Rewriting the rules of journalism

There is a revolution under way in the Arab world. It is a revolution that is fundamentally changing the prism through which Arabs see events around the world and in their own back yard.

A revolution that is reshaping the way ordinary people view their leaders and the way their leaders interact with them.

This is, at heart, a media revolution and no one is being more affected than journalists themselves. The question of the role of journalism is today at the top of the agenda in the Arab world.

With the levers of media control, and the power to shape perceptions, slowly, very slowly, beginning to shift away from governments, Arab journalists are being buffeted by an array of competing forces as they attempt to redefine themselves and their profession.

Profession. That word alone epitomises the sea-change under way in a region where reporters have too often served as apologists for dictators and autocrats or sold their souls for an envelope of cash.

Most Arab journalists remain subject to pressures that range from subtle political “guidance” to threats of imprisonment and death, as the assassinations and attempted assassinations of journalists in Lebanon so vividly demonstrate.

Yet as I travel the Arab world these days, I am struck by the new-found sense of professional purpose among Arab journalists.

Exciting mission

I am part of a generation of American reporters who flocked to journalism schools in the early 1970s. Vietnam and Watergate inspired us to believe that we could change the world.

That same sense of excitement can be found today among aspiring young Arab journalists.

One of my students at The American University in Cairo, explaining why she wanted to report for the Arab satellite channels, wrote: “I can’t criticise from within my country, but journalism allows me to criticise from outside and begin to make things different.”

Even many of the greybeards of Arab journalism have a new view of themselves and their mission.

Hassan Amer, a long-time reporter for Egypt’s official press helped found an independent newspaper called al-Fajr (The Dawn), to signify that a new day has arrived.

He said: “We can’t say the government changed the media, we changed the media. We face pressures but enjoy a lot of freedom now. Even in the national newspapers, there is a lot of change taking place.”

Al Jazeera revolution

Since the end of World War II, government control had been the hallmark of media in Arab countries.

Newspapers toed the government line or were shut down. Journalists who strayed were jailed, or worse.

Some newspapers, particularly those in Beirut and among the London-based pan-Arab media, pushed at the boundaries, but television, and much of the print media, remained firmly in government hands.

Muhammed Ayish, chair of the college of mass communication at the University of Sharjah, said, before the arrival of Al Jazeera: “The concept of television journalism, as a set of distinctive professional values and practices, was virtually nonexistent in Arab world television.”

The images of Al Jazeera reporters challenging governments, questioning Arab leaders, interviewing exiled opposition leaders, giving airtime to Israeli officials such as Ariel Sharon, and bringing to the television screen images long hidden, created an atmosphere in which other Arab journalists began re-examining their profession and its mission.

There was a new sense of the possible. But it was not just possible, it was happening right there on the television screen. Maybe they could do it, too.
Not only has Al Jazeera changed the structures of Middle East television, spawning semi-independent television ventures across the region, it has also inspired print journalists, and even those employed by government-owned television channels, to push the boundaries of government control.

Giselle Khouri, a well-known host on Al Jazeera’s news rival, the Dubai-based Al Arabiya, said: “Al Jazeera Channel raised the political limits high. It was able to talk about many taboos already present in the Arab world. This great success made other Arab channels think seriously that there should be another Arab voice in the news channels.”

Satellite shake-up
In an extensive survey of Arab journalists a colleague and I carried out this year, broadcast and print reporters alike were nearly unanimous in concluding that satellite television has had a “very significant” impact on journalism in the Arab world.

Even at government-controlled media outlets, there is a new sense of hope that decades spent serving as the mouthpiece for government policy may be coming to an end.

Organisations such as Egypt’s state-controlled television station are hiring independent journalists from outside their own bureaucracy to shake things up.

This “Al Jazeera effect” has profound implications for the region, a fact that has not escaped those in power.

In the words of Prince Bandar bin Khaled Al Faisal, chairman of the Arab Thought Foundation: “Journalism is part of change.”  

US influence
As they seek to redefine themselves, Arab journalists are developing the framework for a new journalistic mission.

This mission, as our survey found, combines a quest for objectivity with a view of themselves as agents of change and defenders of the Arab homeland. It is a view very much in keeping with Al Jazeera’s own philosophy.

It is also a mission that is at the root of Western criticism of Al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets. The Bush administration and others claim that Arab journalists are “biased” as they take a tough new approach to covering the region.

This nascent independence is an integral part of the democratic change Washington has been demanding in the region.

Yet the Bush administration refused to invite the Emir of Qatar to a G-9 summit on democracy in the Arab world as punishment for failing to “control” Al Jazeera, an irony not lost on democracy advocates in the Arab world.
In many cases, Arab media have been willing to show the kind of disturbing scenes rarely glimpsed on US television, which is precisely what angers their Western critics.

What many Western policymakers, columnists and researchers fail to understand is that Arab journalists are defining their own set of standards and practices, not re-creating themselves in the image of what has proven to be a deeply flawed Western, and particularly American, media model.

Mounir Shafik, a Palestinian author and intellectual, said at the 2006 Al Jazeera Forum: “[Western media] has always bragged when comparing itself to the Russian media but … it should stop comparing itself with the Soviet Union and start comparing itself with us.”

Dangerous world

Yet the grim reality is that the aggressive journalism of Al Jazeera and a handful of other Arab media outlets remain the bright lights on an otherwise gloomy media landscape where journalists live under constant threat.

Al Jazeera’s own reporters, producers and camera crews have been attacked, harassed, threatened, arrested and killed not only by US and Israeli forces, but also in Arab nations as disparate as Egypt, Yemen, and Iraq, too often at the hands of their own governments.

Anwar Gargash, a political science professor at United Arab Emirates University, said: “The Arab media is still very much state-owned and state-controlled. The way forward is to break the chains of the media.”

Everywhere the rules are in flux, everywhere reporters struggle to maintain their equilibrium on constantly shifting sands.

In Egypt, the elections last year resulted in a slight loosening of the reigns on media, but numerous journalists, including Al Jazeera’s correspondent, have been attacked and beaten and a much-heralded media reform law still contains provisions to jail journalists for being too critical.

In Iraq, the deadliest place in the world for reporters, journalists are killed for being perceived as too close to the government, too close to the resistance or too close to particular political parties.

Saudi Arabia’s Al Watan has gone through four editors in recent years as news executives have tried to interpret conflicting signals from the House of Saud.

Jordan has emphasised its media reform efforts, but scores of laws remain on the books that can send reporters to jail.

At the other end of the Middle East, the media operate under strictures less visceral than in the Levant, but equally real. The editor-in-chief of Gulf News complained: “Our press is infected with the self-censorship virus.” 

But life at the cutting edge of media independence can be dangerous, as the steadily mounting toll of fallen journalists and free-media advocates reminds us.

Arab influence

In a twisted kind of way, the attacks on Arab reporters are a compliment to the growing influence of Arab journalism.

Governments, and the forces they protect, want the television screen to go black, the front page to be sanitised, to hide from the public the brutal images and harsh realities a free media is able to spotlight.

Lebanon, once more engulfed in violence, has always been the region’s media Tower of Babel.

Its highly ideological press, often bought and paid for, represent a range of Middle East governments and political movements. That is still true.

What has changed is the way reporters look at themselves and each other. The popular uprising against Syrian occupation, made possible in part by the 24-hour live coverage of Al Jazeera and other channels, produced a new sense of journalistic mission.

As has the Israeli assault on Beirut this year, in which reporters were attacked and transmission towers bombed as they covered the carnage.

Reporters in Lebanon and elsewhere still come from a variety of religious, political and national backgrounds, but, to some extent, journalism itself is emerging as a new ideology.

A young reporter with the traditionally pro-Syrian newspaper as-Safir, which is re-evaluating its own mission following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, said: “We feel we can no longer just represent some, we must represent all.” 
But even the many who acknowledge the sad state of media freedom in the Middle East understandably have little time for lectures about universal journalistic mores, implicitly grafted on to a Western framework.

Arab journalists are struggling with some of the same issues as their Western counterparts.

Othman Al-Sini, editor of Al Watan, put his finger on the essential question being asked in many newsrooms: “I wonder if media should be change makers or reporters of change?”

But that does not mean Arab journalists are ready to, or should, shed their Arab identity in exchange for some plain-vanilla ideology of global journalism as some well-meaning Western journalists and academics believe. 

As they debate definitions and struggle with the question of their ultimate role in a changing Middle East, there is little suggestion from Arab journalists that they are, or should be, anything but Arab journalists.

No pretence to global citizenship here; they are Arabs first and foremost, proudly reporting from an Arab perspective for an Arab audience.

Change under way

Standing in the Al Jazeera newsroom one afternoon, I asked anchor Muhammad Krichane how he sees himself.

He replied, with pride in his voice: “I am an Arab, Muslim journalist.” It is a pride that increasing numbers of reporters across the region are coming to share.

Still, the challenges to Arab journalism remain formidable.

As the assassinated columnist Samir Kassir put it exactly a year before his death: “Thanks to a handful of journalists, we have indeed re-conquered our freedom of opinion and expression, if not yet fully our freedom of information.”

In the weeks before his assassination, Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, was called in by Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president. He was ordered either to force An Nahar, Lebanon’s most respected mainstream daily, to end its criticism of the Damascus regime or sell his 20 per cent stake in the company.

In Jordan meanwhile, media reform is being trumpeted as a harbinger of greater political reform.

A panel discussion about media liberalisation organised by the Jordanian government at an international conference in Amman turned into a free-for-all as Jordanian journalists mocked the government’s decision to scrap the ministry of information and repeal a key press law.

One reporter shouted at Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s former deputy prime minister: “You eliminated one law but there are 22 others on the books that can send us to prison.”

Yet that the event, broadcast on Jordanian TV, even took place was itself an indication of the dramatic changes under way.

Lawrence Pintak is director of the Adham Centre for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo, and publisher and co-editor of the journal Arab Media & Society. His latest book is America, Islam & the War of Ideas: Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens.

Source : Al Jazeera

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