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The State of Arab Journalism

Abdalla Hassan writes:

When it comes to press freedoms, Arab states rank among the worst in the world, according to the 2009 Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders. Kuwait and Lebanon have the broadest press freedoms in the Arab world, coming in at 60 and 61 respectively, out of 175 countries surveyed. Egypt (143), Iraq (145), Sudan (148), Tunisia (154), Libya (156), and Saudi Arabia (163) rank near the bottom.

Manar Rachwani, a Syrian journalist who was managing editor at the Jordanian daily al-Ghad and op-ed editor at the Qatari daily al-Arab, discussed these ratings and tackled the pitfalls of quality journalism in the Arab world in a seminar sponsored by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The Western promotion of democracy in the Arab world for a time, says Rachwani, changed the focus of discussion toward political reform and opened up a wider space for debate. "Since 2001 when the West started talking about political reform as a tool to change the situation in the Middle East and a tool in the war against terrorism, we saw many changes in the Middle East. It was the first time to see articles in Syria talking about change and political reform, not only economic reform," he describes. But when the Arab countries no longer feared imminent invasion, they altered course.

At the same time, wider access to the Internet has made it difficult to censor the truth, he contends, which may inevitably enhance press freedoms in the Middle East. This was the case, he says, when Jordan's government initially covered up reports of its intelligence collaboration with the CIA when in December 2009 a Jordanian suicide bomber and double agent killed seven CIA agents and a Jordanian intelligence officer at a U.S. base in Afghanistan. The international press widely reported the incident and Jordan's involvement in the espionage drama. Still, Rachwani maintains, "Some stories cannot be published in the Arab press, even if they are found in the foreign press."

Government officials order news blackouts on controversial issues and compliant editors generally practice self-censorship. "The personality of the editor-in-chief plays a critical role," adds Rachwani.

There are other ways to keep the Arab press in check. "You cannot criticize the army. You cannot mention the mukhabarat, even in a positive way. They do not exist," says Rachwani. Red lines are constantly shifting though, and those who do not curry favor with the regime will find themselves prevented from leaving the country, as in Syria, for example.

Often journalists do not publish stories for fear of the intelligence agencies or to accrue some form of benefit, says Rachwani. Perks to journalists, from free dinners to vacations, serve to foster a docile press through a policy of "soft containment," he adds. It may involve being given an additional salary, scholarships, or exclusive access to influential politicians.

He asserts that the careers of some journalists were made by the intelligence services. And to maintain the credibility of journalists with close ties to the mukhabarat, they would allow them some room to criticize government policy. "I am sure and I know by names that some people were created by the intelligence—by mukhabarat," describes Rachwani. "After building this reputation, you start defending the government, but from time to time we [the government] will give you the opportunity to criticize us because we want this credibility."

In the Arab media, discussion of foreign—not local—news often leads the headlines. This is meant to divert attention away from national problems, contends Rachwani. Arab governments want to focus attention outside the domestic sphere, thus encouraging debate of the Arab–Israeli conflict, for instance.

For two years Rachwani lived in Qatar and worked for the daily al-Arab. "When we went to Qatar," he recalls, "we felt that we would find something like Al Jazeera when we are talking about the local media, but we discovered something completely different." Reporting on Qatari affairs came with significant restrictions.

Starting up in 1996, Qatar's Al Jazeera emerged as a groundbreaking 24-hour Arab news channel offering political and social coverage where opposition and government figures were offered a forum to express their viewpoints. Saudi Arabia's response to Al Jazeera came in 2003 with Al Arabiya news channel.

"I still remember when the war against the Gaza strip started in 2008–2009. The first day I thought Egypt was attacking the Gaza Strip, not Israel. Seriously," says Rachwani. Al Jazeera was highly critical of Egypt's response to the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

"No one can deny that Al Jazeera changed the whole situation in the Middle East," says Rachwani. While Al Jazeera remains by far the most widely watched news channel for the Arab public, Rachwani says that the content of the first 24-hour Arab news channel news is shaped by Qatar's relations with other Arab states. Al Jazeera softens its editorial line, asserts Rachwani, when compelled to do so by the emirate’s rulers.

One example can be seen in the network's reporting on allegations of corruption and kickbacks in the so-called Yamamah arms deal with Britain's security and aerospace company BAE Systems. The scandal, which involved Saudi royal Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was the subject of daily reports on Al Jazeera but scarcely recieved mention in the Saudi press.

In December 2006 the British government took the controversial decision to drop its investigation over fears of losing future contracts and political influence with Saudi Arabia. And with a publicized rapprochement between the Qatari and Saudi leaders later that year, Al Jazeera was invited to cover the Hajj pilgrimage and subsequently became less agressive in pursuing sensitive news about the Saudi kingdom.

Still, there are limits the Qatari interference since it is important to maintain Al Jazeera's image of news integrity, says Rachwani. "They will not intervene to destroy this reputation."

Rachwani argues that the press across the Arab world is having a marginal effect on changing policies in Arab states, but that change is occurring much too slowly. "We don't have the luxury to wait ten years," he says.