Despite interference from Arab regimes and the U.S., hope can be found in the internet, satellite dishes and the “Al-Jazeera effect”
Marco Visscher | November 2004 issue
A joke circulated recently at a meeting of editors from the Middle East noted that their work was being monitored by “dis-Information Ministries”. On one level that’s not very funny But the good news underscored during the World Editors Forum in Istanbul, Turkey, was that Middle Eastern journalists are emerging as self-assured news gatherers, even in a part of the world where freedom of the press is scarce commodity. And things are looking up. The countries of Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar recently closed their infamous Ministries of Information at the same time as internet, satellite dishes and the “Al Jazeera effect” are creating a degree of press freedom previously unknown in the region.
Daoud Kuttah, founder of AmmanNet in Jordan, said that while government censorship still plays a role, media consumers have gained an important victory: “The act of closing the border to the physical paper has been weakened by the fact that all the papers are on the internet.” Anyone who wants to, can read them on their computer screen. And web logs, which provide a very simpleway for almost anyone to join the ranks of journalists, have been growing by leaps and bounds. In Iraq, for example, there are currently approximately 18,000 web logs, compared to 830 four years ago, according to Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a journalist who worked for various reform-minded newspapers in Iran.
Now that Iraq is free from the regime of Saddam Hussein, the country offers a wonderful example of the eagerness for independent news. Big cities witnessed an explosion in the number of internet cafés while satellite dishes—once banned by Saddam—cropped up everywhere. Just a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad, there were 150 new newspapers in the city, Hassan M. Fattah—who started one himself, Iraq Today—tells Britain’s Prospect (March 2004). Initially, their journalistic quality left something to be desired, as evidenced by the hilarious “revelation” in an Iraqi paper that American soldiers wore special glasses so they could see through women’s clothing. Still, a number of impressive publications have survived the initial competitive onslaught.
A big hurdle for the Iraqi papers is the new government’s policy dictating a code of conduct for the media, Fattah writes. Under the code, publications can be banned if they incite violence or show support for the Ba’ath party. Journalists who violate the rules can be arrested. Herein lies a contradictory development in the Middle East: while the United States heralds the democratization in the region—starting with Iraq—a fundamental democratic right is being taken away: the right to a free press.
Many Arabs have the impression that the Americans are doing everything in their power to suppress any criticism of their actions in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera has been openly accused of spreading propaganda and rabblerousing on various occasions by U.S. authorities, and the network has become the victim of American censorship. Immediate retaliation occurred when Al-Jazeera aired Osama bin Laden videos or its talk show hosts taunted pro-American guests: some of its offices have been closed and Al-Jazeera reporters turned away at press conferences. Although things seem better now, as seen by the fact that Al-Jazeera was granted permission to air the Republican Convention in September, it remains a fragile relationship.
Another attempt to influence Arabs’ image of Americans was the launch earlier this year of Al-Hurra, a Washington-based satellite station that is meant to counterbalance Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, another major Arabic satellite channel. But most Arabic commentators greeted Al-Hurra—with its one-sided coverage on good deeds of the U.S. influence—with criticism. Was this an example of the independent press that is supposed to go hand in hand with democracy, they asked?
At the World Electronic Media Forum in Geneva late last year, Al-Jazeera’s managing director Wadah Khanfar said that his station was the first pan-Arabic television station that offered a platform for both sides of a story and for controversial topics. “We can understand the hostility of dictatorial Arab regimes [toward Al-Jazeera],” he said, referring to their continuous threats of a ban. “But now the US criticism is harsher… We thought we applied the same international rules of objectivity, balance and expressing all viewpoints.”
The American media has also criticized efforts to influence the Arabic press. Inter Press Service (May 26, 2004) quotes a cynical Reese Erlich, a foreign correspondent with 20 years experience in the Middle East: “There are ways that the U.S. government could legitimately reduce the negative coverage it gets on Al-Jazeera. For instance, if President Bush wants Al-Jazeera to stop airing grisly footage of dead Iraqi civilians, as commander in chief he could order U.S. troops to stop killing them.”
The future of Al-Jazeera, which was launched in the 1990s from the remains of a failed BBC experiment, is uncertain. Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, emir of Qatar, took over the station to boost international coverage of his small nation. But he has been under severe political pressure for years to contain the network’s Western-style independent approach to reporting the news. Qatar is said to have received some 450 official diplomatic-level complaints about the station, which likes to present itself as the Arabic equivalent of CNN.
Despite—or because of—the fact that Al-Jazeera itself is often the topic of news, the station remains unprofitable. Advertisers would rather not be seen on the controversial channel: an ominous sign for a free Arabic press. Because it has not yet turned a profit, Prospect (April 2004) suspects the future of Al-Jezeera may be at stake. On several occasions, the Bush Administration has urged replacement of its complete journalistic staff. The emir of Qatar would likely be relieved of a financial burden if he conceded to their demands.
And yet there reasons for optimism in the Arabic media world. Participants at the editor’s conference in Istanbul made frequent mention of the hundreds of Arab journalism students who get their diplomas each year. They have grown up in an age of internet and satellite dishes; they won’t be silenced.