Arab media crisis
Four years after the region’s democratic uprisings, the Arab media are still beset by troubles, writes Salah Nasrawi
Until a few weeks ago the Qatar-based TV channel Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr was beaming anti-Egypt programmes, including labelling president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi the leader of a military coup that toppled former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi who was supported by the gas-rich Gulf emirate.
However, on 22 December the network announced that it was closing down the service, which was launched to provide live coverage of Egypt after the uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The channel would “stop broadcasting temporarily until suitable circumstances in Cairo; that is, after obtaining the necessary permits in coordination with the Egyptian authorities,” a statement read by a newsreader said before the screen went blank.
Qatar was seemingly bowing to pressure by Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s other allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) who have demanded an end to Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera’s anti-Al-Sisi broadcasts. Most Arab media have historically been under government supervision and control, but the closure of the Al-Jazeera affiliate has showed that some can hardly be described as independent.
The democratic uprisings in 2011, which further divided the Arab world, also increased polarisation in the media. From civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen to transitions in the rest of the Arab countries it has been an extraordinary four years in the Arab media. Across the Arab world journalists are now paying the price for the political and social turmoil. The number of journalists who have lost their jobs or been intimidated or imprisoned has been staggering.
Dozens of anchors, newscasters and journalists have lost their jobs in the Arab media in recent years, caught up in rows over editorial interference. Souhair Al-Qaisi, an Iraqi anchor on the pan-Arab channel Al-Arabia, quit her job in November in protest over the channel’s coverage, for example. She wrote on her Facebook page that she was leaving her programme The Fourth Bulletin because the network’s editorial policy towards Iraq and its war with Islamic State (IS) terrorists was “unfair.”
“As a proud Iraqi and Arab, I have to stand with my beloved Iraq which is suffering the crimes of these merciless gangs,” she wrote.
Some journalists who have left their jobs have found work later elsewhere, or have been transferred to other posts, like Al-Qaisi who was moved to MBC, a mainly entertainment channel of the Saudi-owned network. Others have not been so lucky and have been keeping up an aggressive job search.
The Arab media, long suffering from low ratings in world standards, are now in deep crisis because of decades of state control, government interference, censorship, and weak professional standards. Private investment in recent years has not added much value to media performance due to structural problems and the absence of media independence and freedom.
The Arab Spring, which raised hopes and aspirations for democracy, underpinned the vital role of the media in political reform and social change in stagnant regimes. Although expectations were high that the series of revolutions that toppled various autocratic regimes would bring more freedom to Arab journalists, the democratic setbacks that followed have adversely impacted the media.
Pessimists are now saying that the freedom of the media in the Arab world is in retreat. They note that Arab state-owned, or controlled, media, which have for decades been tools designed to “guide” the public or “shield” them from bad news, are now back in business, abandoning their role of news gathering, reporting and analysis. Through targeting mainstream audiences many governments are finding effective ways to use the state-run media to help themselves stay in power.
Independent and privately owned media, the fruits of decades of struggle by Arab journalists and activists, are becoming so polarised around ideological, religious, sectarian or business agendas that they have been contributing to the chaos. Though expectations were once high that they would help to provide audiences with a variety of choices, the independent media have often turned into instruments depriving them of alternative points of view.
The maintenance of government hegemony and the polarisation of the private-sector media have impeded the badly needed restructuring of the media sector and hampered the transition towards liberal democracy. Various assessments of the post-uprisings Arab media indicate that there is a dire need for overhauling the constitutional and legal framework that governs the media and the access to information and media freedoms to make them more consistent with international standards.
Reforms should enshrine the principles of media pluralism and diversity, including financing and ownership transparency, critics say.
Media in crisis: The problems of the media are abundant across the Arab world. Egyptian journalists who enjoyed a short period of press freedom after the 25 January Revolution are now reverting to the self-censorship they practiced under Mubarak’s rule, for example.
While journalists in the state-owned media are facing tightening limitations, their colleagues in the privately owned media face strict editorial policies by their owners and editors. In November, hundreds of journalists objected to a pledge by newspaper editors to refrain from publishing reports critical of the government. The pledge imposes near-blind support to the state in its publications. Dismissals, banning from work and even arrests are becoming increasingly common.
In Iraq, the Iraqi Media Network, set up after the ouster of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003 to function as a public-service broadcaster modelled on the BBC, has turned into a government mouthpiece. A boom in new privately owned outlets has also failed to provide diversity, and these are instead being used to reflect sectarianism and help fuel divisions. Some 200 journalists and media workers have been killed in Iraq over the last 12 years.
In Libya, an explosion in the number of television as well as radio and print outlets has been testimony to demands for information and self-expression after decades of the rule of former Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi. Yet, the new unrestricted media landscape has often increased the political and ideological distance between communities, making them more divided.
Tunisia is a more hopeful example. The Tunisian media, once restricted to those who supported the authoritarian regime of former president Zein Al-Abdine Ben Ali, have rapidly expanded since his fall in January 2011 as restrictions on media ownership were removed and the old regime’s system of filtering disappeared. Since 2011, the country’s public media abandoned its former red lines and new vibrant print and broadcasting outlets emerged. However, Tunisia’s media must wait for the country to pass the test of the transition to democracy to see if they stand on solid ground.
Criticism also abounds of pan-Arab outlets backed or owned by government funds or wealthy Gulf families such as the Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia channels for their failure to produce accurate and balanced news content. Once these channels were heralded as vehicles for a freer Arab media and instruments for political change, but today they are often seen as platforms for a tense form of rhetoric that could increase divisions among the Arabs.
A large part of the Arab media’s problems is structural. Years of state ownership and government control have crippled the media, and laws and regulatory measures, and even authoritarian tendencies in the media itself, have had a negative impact on the work of Arab journalists. While governments vary in their regulation and control of the media, the owners of most private Arab media are entrepreneurs who have political ambitions and use their outlets to promote agendas or as conduits for lucrative business.
One reason for the chaos has been that the Arab media have few democratic traditions or intuitions. While an independent media is essential to democracy in society, democracy inside the media itself is also the key to ensuring editorial independence. On all levels, from owners and managers down to editors and journalists, the Arab mainstream media are lacking in democratic traditions.
Another key problem in the Arab media has been the absence of diversity. The Arab mainstream media generally fail to reflect political and social diversity in the communities they serve and target. The majority of the mainstream media lack innovative approaches to the challenges of the region. The Arab media do not embrace the diversity of their countries’ cultures in their programming, and most of them see the Arab world as a place where non-Sunni Muslims and non-Arabs only appear rarely in the audience.
The malaise of the Arab media, however, goes beyond politics. It reflects a growing crisis of professionalism and a lack of ethical standards that media-related institutions have failed to address over many decades. Closer attention should be paid to bring about democratic changes in the media’s structure, ownership and regulations. There is a growing demand for training on the principles of professional journalism and universal ethical standards.
If anything good can be said to have come during these difficult years it has been the social networks that have kept up an elevated level of information dissemination to make up for the limits of the mainstream media. Fast-growing and aggressive new media have been opening new horizons for citizen journalism with more people now encouraged to act as whistleblowers and inform on local wrongdoing. Comments on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and by email and text are now forming a large segment of Arab public opinion.
The other piece of good news is that the Arab media still exercise influence despite all the hurdles and restrictions. They may not be the fourth estate that many would have liked to see, but neither do they seem to have lost their ability to influence politics and events.
During a visit to Egypt in October, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir lamented that Arab governments now had a limited ability to muzzle the media, for example. “People used to follow the religion of their kings,” he said, quoting from an old Arab saying. “Now they follow that of their media.”