Is Arab Media Truly Free?

The fact is that Arab media is largely political, with political, religious, nationalistic, even tribal leanings, affiliations, and priorities.

On Feb. 12, 2008, Arab League information ministers issued a communiqué 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 ensued, led by those who felt targeted by the new policy, and joined by various rights organizations. 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 fulfill 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 Web site 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 American administrations have supposedly advocated.

What is painted to look like a classic conflict between corrupt governments and their fed-up constituencies, the former laboring to gag the latter's freedom of expression, is a lot more convoluted. It is not that the corrupt elites are not indeed laboring 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 that came to define Arab media in the first place. But who has decided that Arab satellite stations—or other pan Arab media—represent the interests of Arab masses, or have improved in any measurable way the welfare of Arab people, especially the poorer, discounted classes?

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.

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 among Arab masses from the gulf to the ocean and beyond. Media technology has advanced immensely since then. 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 because, 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 endeavors 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 represents 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 United States 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 homegrown 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 is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London). See www.ramzybaroud.net.

This article from Middle East Online is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.