At the state media organs, says Hani Shukrallah, the politics may have changed but the lack of professionalism has not. “Ahram [his site’s Arab-language sister newspaper] today is still as bad in professional terms as it used to be. It was professionally extremely poor when it was pro-government and now it’s still poor and pro-revolution.”
That lack of professionalism isn’t confined to state-controlled media. Few journalism schools exist in the region and most Arab journalists are poorly trained. In my survey, mentioned earlier, Arab journalists said a lack of professionalism was the greatest threat to the industry; journalistic corruption, driven by poor salaries, was also a major concern. The average starting salary at many media outlets in the region is a few hundred dollars a month. That means journalists can be bought.
The free-for-all in the Egyptian media has underlined the fact that a free media is not necessarily a credible media. “The challenge now is to develop professional standards,” Shukrallah says, “and sovereign institutions.”
Systemic journalistic change will require societal change, and that will not happen overnight. Almost every Arab country has media laws that mean journalists can be jailed for perceived insults to the ruler, the “nation,” and, in some cases, Islam. As the red lines around the Egyptian military underscore, true reform is impossible until the governments themselves embrace it.
But meanwhile, the role of the Arab journalist is being redefined. Egypt’s bloggers have long straddled the line between political activists and citizen journalists as they reported stories off-limits to the mainstream media. The revolution institutionalized that role. In Bahrain, where blogger Zakariya Rashid Hassan al Ashiri died in custody in April, online activists are filling the void created by stifled mainstream news organizations; in Tunisia, a leading blogger is now minister of youth and sport; in Yemen, bloggers share prison cells with mainstream journalists for similar trumped-up offenses.
Across the region, especially in Gulf countries with high Internet penetration rates, “citizen journalists” online are tapping into that bubble of young Arabs, many of whom never pick up a newspaper since they don’t trust the content. If mainstream media organizations fail to both break the bonds of government control and make the digital shift, they may cede an entire generation of readers.
When it comes to the state-controlled media, one challenge is their bloated bureaucracies. Egyptian Radio and TV have more than forty thousand employees. Al Ahram’s reporting staff alone numbers fourteen hundred. Neither has much prospect of privatizing. ETV’s Menawi hopes the future lies in a PBS-style public-broadcasting model, but even he is skeptical that any state-run media organization would suddenly adopt a true “public interest” model. There are many challenges.
But while they may disagree on ideology or the angle of tomorrow’s story, most Arab journalists would concur that, at some level, the future of Arab journalism is being written in Cairo.
“I believe if the Egyptian revolution will succeed, it will dramatically change the overall scene of democracy in the Arab world,” says Nabil Khatib of Al Arabiya. That, in turn, “will affect the media itself. And will raise the bar, push the boundaries. And will help all of us to become better, to become more informative, and treat what is of concern to the public.”
[For a sidebar article about the continuing controversy over airing Al Jazeera English in the US, also by Lawrence Pintak, click here.]