in the Mediterranean region? To what extent does the media landscape encourage the development of the idea of a Mediterranean identity? In dealing with these two questions, it is of course difficult to avoid the increasingly recurrent problem of identity, just as it is certain that we cannot consider such an issue on the basis of a single theory, regardless of which discipline it may belong to.

Thus, psychology, sociology, anthropology, politics and now mediology, among others, are all fields of reflection that offer specific ways to approach the issue of identity. Defining the ways in which these specific approaches interrelate with each other is without doubt a complex undertaking, above all because emotion is very implicated with the work that would be necessary to reach such a definition. One important component is that the idea of Mediterranean identity has entered a historic phase of unprecedented richness and complexity, as the European Union is one of the greatest economic, political, strategic and cultural challenges of today. There is no other experiment like it. Historically hostile countries have been converted into nations that are coordinating and cooperating together in every sphere, via the construction of a network of interests, reciprocal relations and legitimate institutions, all supported by the will of the people. Despite the pro-federation fervour and policies on unification, integration and partnership, the discourses on identity have been brought dramatically into the foreground in recent times.

With the new doubts that have been cast on a whole host of historic achievements, such as the idea of sovereignty, nationhood, frontiers, the process of building Europe, the age of globalisation, the accelerated migration of institutions, imaginaires, and so forth, serious questions have been raised concerning the self and others, spatial location, relations with the times and the new perceptions of reality. These profound changes put certain already fragile or weakened layers in an unavoidable dilemma, faced with the question of whether to assert their identity in a «pathological» or at least exaggerated manner, or to accept the loss of fundamental elements that are essential to their identity. These options are felt by some to be a tragic choice between integrism and disintegration. The media of all genres and forms are there to show, expose, discuss and even dramatise the demands regarding identity that are constantly expressed in the various regions of the Mediterranean, and the multimedia is becoming increasingly involved in the historical and cultural context that pervades the idea of the Mediterranean identity.

Nothing is clear or definitive. Initiatives begin and are blocked; accords are signed but not implemented; intentions are paraded but not carried out. Despite all their complementary assets, the two shores of the Mediterranean run into constant obstacles that prevent the bridges from being built. The Israeli-Arab conflict, the inequality between the north and the south of the Mediterranean, the American desire for power, to name but a few, are all factors that thwart the Euro- Mediterranean strategy for closer partnerships and greater reciprocity. Sadly, certain parts of the media contribute to the creation of clichés and formulate prejudices that are in no way beneficial to the process of the idea of the Mediterranean identity taking root. Above all, given that whenever a civilisation, a nation or a people, or a social group within a society, experience disintegration or destruction, their system of values, relationships and modes of perception and organisation become altered, and open to the incorporation of new components. In the context of the Mediterranean world, and via the media, there has been a proliferation of the discourses on identity, made up of a variety of approaches and an increase in interpretations, each in accordance with its own source, status and purpose.

The media, and television in particular, are unquestionably privileged circles in which the identity stakes in the Mediterranean world may be expressed. Furthermore, television is in the process of dramatically overturning the mental structures, cultural references and aesthetic sensibilities of our region. Television makes everything possible. It can show, reveal and enlighten, as well as hide, obscure and mask exchanges. It is a multidimensional machine and a medium of strategic importance in shaping the expectations, shortcomings, frustrations and desires of the peoples of the Mediterranean. If the Euro-Mediterranean venture, as it was formulated at the Barcelona conference in 1995 and which remains, despite resistance, an undertaking that is highly relevant to the present day, proposes association as the basis for cooperation between the two shores of the Mediterranean, and if European political leaders justify this project through the widespread sense of disappointment that is felt in the countries of the south-east Mediterranean due to the inequality in relations in this current period of writing a new chapter of the relations between the inhabitants of the Mediterranean, founded on cooperation, association and mutual understanding – if the intentions of Europeans are thus formulated, then the region contains European interests and economic motives of great importance.

The countries of the southeast Mediterranean are the leading trade partners to the European Union after Japan and the United States. The importance of the Mediterranean market to European institutions exceeds the value of their exports to Japan. Furthermore, the member states of the European Union dominate more than half of the foreign trade of the southeast Mediterranean countries. There are glaring economic inequalities between the north and the south, and it would be very difficult to talk of a homogenous entity of Mediterranean countries. Trade and the elimination of customs barriers may be beneficial for the members with regard to rapprochement, but they can also have a negative impact when the partners involved have different levels of growth and development. In a context in which globalisation has become the economic, political and media watchword, observers are drawn to the strategic and economic stakes in the Mediterranean basin. Most analysts cannot resist commenting that European policy is, when all is said and done, a response to American incursions in the region.

The amount of American aid forwarded to countries in the southeast Mediterranean exceeds by far the sum granted by the European Union. The American presence has become even more firmly established since the events of 11th September, as a result of the US’s strategic decision to fight «international terrorism», and in particular «Islamic» terrorism. The United States has achieved this by signing free-trade agreements with certain Mediterranean countries and by financing a number of media supports such as Radio Sawa and other forms of communication, in order to counter the negative view that the peoples in the region have of America. Furthermore, the European trend, and especially from the Arab point of view, has put an end to Euro-Arab dialogue and has replaced it with the Euro- Mediterranean dialogue in order to integrate the Arab peoples of the region into a vast and blurred identity, in the name of a Mediterranean identity that is founded on geographical distribution and that excludes any sense of national or civilisational identity for the good of the causes of tolerance, universality, peace and the fight against terrorism.

The Barcelona Declaration and the Plan of Future Action made the Western model of civilisation and culture the sole benchmark for the anticipated Mediterranean venture. The absence of the principle of equality between civilisations was striking: western principles were presented as the expression of a triumphant, superior civilisation that tended to spread its values by causing other Mediterranean cultures, in particular Islamic culture, to disappear. The function of the media is to show, exaggerate or emphasise certain aspects of Mediterranean situations, at the cost of others. This is not to say that we should widen the gap between the two shores. On the contrary, regional co-operation has become an essential necessity in the light of the sweeping changes that are taking place in the Mediterranean and in the world as a whole. Nevertheless, a realistic project, one that does not conceal within it the seeds of its own destruction, is one that is supported by equal structures and counter-balanced parties, with the consequence of safeguarding the unity of civilisation, political cohesion and the specific cultural personality of the two main partners (in this case the Arab-Islamic south-east and the western north), the aim of the project being to serve their common interests.

The major European concerns in cooperation and partnership accords with non-European Mediterranean countries can be summarised as the desire to guarantee security within the region, and the fight against drug trafficking, clandestine immigration, terrorism and religious extremism, which are in any case the leading and favourite topics of the media, especially in Europe. However, it is also true that Europe’s openness towards the Mediterranean and its stated aspiration to pursue a free-trade zone constitute a change in relations between the two shores of the Mediterranean, especially with regard to the process of democratisation in the countries in the south, which is an indisputably complex process in which political, educational, social, cultural and identity-related considerations are all at play, and in which the media has an important role in establishing openings for civil liberties and in positively shaping disparities.

The European community has played a remarkable part in speeding up the process of democratisation in the southern European countries of Spain, Portugal and Greece, which spent decades under military and fascist rule. Evidently, democracy has evolved on the basis of internal circumstances and politics founded on the principles of citizenship, rule of law, changes in government and peaceful compromise, with the purpose of resolving the community’s problems, but in the countries of the south-eastern Mediterranean, the surrounding regional environment could be capable of triggering this process and supporting the democratic forces in their struggles against despotism, poverty and religious extremism. The Mediterranean is capable of finding its own modes of application and of establishing a climate that will make it possible for a transition to democracy to take place in the countries of the south-east, just as happened in Spain, Portugal and Greece. But this presupposes a break with the hypocritical political attitude of the regimes in power, as well as effective development aid with the establishment of investment projects that will create jobs and wealth, the promotion of initiatives in civil society and the creation of arenas so that the voice of the people can be heard, debates held and civil liberties exercised.

The notion of the Mediterranean identity cannot be adopted until such time as new horizons are opened up on the southern shore, and the injustice that Israel constantly imposes on the Palestinian people and countries in the region is effectively ended. The Mediterranean identity, in all its plurality, diversity and also its complexity, presents itself, often consciously, as an inflexible identity. There exists a mosaic of references and registers of identity, and the media, particularly television, is both the reflection of this mosaic and a formidable mechanism for consolidating it. In the current context of injustice and inequality, the rebirth of the world, which has been dubbed globalisation, engenders cultural responses and demands concerning identity that have never before been taken into account. We are currently witnessing major upheavals in the media within the Mediterranean region. Attempting to define every aspect of this shake-up would be an impossible undertaking, for how can we talk of the «role of the media in building a sense of identity in the Mediterranean?» In a small country alone, such as Lebanon, that has emerged with difficulty from a civil war, there are numerous media genres and each religious or political faction has acquired its own television channel or newspaper, such as LBC of the Lebanese forces; Al Manar of Hezbollah; Al Mustaqbal of Rafiq Hariri, the Sunni prime minister; NBN of Nabih Barri, of other television and radio broadcasters. If this occurs in a country like Lebanon, which has a population of just three million, what can we say of the complex state of affairs in Turkey, the media and the political stakes in the Balkans, the battles between the media in Italy, the dozens of Egyptian channels broadcasting via the Nile-Set satellite, and regional diversity and the media in Spain?

In addition, there has been a proliferation of satellite dishes throughout the Mediterranean region, above all on its southern shores, where the pirating of satellite channels is a common practice that makes it possible to receive all the satellite broadcasts and channels in every language, including Arab stations such as al- Jazeera, Abou Dhabi and al-Arabiya, which shape the essence of different idealisms, as well as Islamic channels such as Iqrae and others that bombard viewers with daily sermons calling on them to adhere to an Islam that is rigid, Wahhabite (the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia) and fundamentalist. We have a veritable carnival of channels, images and discourses in the Mediterranean. Every state has its own motives and media stakes, and with such a mosaic of identities, how can we promote the idea of a single Mediterranean identity? Can it be used to good advantage without a Euro- Mediterranean project that is centred on equitable development, real democracy and a creative culture?

The Mediterranean project, as initiated by the Barcelona Conference and supported by the spirit of partnership, has always been and is still an unprecedented historic venture. Sadly, it is hampered by a number of obstacles that are linked to the very vision of this initiative and its economic, human and cultural foundations, and by despotism and chauvinism and the colonisation of Palestinian lands. These handicaps mean that the Mediterranean process has not materialised in inter-Mediterranean relations at any level of trade and communication. There can be no doubt that the media have a crucial role to play in the building of identities, just as it would be tautological to say that the perverse relations between the media and the various authorities have interfered in the development of the notion of the Mediterranean identity. Stereotypes, prejudices, xenophobia, «islamophobia », migration, arrogance, and similar sources, are the basis of so many of the images, clichés and amalgams that the media incessantly produce about one group or another, in their frequent disregard of the strategic need to work toward achieving a closer partnership and friendship, and improved interculturalism.