Among the younger generation in the Middle East, Internet use is surpassing TV, and that could have long-term implications in the region. And that increased engagement online comes with important, unresolved questions about media regulation online, according to new research by Northwestern University in Qatar. The study paints an in-depth picture of the role of the news industry in the Arab World with responses from 10,000 people in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and United Arab Emirates.

“Continuous focus on the conflicts and controversies of the Middle East affords little attention to the steady and growing media sector in the region, which has an amalgam of traditional and new platforms,” Northwestern University in Qatar Dean and CEO Everette Dennis writes in the introduction of the study.

TV, Internet dominate

Media sources used in the Middle East. Chart by Northwestern University in Qatar.

Media sources chart. Click to enlarge.

Television continues to be the primary source of news for most of the Middle East, with 98 percent of respondents saying they watch TV on a regular basis. In an interview, Dennis attributed that to the popularity and availability of TV for lower-income families. Newspapers are seen as an exclusive medium for upper class readers and as such aren’t as well read, he said.

Internet is growing significantly (two-thirds of respondents use the Internet) and could overtake TV as a dominant form of media in the Middle East, especially among younger respondents. Eighty percent of that access is over wireless connections, mainly via smartphones and laptops, indicating there is a digital divide that leaves lower-income earners with less access to the Internet. Tablets have a much smaller market share that’s even dwarfed by Internet access via standard cell phones.

Social networking is widely popular. More than 90 percent of respondents said they use social media sites, often between two to four hours a day. Facebook is easily the most popular, claiming 94 percent of social media users. In a distant second and third is Twitter (51 percent of social media users) and Google+ (45 percent).

Online freedom vs. regulation

The study reveals contradictory findings on sentiments regarding freedom of speech online. On the one hand:

  • More than two-thirds said, “In general, people are responsible with regard to the opinions they express on the internet.”
  • Nearly two-thirds said, “It is okay for people to express their ideas on the internet, even if they are unpopular.”

But the idealism is tinted with fear:

  • Fewer than half (47 percent) feel “safe to say whatever one thinks about political affairs” online.
  • “Over a third (38%) of adults agree … ‘I am worried about governments … checking what I do online.'”
Northwestern University in Qatar Dean and CEO Everette Dennis

Everette Dennis

Yet even as revolutionary movements in the Arab Spring paint a narrative of demands for free speech, “Half (51%) of the participants in the study believe there is not enough awareness of the ‘laws, regulations and moralities that control one’s activities on the internet’, and, perhaps consequently, half (50%) also feel the internet in their country should be more tightly regulated than it is now,” according to the study (emphasis added).

“Perhaps, more remarkable than the expressed caution of openly expressing ideas on the internet is the real doubt that people should be able to do so. Fewer than half of adults (46%) agree that ‘People should be free to criticize governments … on the internet,'” the study also found.

That paradox is highlighted in age, too. Younger respondents expressed interest in expressing and regulating opinions online more often than their older counterparts did.

“It’s not totally surprising, but it’s a little bit odd in the juxtaposition of the Arab Spring,” Dennis said.

Dennis said it’s possible certain speech, especially religious, is considered more appropriate for regulation than other types, but the survey did not explore this differentiation.

“It is not surprising that the most common online activity among respondents in the study, in fact, was conversation; instant messaging is the most common online pursuit among respondents, with email a near second,” according to the study.

Trust in news media

A chart by Northwestern University in Qatar stating that most respondents in the Middle East believe the quality of reporting in the Arab World is improving.

Chart on quality of reporting. Click to enlarge.

Media producers in the Middle East can celebrate this fact: More than 60 percent of respondents to the survey said that “the quality of news reporting in the Arab world has improved in the past two years.”

There are a number of reasons for that:

  • Al Jazeera, also based in Qatar, continues to serve as a quality source of information in the Arab World, both in Arabic and in English, Dennis said. 
  • The growth in the number of sources of news, both domestic and international, gives readers access to more and better information, Dennis said.
  • Arabic-language news online has grown popular and plentiful, according to the study. The Internet no longer speaks only English, allowing for more of the Middle East to access national and local news.
  • Television tends to air more investigative and in-depth material than newspapers do, Dennis said.

However, there’s also room to improve. Fewer than half of the respondents believed news outlets in their country were credible, and even fewer respondents than that believe journalists can report without interference from officials.

The study also raises a number of opportunities for further research. The study’s authors, including Dennis, expressed interest in studying “advertising in a region where state-sponsored and subsidized media live alongside more independent news organizations online.” Dennis also expressed interest in studying the creators of media in the Middle East.

Read the full study here: Media Use in the Middle East

You can explore the charts of the study in this great interactive online.

Zach C. Cohen is an editorial and podcasting intern for PBS MediaShift. He is also the editor-in-chief of The EagleAmerican University‘s student newspaper, and a reporter for Latin Pulse, a weekly radio program on Latin American foreign affairs based at AU’s School of Communication. Get regular updates from @Zachary_Cohen on Twitter or on his blog.