Sa'at Hissab: encouraging debate in the Middle East and North Africa


Audiences in Egypt and Tunisia question their future leaders for the first time.

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Audiences across the Middle East and North Africa are questioning their leaders about the issues that matter to them in the second series of Sa’at Hissab, a topical debate programme broadcast in conjunction with BBC Arabic.

The programme - in which political and public figures answer questions from a studio audience - is taking place in Libya, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq.

It is also part of a wider training and support programme for journalists, created by BBC Media Action to strengthen skills and encourage a greater diversity of voices in national debate.

Post-revolution debate

The new season’s programmes give people a chance to examine the achievements of the Arab revolutions.

In a programme broadcast in Tunisia at the end of December 2012, one audience member, Mariam Fatnassi, had tough questions to ask of the government and constituent assembly representatives on the panel.

“Since it’s a difficult time for Tunisia’s economy and the government is saying the people need to adapt, why isn’t this applied to the government?” she said. “Why are the people that we elected earning millions [in their salaries] out of public funds? Aren’t you afraid that it will be said that in the same way that there are war opportunists, you are revolution opportunists?”

Her question sparked a furious debate with the panellists arguing that people working in the public sector are among the least paid in Africa and that competitive wages were needed to combat the threat of corruption.

A new experience

This second series of Sa’at Hissab builds on the success of the first which aired a few months after the Arab Spring. In Libya, for example, audiences discussed topics such as disarmament, transitional justice and the future of women and a satellite link-up enabled studio audiences in both Tripoli and Benghazi to ask questions at the same time.

In an episode recorded in Minya, Egypt, the audience consisted of 240 people from all over Upper Egypt, which includes some of the most neglected and unsettled parts of the country.

Once the recording finished, the audience refused to leave. They wanted to continue.

One member of the audience, a fisherman from Minya protested about his profession’s poor living conditions, said, “I was in shock: I was able to sit with officials and tell them about the problems I face daily. This never could have been possible before.”

In Tunisia, two editions of Sa’at Hissab were produced in partnership with Tunisian Television two weeks before the parliamentary elections in October 2011, the first free elections in the history of the country and the first after the revolution.

Public service broadcasting

As an integral part of the project, BBC Media Action are also supporting partner broadcasters and strengthening journalists’ skills in Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Iraq and Morocco.

Face-to-face training and online courses from BBC Media Action’s web-based programme, iLearn, focus on a range of skills. These include production and technical skills, such as camera operating, set design, graphics and directing.

And amongst the journalism skills taught, there is an emphasis on how to make programmes more representative of a diverse audience and incorporate voices which have traditionally been more likely to be excluded from national media debate.

Journalists who have already taken part in BBC Media Action training say they are paving the way for more freedom of expression by learning how to give a platform to different voices.

A director at Wattaniya TV said, “We as journalists set the agenda. The media needs to provide platform for various opinions. Usually our debate programmes are focused on decision makers, not audiences. The challenge is for us to break the barrier between the state and its people and produce programmes that deal with issues closer to people’s concerns.”

In addition to the targeted training, BBC Media Action is also developing fruitful professional networks across the region by helping journalists meet their fellow colleagues from other countries in order to share experiences and best practice.

The project is funded by the UK government's Foreign and Commonwealth office under the Arab Partnership Programme Fund.

Related Links

BBC Media Action’s work in the Middle East and North Africa

BBC Media Action’s work on governance and rights


I was amazed: I was able to sit with officials and tell them about the problems I face daily. This never could have been possible before.

An Egyptian fisherman

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