cover story

Breathing Room

Toward a new Arab media
May 5, 2011

Before there was Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or even Al Jazeera, there was Hama, Syria. It was 1982 and an anti-government protest was put down with ferocious violence. The Syrian government simply destroyed whole sections of the city, leaving at least ten thousand people dead. But the slaughter went unreported in that closed society. Those of us trying to cover the story from nearby Beirut had little more to work with than hearsay, and
certainly no pictures.

Nearly a decade later, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi media sat on the story for three days while the government formulated its response. And the list goes on. Autocratic Arab governments have long controlled news and information with an iron hand.

No more. They try to do so in 2011, but competing versions of reality seep in—and out—through every electronic pore. There has been much talk of a “Facebook Revolution” and of “The Al Jazeera Revolution,” as some headline writers have described the uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa since Tunisia erupted in December. Both are over-simplifications. Modern communications gave vent to long-simmering resentments of entrenched autocratic regimes. The Arab world’s youth bubble means that a third of the population is between fifteen and twenty-nine years old, and unemployment among youth is rampant: 31 percent in Tunisia, 27 percent in Egypt, 43 percent in Algeria. Even in wealthy Saudi Arabia, 16 percent of young adults, many with college degrees from the West, can’t find jobs. And then there is the grinding poverty of the masses. Millions of Egyptians scrape by on less than $2 a day.

Still, without social media, the sights and sounds of Tunisia’s first tentative protests may never have escaped the confines of the villages where they occurred. Without satellite television, a vision of revolution would never have entered living rooms across the Arab world.

Now we’re in a new phase. As Arab politics are transformed, journalists across the region are assessing their role in this new landscape, warily testing boundaries, adjusting to new realities, and daring to dream of the possibilities.

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The ability of Arab autocrats to control the message first began to weaken in 1996, with the arrival of Al Jazeera, which was always more than a news network. Al Jazeera shook up the region by providing an electronic soapbox for voices long marginalized by state-run broadcasters. The channel’s aggressive style inspired viewers across the region. The revolutions rocking the Arab world are the inevitable outcome.

“Al Jazeera has become an instrument of Arab political empowerment and mobilization,” says Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at The American University of Beirut, and editor at large of Beirut’s Daily Star. The network’s sensibility, he continues, emboldened Arabs, making them realize the anger and frustration they felt were “sentiments shared across the region.”

Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director general, says the channel’s editorial policy “gives priority to the grievances and aspirations of ordinary people,” as he put it in a February 25 Washington Post op-ed piece. And he’s proud of that.

It was clear to us that a revolution was in the making, and it was happening far from the gaze of a tame and superficial establishment media that allied itself with the powerful center…. Keen to conduct interviews with high-level officials and ever willing to cover repetitious news conferences, they remained oblivious to what was happening on the ground.

At Al Jazeera we have spared no effort to search for the real actors, wherever they happen to be: whether in the cities, in the countryside, in camps, in prisons or in the blogosphere. We have been guided by a firm belief that the future of the Arab world will be shaped by people from outside the aging elites and debilitated political structures featured so disproportionately by most other news outlets.

The real actors did not appear on most television screens or magazine covers, whether in the Arab world or in Western media. Cameras were not attracted to them; columnists rarely mentioned them. Yet that did not deter them.

The notion of a TV network as a change agent may be jarring to some US news people. Still, journalist-activists like Thomas Paine played a key role in America’s own revolution, and oppressive leaders—whether a King George, a Tsar Nicholas, or a Joseph McCarthy—tend to breed journalists agitating for reform. A survey of six hundred Arab journalists in nineteen countries that I conducted three years ago found that 75 percent said their mission was driving political and social change.

That passion for change pervades many Arab news organizations but it is epitomized by Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel. On stories like the Egypt revolution, Al Jazeera Arabic wears its “Arabness” on its sleeve. Think Fox News on steroids—but at another place altogether on the spectrum.

Some Arab journalists, such as Daoud Kuttab, the founder of Jordan’s Ammannet radio station and an influential commentator on Arab media, are dismissive of Al Jazeera’s approach. “There was a lot of ideological comment over pictures of Tahrir Square. There wasn’t a lot of solid reporting.”

The precise role of Arab media in this era of transition is at the heart of the bitter rivalry between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the other main pan-Arab news channel. Al Arabiya is owned by Saudi interests close to the royal family, and argues that its news culture is more objective. Journalism “is not about supporting the revolution,” says Nabil Khatib, Al Arabiya’s executive editor. “It’s not about trying to act as a political party who’s trying to be activist rather than to offer information.” Al Jazeera, he says, is “trying to be part of the conflict.”

To some extent, this war of words reflects the political forces at work on the two channels, which are the public faces of the battle for regional influence between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Emir of Qatar, fifty-nine-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, launched Al Jazeera one year after he deposed his father in a bloodless coup. Sheikh Hamad didn’t start Al Jazeera to gain a membership at the National Press Club. He did it to make himself a player in the region, the same reason that he convinced Washington to shift the regional headquarters of the US military’s Central Command from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in 2002. It was from there, just up the road from Al Jazeera’s headquarters, that the invasion of Iraq was directed.

When he hired a group of out-of-work former BBC Arabic staffers, gave them $137 million to start a TV channel, and told them to go out and shake things up, the emir wanted to break the Saudi stranglehold on the region’s cross-border media and set himself up as a force to be reckoned with. “All that noise comes from this little matchbox?” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak commented when he toured the channel a decade ago. Little did he know.

And the emir’s strategy has worked. “It is the station that created the nation,” says Hussein Shobokshi, of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat. “Al Jazeera created Qatar. Nobody had ever heard of Qatar before Al Jazeera.” I asked Shobokshi what he thought the emir’s reaction might be to see his fellow Arab autocrats toppled like dominoes. “He has a huge smile on his face,” the Saudi columnist replied.

Depending on their politics, Arabs tend to line up behind Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya just as Americans follow Fox News or msnbc, though the complexities of the Arab world—Hamas/Palestinian Authority, Saudi/Qatar, fundamentalist/reformist Muslim, Sunni/Shia, republican/royalist, etc.—means defining their respective audiences is not as simple as the conservative/liberal dichotomy of Fox/MSNBC. Critics say the rivalry for influence between the patrons of the two Arabic channels plays out in news decisions. On topics such as Palestine, for example, Al Jazeera is said to favor Hamas over the Palestinian Authority, while Al Arabiya takes the opposite tack. In Egypt, pro-Mubarak forces claimed Al Jazeera was overtly fostering revolution, while anti-Mubarak demonstrators accused Al Arabiya of going soft on the regime.

Political influence can also be seen in stories on which the two networks adopt a similar approach. For example, critics claim both channels have played down the violent suppression of anti-government demonstrations on the tiny island emirate of Bahrain.

A possible explanation: in both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslims are the majority. In Bahrain, the uprising is led by the majority Shiites against the Sunni royal family—which immediately raised the specter of Iranian subterfuge. “They gave lip-service to representing the Shiites in Bahrain, but they really downplayed the whole issue of the protests,” says Daoud Kuttab. “On Bahrain we saw that they weren’t independent.”

But that begs a big question in Arab journalism: Is anyone truly independent? The short answer: every Arab news organization operates within “red lines,” boundaries of coverage they dare not cross. But lately, those lines have been moving.

On day two of the Egyptian uprising, the staff of Cairo’s privately owned satellite channel ON-TV gathered to discuss strategy. ON-TV was founded in 2008 by Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian telecommunication mogul, as a current-affairs spin-off of his successful entertainment channel. Yosri Fouda, host of the nightly talk show, Akhir Kalam (The Last Word), had just met with the station’s program chief. Fouda was one of the Arab world’s most respected television journalists. He had made his name as Al Jazeera’s chief investigative correspondent and was best known in the West as the reporter who interviewed the masterminds of 9/11. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to destroy everything I did in my career by appearing on TV and be a parrot. At the same time, I won’t be upset if you want me to take a break.’ ”

But his boss told Fouda he did not intend to self-censor. The team developed an aggressive strategy for coverage of the uprising and brought it to Sawiris, warning him that if they took this approach, ON-TV could be shut down. “To his credit, Naguib said, ‘Guys, if you think we can do this professionally, then I don’t care if we get shut down,’” Fouda recalls.

While Al Jazeera and other regional satellite channels received most of the attention in the West, ON-TV and Dream-TV, another Egypt-based private satellite channel, played a major role in bringing the voices of the revolution to the Egyptian audience. Like other Egypt-based channels, ON-TV and Dream were prohibited from running news programs by the Mubarak regime. Instead, they focused on current-affairs discussion programs. So while the regional channels concentrated on live coverage from the street, these channels were bringing into the studio all of the key figures involved in the revolution, giving context and depth to the unfolding events. This was a level of analysis that might have been lost on viewers in other parts of the region, but was critical for Egyptians trying to understand the subtleties of their unfolding future.

“Dream, at the beginning, was playing both sides of the fence,” says Hani Shukrallah, editor of the English-language Ahram Online. “But they jumped over completely once it was clear the revolution was winning. ON-TV from the start was a breath of fresh air.” Westerners who followed the Egypt story are likely to recall the memorable clip of Google executive Wael Ghonim breaking down in tears when he was shown pictures of Egyptians who died while he was in jail. That moment occurred during an interview with Dream’s Mona el Shazly.

Naila Hamdy, a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo, observes that Egyptian private satellite stations became stars during this period—and the effect continues. These channels are becoming an integral part of the nation’s suddenly complex political conversation as Egypt moves toward its first truly free elections.

In fact, there is a strong potential for independent, nationally focused satellite channels, like those in Egypt, to one day supplant regionally focused channels, such as Al Jazeera, as viewers in individual countries look for those outlets that provide news about events down the street, rather than on the other side of the Arab world. The criticism of the pan-Arab channels has long been that they often focus myopically on broad regional stories like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iraq, while they ignore bread-and-butter local issues. In a candid self-assessment, Nabil Khatib of Al Arabiya says the quality of reporting and relative freedom are what gave the pan-Arab stations their audience, but “once those local stations become more free and learn how to be better in terms of professional standards, we will lose.”

Whether the pan-Arab channels have more freedom than their newly unshackled nation-based competition is already in question. As he wrapped up the February 12 edition of his program, Studio Al Qahira (Cairo Studio), the host, Hafez Mirazi of Al Arabiya, told his viewers that the following day’s program would focus on the implications of the Egyptian revolution for Saudi Arabia. He did not make this announcement lightly. A former Washington, DC, bureau chief for Al Jazeera, Mirazi had left that network complaining about what he saw as a news agenda manipulated by the Qatari government. Now he was hosting a program on Al Jazeera’s main rival, owned by businessmen close to the Saudi royal family. Mirazi knew he had traded one master for another.

But, he told his viewers, the discussion of potential Saudi unrest was a test. “If we can do that, then Al Arabiya is an independent channel. If not, I bid you farewell and thank you for watching our show.” Mirazi was never put back on the air.

“Egyptian journalists used to appear on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya because the channels were the freest in the region,” Mirazi told me. “We knew there are limits, because you can’t talk about the emir or the king, but for us it didn’t matter,” he said. “But now, since Egypt is liberated and the Egyptian media is liberated, there is no excuse for any one of us to accept red lines from another station on their government while we don’t have red lines on our own government.”

Mirazi’s ex-boss, Al Arabiya news chief Nabil Khatib, says the host was using the live show to push his personal agenda. “He blackmailed his own channel,” Khatib claims. Even some of Mirazi’s friends think he was grandstanding. Still, I asked Khatib whether Al Arabiya had done any stories on the topic Mirazi had proposed: the effect of the Egyptian revolution on Saudi Arabia. “Nobody had the chance nor the need to have an hour on air about the possible impact of Egypt on Qatar, nor on Saudi, nor on Morocco,” he insisted. Other news organizations that have tackled such stories would disagree.

But the Al Arabiya news chief acknowledged the limits he faced in reporting the spreading turmoil. “Let me be frank,” he said, “political structures in the Arab world are not ready for those revolutions, nor for any coverage of those revolutions.” And, “as much as they put security pressure on the protests, they put political pressure on the media.” He recounted a phone call he received from Egyptian Information Minister Anis Feki at the height of the protests. He was “shouting at us, ‘stop covering Egypt,’ ” and warned that “ ‘somebody will come and they may attack you. I cannot control things.’ ” Not long after, Al Arabiya’s Cairo bureau was stormed and shut down by pro-Mubarak sympathizers who beat up one reporter and kidnapped another.

Over at state-run Egypt TV, the pressure was even more intense. At times, watching ETV during the protests was like watching an alternate reality. On January 28, Al Jazeera showed a split screen—live images of a police vehicle on fire outside the gates of ETV as protestors clashed with police. This, next to ETV’s own live signal showing a calming panoramic shot of the city.

“We were given press releases from the ministry of interior right from the first day and we were told to say exactly as we were told,” recalls Shahira Amin, the former anchor and deputy head of ETV’s English-language Nile TV. Instead, she resigned. “I decided I had to choose. I was either a mouthpiece for the regime or I was on the people’s side, and that’s why I quit.”

ETV News chief Abdelatif el Menawi admits that it was difficult to know whom to obey. “Many powers were confronting each other and each of these powers had its own opinion or goal. We had the presidential palace, ministers, army, intelligence, the street—and every one of them was pushing in a direction. And we were in a situation trying to adjust to keep the TV and Egypt safe.” The pressure, he says, was tremendous. “Nobody can imagine.” Like Al Ahram and other state-controlled newspapers, ETV did an about-face when it became clear Mubarak’s days were numbered.

Not long after my conversation with Menawi, I received an e-mail from Shahira Amin. She asked whether I thought she should go back to work for Egypt TV. Attached was a note she had just sent to her old boss, Menawi. “I salute you for your steadfastness and courage in the face of adversity,” she told him, adding that she was ready to consider coming back “with my head held high.”

The Egyptian media may have won some breathing room, but one question is, For how long?

“A couple of days ago, I was slightly more optimistic. I’m not sure now,” Yosri Fouda, of ON-TV, told me in late February when I caught him just after he got off the air. The Information Ministry had been dissolved, but army officers were overseeing the media, and I asked if he was being pressured by the new military rulers. “Not directly, but you feel the heat,” said Fouda, who felt his reputation afforded a degree of protection.

Two months later, things became even more complex. In mid-April, the same week Mubarak and his sons were arrested on orders of the country’s interim military rulers and blogger Maikel Nabil was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the military,” the so-called Supreme Council distributed a letter to Egyptian editors ordering them not to report on the armed forces without advance permission. “Freedom of expression is guaranteed as long as it is respectful and doesn’t question the armed forces,” Ismail Etman, head of the armed forces’ moral affairs unit, told a news conference.

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the order, which it said “effectively institutionalizes a military censorship regime in Egypt.” But Egyptian journalists say the restrictions are not as cut-and-dried as they might seem to outsiders. The backstory on the edict underscores the evolving relationship between the armed forces and the media in the new Egypt. “The military was the one remaining red line in Egyptian journalism in the past five years,” explains Ahram Online’s Hani Shukrallah. The generals tolerated the flak they have taken since assuming political power, but the breaking point came when troops entered Tahrir Square on April 8 to arrest a group of uniformed army officers who were speaking out against the generals. To the Council, that was mutiny, and the crackdown, which left two civilians dead, was purely an internal army affair. The move set off a media firestorm, particularly in the blogosphere. “They have a level of tolerance if you criticize their political decisions, but if you talk about the army as such, internal army reform or internal corruption, that is a no-no,” according to Shukrallah, who adds that “most journalists, including myself, would rather keep that file closed for the moment.”

Hisham Kassem, a founder of the leading independent daily Al Masri Al Youm, agrees, but says that reading tea leaves becomes tiresome. “It’s so much easier to come out and say, ‘This is unacceptable,’ than to make this very ambiguous statement which people are interpreting in different ways,” Kassem says. Adds Fouda: “You really have to walk a very fine line.”

Elsewhere in the region, regimes and their loyalists continue to lash out at reporters and bloggers: the deaths in Bahrainian custody of the founder of the nation’s leading independent daily and a blogger there, the detention of journalists and hacking of news websites in Syria, the disappearance of reporters in Libya, and their murder in Yemen. Across the Arab world, many regimes believe the solution to their problems is to kill the messenger, or at least jail her. Still, many Arab journalists interviewed for this article feel that there has been a fundamental transformation in Egypt and Tunisia that will ultimately resonate across the region.

“It’s a complete change. Complete,” says Abdul Wahab Badrakhan, a former editor at the Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, referring to newspapers in the two countries. “The headlines, the front page, even the editorial page are now richer in news.” He believes this replacement of propaganda with actual reporting represents “a deep change in the practice of journalism in the Arab world.”

While Al Jazeera has been credited for the growing willingness of Arab journalist to push the envelope, a sort of “Al Jazeera effect,” the coming years could well see the rise of an “Egypt Effect,” as a freer Egyptian media reclaim their historic role as agenda-setters for the region. “The Egyptians are coming back, this time even better than before,” Hafez Mirazi boasts.

Daoud Kuttab is less sanguine. “I am not as optimistic as Hafez that it will just be the push of a button,” he says. “A lot of work has to be done.”

Beyond Egypt, Hussein Shobokshi, the Asharq Al Awsat columnist, believes Arab media are going to be “more liberalized, the ownership structure is going to change, you’ll see more private ownership,” he says. “The dinosaurs are going to fade away.” Not that he doesn’t worry. Shobokshi fears the newfound freedom could be squandered if the media do not move beyond inaccuracy, innuendo, and incitement. “We’re watching with a bit of concern and shock the malicious attacks that are taking place from reputable talk shows and columnists and journalists in Egypt,” he says. “That has created a very ugly environment” with unsubstantiated accusations and name-calling against former members of the Mubarak regime.

“Actually, it’s disgusting,” says Mirette Mabrouk, founder of the Daily Star of Egypt (now Daily News Egypt). “As much as this revolution has brought forth wondrous things, it’s unearthed a great many creepy-crawlies.”

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.]

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.