What the Arab World Should be Watching
by: Nabil Echchaibi / Indiana University
I still cherish the memory of my old shortwave radio tucked underneath my bed when I was in Morocco. I rejoiced over the crackling sound of the Big Ben announcing the latest news bulletin of the BBC in Arabic and relished every news report on Radio France Internationale. If you want foreign news, tune in to Moroccan media; if you want news on Morocco, tune in to foreign media, Moroccans often joked.
These were the pre-Al-Jazeera times when the only international broadcasters had a welcome base in major Western media institutions. Today, the popularity of these once vital news sources is receding dramatically as more regional news operations in the Arab world are reclaiming their own audiences with vengeance. The BBC’s commanding influence in the region in the 1980s and early 1990s has plummeted to a meager 10 percent so much so that the Foreign Office of the British Parliament has asked the BBC to start a news channel in Arabic based in the Middle East. It is still early to determine how such a venture will fare, but one thing is certain: the international news broadcasting war is underway in the Arab world, and it does not bode well for the sanctity of news balance.
This news saga began when Al-Jazeera, a satellite news network in Qatar, best known in the West for airing the controversial tapes of Osama bin Laden, became isolated as an example of dangerous and inflammatory reporting in the aftermath of September 11. The tiny news operation, however, has been hailed in the Arab world since its inception in 1996 for its critical and innovative reporting on social, economic and cultural issues, which other Arab national and satellite media working under tight state control had never dared to cover.
Here is yet another example, so we are told, of a transparent clash of cultures that only reinforces the widely propagated idea that cultural differences between the West and the East are primordial and irreconcilable. Journalistic cultures and differing perspectives of what constitutes news are used symptomatically to draw our attention to a much bigger problem. Consider these sporadic headlines on Al-Jazeera before September 11: “Glasnost In the Gulf”; “Al-Jazeera: CNN Of the Arab World”; “Al-Jazeera TV Leads the New Arab Free Press.” Now compare those with these recent headlines: “Bush’s New War Room”; “News or Propaganda? Courting Controversy”; “What the Muslim world is Watching.”
When Al-Jazeera became international headline news, its popularity was restricted to post September 11 coverage in which the station was pitted against American media and the ideals of Western objective journalism. The controversy about Al-Jazeera should be examined as a result of differing political perspectives and not as an extension of an essentialist conflict of cultures as many critics have so readily concluded. Fouad Ajami, director of the program in Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a frequently consulted source on Arab affairs on American media, is convinced Al-Jazeera has a political and religious agenda that is far from being innocuous. The station’s reporters, he complains, are “a fiercely opinionated group, most are pan-Arabists-nationalists of a leftist bend committed to the idea of a single nation across the many frontiers of the Arab world–or Islamists who draw their inspiration from the primacy of the Muslim faith in political life.” In a 6,000-word article in the New York Times titled: “What the Muslim World Is Watching,” the longest article to have appeared in the newspaper on Al-Jazeera and the most frequently cited as well, Ajami seems to be sounding the drums of doom, granting Al-Jazeera more credit than what it really deserves and using a sensational headline to compound the impact of the station that is limited to only Arabic-speaking viewers. The world Muslim population today is about 1 billion, 200 million, of which Arabs account only for 250 million.
While Al-Jazeera is not a perfect news channel–it is not clear whether such a thing exists or might exist–it has provided a much needed alternative to bland political reporting by state-controlled channels that are notorious among Arabs for their government twaddle and their detached and staid reporting style. Even a channel such as MBC, a satellite network owned by the brother-in-law of the king of Saudi Arabia and on the air since 1989, has failed to offer quality news programming critical of political regimes and popular culture. MBC has recently started a 24-news network to compete with Al-Jazeera, but its ownership already undermines the editorial independence of its reporters. In 1996, Al-Jazeera sprung up out of an aborted deal between the Saudi-owned channel Orbit and the Arabic service of the BBC. Most of Al-Jazeera’s reporters were working for the BBC, and many of them have been trained in England or the United States.
In fact, Al-Jazeera’s news style resembles that of any U.S. news network, including CNN and Fox News. One of its most popular news talk shows, Opposite Direction, is modeled after CNN’s Crossfire where guests with extremely opposite views engage in a heated and sometimes deafening discussion on such issues as religious extremism, polygamy, freedom of expression, women’s rights, Arab politics, Palestinian-Israeli conflict: all taboos on regular Arab television. Critics of Al-Jazeera charge that such programs are used by the station to inflame passions and galvanize anti-American and anti-semitic sentiments, already manifest in the “Arab Street.” While the charge is highly questionable as Al-Jazeera is only reflecting existing realities within the Arab world that are often understood outside of a larger context. The same can be said about some programs on American radio and television that feature guests with disparaging and highly controversial comments, which may or may not reflect the opinions of their audiences. If blame has to be assigned anywhere, then it should be directed at the demented world of 24-hour news networks that feeds on lurid coverage of news and issues to secure profits. Al-Jazeera is just another example of this trend, except that since 1996, the station has been swimming in uncharted waters in the Arab world with no real competition to put pressure on its performance.
Pressure has been coming rather from Arab governments dissatisfied with the station giving voice to political dissidents and digging for social problems. Many of these governments have either closed the Al-Jazeera bureau in their capitals or, as in the case of some Gulf countries, instructed their companies not to use Al-Jazeera for their advertising needs. When the United States joins this list, it puts itself in an incriminating position, which some Arabs might interpret as double standard politics, an already well-established view in the Middle East.
If the Arab world is to modernize and free itself from the social and cultural stagnation it has been mired in, then it needs more channels like, or better than Al-Jazeera. Arabs need to feel there is a public forum for the expression of their views, both extreme and moderate. Demonizing, instead of constructively criticizing, the only attempt to do so, particularly at this important historical juncture, will prove dangerous and counter productive. The recent satellite news explosion in the region is nothing but a deafening cacophony and an all too familiar story. The Saudi Al-Arabiyya and Al-Ekhbariya, the Emirati Abu-Dhabi Television, and the Lebanese Al-Hayat remain constrained by their direct state ownership and editorial control. The U.S. government has joined the melee recently by launching a multi-million dollar news network of which the name, Al-Hurra (‘The Free One’), reveals much about its expected performance in the region.
The old days of shortwave radio, as liberating as they were, are decidedly over, but would the television news alternative from the Arab world prove as vindicating of the old official line which seems to be hiding behind the sleek garb of technology? Al-Jazeera needs a real competitor so it never loses sight of its original mission to expose the other opinion.
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