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Arab Media: Not Quite Utopia

Sitting, as I do, in that strange no-man’s-land between journalism and academia, I am frequently struck by the gap separating theory and reality. That’s true when it comes to Middle East politics—it was, after all, neat theories of democratization disconnected from regional realities that led to Iraq's current woes—and it’s also true of media studies.

I’ve been reading a lot in the academic journals lately about the emergence of a “global ethic” of journalism and a common “journalistic ideology.” Many of these articles are written by Western academics safely ensconced in the ivory towers of North America and Europe and peppered with unyielding dictates: Journalists “should” do this, they “must” do that, they are “required” to act in a certain way. Such prescriptions for a "new" journalism are thick with "paradigms," "hierarchies" and "models," often drenched in a sauce of cultural imperialism and heavily spiced with Orientalism.(1)

A few go so far as to envision a media Utopia in which the borderless footprint of television is populated by a new breed of borderless journalists who report not through the prism of their own cultural worldview, but rather affect a “cosmopolitan attitude.” One of my favorites demands that journalists subscribe to a set of three “imperatives,” to whit: “to act as a global agent, to serve world citizens, and to enhance nonparochial understandings.”(2)

One can but wonder if the authors of such pie-in-the-sky manifestos have read a newspaper or watched a TV news broadcast lately, much less spoken to a journalist. They certainly haven’t attended any of the recent media gatherings in the Middle East.

The question of the role of journalism is at the top of the agenda in the Arab world these days. It dominated discussion at both December’s Arab Thought Foundation "Arab and Media World Conference" in Dubai and at the rival Al Jazeera Forum in Doha the following month.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa unwittingly touched the raw nerve at the heart of this debate in his opening comments in Dubai, declaring that journalists "must be respectful and truthful."

The comment raised eyebrows among Western and Arab journalists alike and discussion in the hallways quickly turned to definitions of "respect" and "truth"—and where the balance between them lies. As Peter David, foreign editor of The Economist, noted during a panel shortly after Moussa's speech, for many reporters, truth must come before any consideration of respect. The Danish cartoon controversy, which broke during the Al Jazeera conference, demonstrated that not everyone in the profession agrees.

The evolving role of reporters in the region was underlined by the comments of ATF Chairman Prince Khaled al Faisal, the founder of the reformist Al Watan newspaper, who bankrolled the Dubai gathering. "The media is a dangerous weapon, no less than the weapons of war if it is misused," he said, referring to post-9/11 Western coverage of the Arab world, "and we ourselves are among those who have been targeted and affected by its fire." But Khaled, governor of Saudi Arabia's Assir Province and son of the late King Faisal, was also critical in a more unexpected way. "The media's first mission is truth and they sometimes hide the truth," switching from "a tool for revealing truth to covering up reality."

There is an old Arab saying, "Truth should be known, but not declared." Today, cover-ups remain a fact of life in the Middle East. As Jamil Mroue, publisher of Beirut's Daily Star told the Dubai gathering, the media continue to serve as "tools" of political structures in which "control is the name of the game."

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

A critical, independent media is generally considered an essential building-block for democracy. Why then, I asked Prince Khaled's son, Prince Bandar bin Khaled al Faisal, would a members of a feudal regime spend a reported $5 million to bring in journalists from around the world for a free-for-all debate about the role of the media? "Journalism is a part of change," said Bandar, the ATF president and chairman of Al Watan's board. "And this conference is an effort to say, 'Okay, maybe we should expedite the process a little bit because we really do have a lot to lose.'"

While they debated definitions and struggled with the question of their ultimate role in a changing Middle East, there was little suggestion from Arab media representatives at either conference that they were anything but Arab journalists. No pretense to global citizenship here; they are Arabs first and foremost, proudly reporting from an Arab perspective for an Arab audience.

Satellite television may, in some sense, be blurring national borders within the Middle East, even altering notions of identity. But psychological boundaries still exist, they have just shifted among the public and in the newsroom. The essential line that divides the Arab world from the West—politically and journalistically—remains firmly in place.

That was vividly apparent in Doha. While the Dubai gathering included breakout sessions on individual Arab countries, which provided some interesting—as well as some very politically-correct—insights into the state of media and politics in the region, the Al Jazeera forum quickly became a venue for Western-media bashing, with speaker after speaker decrying the biased and "controlled" nature of the Western, and particularly American, media.

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," said Palestinian author and intellectual Mounir Shafik, voicing a common view. The overweening message: It is the Arab media that deserves to be emulated.

It wasn't until well into the second day of the conference, when Assafir Editor-in-Chief Joseph Samaha paid tribute to slain An Nahar Publisher Gibran Tueni, that the audience heard the first indication from the dais that all might not be roses and light in the Arab media. Even then, there was no mention of the scores of Arab journalists imprisoned, intimidated or murdered (Atwan Article). As this writer pointed out on a later panel, it would have been easy for those attendees new to the Arab world to think the region was a bastion of media independence. Such a misleading presentation is itself an insult to those brave Arab and Iranian reporters risking their lives daily.

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 onto a Western framework.

Arab journalists are struggling with some of the same issues as their Western counterparts. In Dubai, Saudi editor Othman Al-Sini 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.

Which, of course, brings us to Al Jazeera International (AJI), the much-discussed and long-delayed English-language sister to the channel that the Bush administration has portrayed as the font of all evil (see Issander El Amrani's article on Al Jazeera International in this issue). With reporters drawn from more than 30 countries and a rolling broadcast day anchored from Washington, London, Doha and Kuala Lumpur, AJI could begin to represent the kind of borderless journalism some media theorists advocate. AJI Managing Director Nigel Parsons has said the channel will offer a "global perspective" with reporting that provides "all sides of the story."(3) From the standpoint of many Arab journalists, this is exactly the problem.

"We might as well buy a new channel in the US," Mahmud Shammam, the Washington, DC bureau chief for Newsweek's Arabic edition, said at the Al Jazeera forum, to a roar of applause. Al Jazeera International “will not have Arabic characteristics and that's a big challenge." The session quickly degenerated into a forum for disgruntled Al Jazeera staffers to voice their suspicions, sometimes bordering on disdain, for the new English-language service. Chief among the complaints is a widespread perception that AJI's Western management has, ironically, discriminated against Arabs in its hiring, and a worry that it will, as one staffer told me, betray the ideals for which so many have sacrificed.

Al Jazeera the mother ship wears its Arab identity on its sleeve. Its original mission statement defines it is an "Arab media service with a global orientation." Likewise, the mission statement of rival Al Arabiya makes clear its self-view is also firmly embedded in the Middle East, declaring that it is "an Arabic station, from the Arabs to the Arabs, delivering content that is relevant to the Arabs." It further vows "to remain true to the voice of the Arab world, to the world, on a Regional and International level."

That issue of Arab identity, sources say, was at least in part behind the late March elevation of Al Jazeera Managing Director Wadah Khanfar to the post of director-general for the new umbrella structure that oversees the rapidly expanding family of Al Jazeera stations. The move means that the British Parsons and his British, Australian, New Zealand and American managers ultimately report to Khanfar. At the same time, AJI began a flurry of announcements about the hiring of Arab on-air talent. Word is that Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, the Qatari royal in charge of Al Jazeera’s growing family of channels (which now includes sports, children’s, and documentary channels), objected to Parsons' emphasis on the global over the Arab. Parsons is now talking more about "Arab" perspectives. Borderless journalism may have to wait.

Standing in the Al Jazeera newsroom not long ago, I asked anchor Mohamed Krichen how he saw himself. "I am an Arab, Muslim journalist," he replied, with pride in his voice.

Cultural psychologists tell us that culture is inherently part of the person. Despite rumors to the contrary, reporters are people, too.

Media theorists, take note.

Lawrence Pintak is publisher and senior editor of TBS Journal and director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo. His latest book is Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas.


1. See for example, Reese, Stephen D. (2001). “Understanding the Global Journalist: a hierarchy-of-influences approach,” Journalism Studies 2(2), pp. 173-187 and Roberto Herrscher (2002). “A Universal Code of Journalism Ethics: Problems, Limitations, and Proposals,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 17(4), pp. 277-289. 

2. Ward, Stephen J.A. (2005). “Philosophical Foundations for Global Journalism Ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 20(1), pp. 3-21.

3. Nigel Parsons Interview (2005). Perspective, Radio National Australia. Aug. 18.

About Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak is a journalist-scholar who has written about, and reported from, the Muslim world for the past 25 years. He has lived both in the Arab world, where he served as CBS News Middle East correspondent, and Indonesia. Pintak is the author of Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad (Pluto 2003). He served as director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo and senior editor of TBS.

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