CAIRO — In the explosion that killed An Nahar publisher Gebran Tueni in Beirut Monday could be heard the echoes of a new battle being waged in the Middle East. It is a conflict that pits the old guard of Arab politics against the young Turks of the Arab media.
Tueni’s assassination is a twisted testament to the growing influence of Arab journalism — just as the anti-Syrian backlash it has set off underscores the fact that Arab regimes can no longer dictate how events will be perceived.
Two decades ago, when the largely state-controlled media of the Arab world was still cowed and compliant, the murder of a reporter would elicit fear and silence. Today, it is greeted with anger, outrage and a renewed commitment to media independence.
An outspoken opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, Tueni knew he was at the top of a hit list. He was blown apart by a remote-controlled car bomb less than 24 hours after returning from self-imposed exile in Paris, the latest victim of a panicky rearguard action on the part of old-style dictatorships against a new power that knows no borders — the media.
Within minutes of the blast, Arab satellite channels across the ideological spectrum were filled with denunciations of the murder and of the Syrian regime presumed to be responsible.
Tueni was part of a new generation of Arab journalists who are rewriting the rules — and paying the price. Two months ago, a popular anti-Syrian talk show host, May Chidiac, lost an arm and a leg when a bomb blew up in her car. A few months before that, An Nahar columnist Samir Kassim, another outspoken opponent of the Syrian regime, died in a similar explosion.
“Everybody in this house is scared stiff,” Gebran’s father, An Nahar editor-in-chief Ghassan Tueni, the symbol of Lebanese media independence, told me in October as we sat in the paper’s glistening new headquarters in Beirut’s rebuilt port. “The more you grow, the more you become vulnerable.”
Make no mistake; this is a battle for power between governments that have long controlled the message and a budding profession that is suddenly beginning to write its own script. As a Beirut-based U.S. network correspondent two decades ago, I was left with little but rumor and third-hand accounts — and certainly no pictures — when Syria virtually wiped out one of its own cities, then in revolt, behind a wall of official media silence. But when the Lebanese poured into the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops after last year’s assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the unblinking lens of satellite television provided an electronic shield that even the Syrians dared not penetrate.
Channels like Qatar-based Al Jazeera, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya and a host of others are no longer just pushing the envelope — they have shredded it. And that has inspired even the cynical greybeards of Arab journalism to test their own limits. “We have a new sense of what is possible,” one grizzled veteran of the state-owned Gulf press told me recently.
And from Casablanca to Sana’a, Arab regimes are struggling to accommodate themselves to this new political reality. “The media is a dangerous weapon, no less than the weapons of war if it is misused,” Saudi Prince Khaled al Faisal, president of the Arab Thought Foundation, said at a huge international media summit in Dubai last week. The conference was itself an example of the conflicting ways Arab leaders are attempting to chart unfamiliar waters. So, too, was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to hire Western-style TV consultants for his recent election campaign, and the tentative steps toward media reform in Jordan and several Gulf states. “Journalism is a part of change,” Khaled’s son, Sultan Bandar bin Khaled al Faisal, the owner of Saudi Arabia’s Al Watan newspaper, told me at the Dubai gathering. “And this conference is an effort to say, ‘OK, maybe we should expedite the process a little bit because we really do have a lot to lose.’”
Not all the signals are quite so encouraging. As Bandar was speaking, troops from Yemen’s elite Republican Guards were intimidating reporters in the newsroom of that country’s leading independent daily, and the editor of an Internet site in Egypt — where dozens of journalists, including one of my own students, have been brutalized in election violence — was being arrested. Bandar’s own paper, meanwhile, has been through a series of editors who have misjudged the constantly shifting line between what is politically acceptable and what is not. And in supposedly democratic Iraq, the most lethal place on earth for reporters, news organizations are being shut down by local officials, corrupted by the Pentagon and pressured by the insurgents, even as journalists themselves are being detained, kidnapped and murdered.
As one reporter from pan-Arab satellite channel MBC recently put it of his role in covering a region wracked by violence and persecution where media freedom can be an oxymoron: “We are the first victims — after the real victims.”
But at-risk Arab journalists persevere because they know something their tormentors don’t seem to fully realize: A new Mideast media is being born. And, while birth can be bloody and protracted and difficult, once begun, it cannot be easily reversed.
Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS News Middle East correspondent, heads up the TV journalism center at The American University in Cairo. His latest book, Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas, will be published in January.