By Ramzy Baroud
On February 12, 2008, Arab League information ministers issued a communique outlining ‘tough’ guidelines for Arab satellite channels. The new guidelines specifically prohibited the broadcasting of negative reporting of heads of state, religious or national figures.
In following days, a massive campaign of denunciation, led by those who felt targeted by the new policy, joined by various rights organizations, ensued. The communiqué was unfair, they argued, because it was largely political, and aimed at protecting from censure the very individuals and institutions that have brought about many of the ailments afflicting Arab societies and governments. Of course, they were correct.
How can the media in the Arab world fulfil its duties – as a platform from which civil society is able to monitor the state, and hold to account those who deviate from the principles of the relevant social and political contracts – under such ‘guidelines’?
While only two countries – Qatar and Lebanon – refused to sign, many intellectuals, journalists and rights advocates protested. However, Abd A-Rahman A-Rashid, general manager of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel, told the Media Line website that the Arab ministers’ guidelines were largely ineffectual and would not stop the spread of information.
The story in the West naturally generated immense interest; for once again Arabs were wrangling with issues of freedom of expression, a value for which successive US administrations have supposedly advocated.
More, forums were abruptly held where the official transgressions of Arab governments were candidly chastised. In its monthly policy discussion, the Brookings Centre Doha raised the question: ‘Forward or backward? The 2008 Arab satellite TV charter and the future of Arab Media, society and democracy’. Speakers included Saad Eddin Ibrahim, professor of Political Sociology at the American University in Cairo, Ibrahim Helal, deputy managing director, Al Jazeera English, and Michael Ratney, Charge d’Affaires at the American embassy. The session was chaired by Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Centre and fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. The Saban Center at the Brookings Institute is headed by Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel, and despite his personal dedication to the cause of Israel, remains one of the most frequent guests on Arab TV stations.
What is painted to look like a classic conflict between corrupt governments and their fed up constituencies, the former labouring to gag the latter’s freedom of expression, is a lot more convoluted. It is not that the corrupt elites are not indeed labouring to suppress dissent, or that the suppressed multitudes are not fiercely fighting back. In fact, it’s this relationship that constitutes the push and pull which came to define Arab media in the first place. But who has decided that Arab satellite stations – or pan Arab print publications or other forms of media – represent in any way the interests of Arab masses, or have improved in any measurable way the welfare of Arab people, especially the poorer, discounted classes?
More, how could entities such as the Brookings Institute and its Saban Centre – known for holding and promoting policies that hardly deviate from that of the US administration, if not its most rigid qualities – become themselves mediators for such freedoms, which if genuinely granted would prove most harmful to the US administration and its interests in the Arab world?
So is the true state of Arab media, marred with confusion, uncertainty and mixed messages.
Since the advent of Aljazeera in 1996, something fundamental morphed in the world of Arab media. We have heard this argument numerous times and for good reason. True, but rash conclusions of ‘the Aljazeera revolution’ no longer suffice.
Aljazeera was not the only media forum that allowed for the expression of tabooed views, while censoring others. Egypt’s Voice of the Arabs, during the Nasser years, for example, decried reactionary Arab regimes left and right, and it too enjoyed a large following amongst Arab masses from the gulf to the ocean and beyond. Media technology has advanced immensely since then, and Aljazeera is packed with less pan-Arab rhetoric and is much more discreet in its political leanings. The fact that Aljazeera refrains from any serious criticism of Qatar and is much more candid in targeting specific Arab countries is overlooked by many since, frankly the world of Qatari politics is relatively trivial in the greater scheme of things.
Since then, numerous copycats have sprung up across the Arab world. Satellite stations with or without political agendas have grown out of control and now number over 500. This was accompanied by a massive surge of newspapers and glossy magazines, most offering next to nothing in terms of content value. It was a media revolution that lacked true substance, thus impacting little the collective self-awareness of Arab peoples or the Arab individual’s need for self-assertion in a time of considerable global transformation.
Those who are on good terms with the official authorities can easily be granted a license, and thus a new TV station or new magazine is welcomed into the fold. Those who are not would only need to relocate to London or another, preferably hostile Arab capital and resume his media ‘mission.’ Of course, funds for such endeavours are available on conditions, either to refrain from bashing certain entities and giving free hand to censure others, or to stay away from politics altogether.
With cheap American TV content and their Arab imitators, content per se is never an issue. It’s quality content that poses a problem. To pretend that such low quality programs haven’t deeply scarred Arab societies and their cultural and societal identities is to defy reality, but that is for another discussion.
The fact is that Arab media is largely political, with political, religious, nationalistic, even tribal leanings, affiliations and priorities. While some media have done less harm than others, none represent the untainted exception.
The Arab foreign ministers communiqué can be understood as a call for a truce between various Arab governments: you hold your journalists back from attacking me, I’ll hold mine. It’s neither a call for the suppression of civil society nor the gagging of free expression: the former is largely suppressed and truly free expression never fully existed.
Two points remain to be made; one is that dominating media in the West is afflicted by similar ailments, themselves owned by big corporations that pander to their respective official authorities, with the US being the most notable example.
And two, a truly independent media that is completely free from the whims of individuals or those holding the financial or political leverage is only possible in theory. What civil society usually aspires to achieve, however, are mediums that are less bias, less totalitarian and as representative of the whole as possible. This can only be achieved by collective struggle, organization and pressure, using home-grown platforms, as opposed to imported ones.
When civil society organizes and speaks out, neither a communiqué by a few ministers, nor a decree by a totalitarian ruler can silence it.
-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London).