samedi 4 juillet 2009

The Inner Weakness of Arab Media


What is at stake for Arab media? Answering this question will imply breaking a number of taboos in order to throw light objectively on the weaknesses of these media. The paper will, however, not compare Arab and Western media. One can compare only what is comparable. Rather, it will focus on the Arab media world, leaving the task of criticizing the operation of Western media to our Western friends. It seems indeed more credible and more appropriate that each of us starts with a critical attitude towards our own media and colleagues.

The Media Cold War in the Arabic World

If we look at the recent history of the mass media in the Arab World, we can distinguish three main phases of development. In the first, the mass media were dominated by the Egyptian press. This lasted from achieving independence and the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 until 1974 in the aftermath of the Sinai War. That period was dominated by the Arab Voice radio, which can be said to have been a significant factor contributing to the fall of a number of Arab regimes, including the Iraqi government in 1958, Yemen in 1962 and Libya in 1969. It was an important vector of the dissemination of the pan-Arabism ideology of Nasser that became dominant in the Arabic world.

The Saudi Empire

Precipitated by rising oil revenues alter the first oil crisis and an understanding of the importance of media propaganda in today's world, the Saudi regime initiated a number of successful competing initiatives to counter Nasserian ideology and attempt to dominate the regional media landscape. They created the well-resourced television channel Middle-East Broadcasting Channel (MBC), the quality newspapers Al-Sharq Al-Aswat, Al-Hayat, Al-Majala, and Al- Wasat. "The Gulf petrol boom also drew many of these journalists, who took up positions in new newspapers created thanks to the wealth generated by petrol. Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian journalists also exploited this goldmine. Unfortunately, these journalists were hemmed in by the traditionalist system governing the countries concerned. The downside of the high salaries they earned was the rigid censorship they had to work under" (Essoulami 2006). During that period, other countries in the region with international ambitions, such as Libya and Iraq, also created their media in London and Paris. These reviews never managed to compete seriously with the Saudi media and definitively lost the baffle for influence with the 1991 Gulf War. Arab journalists in the European capitals could nevertheless adopt a more critical tone. This freedom of spirit was, however, limited, as explained by Said Essoulami: "The only journalists who could write in all freedom were those who had set up base in Europe, but even their freedom was only a provisional one: the money generated by the petrol bought out most of these journalists. Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya all invested in the expatriate press in order to rally support for their power and ally themselves to the most eminent and credible pens in the Arab world. Iraq and Libya founded reviews; the Saudi Arabians funded dailies. Journalists fell over themselves to offer their services to the rich and draw on the benefits due to them, such as cars, houses, or gold watches. A critical press was confined to the limits of the Arab community abroad. Other more powerful dailies and reviews had a regional audience that was much more significant" (Essoulami 2006).

Al Jazeera Domination

The third phase coincides with the creation of the television channel Al Jazeera in Qatar. "Arab satellite television, inspired by CNN lnternational's coverage of the 1991 Gulf War changed all that. Suddenly a new cadre of Arab journalists inspired by CNN and trained by the BBC were hosting open-debate talk shows on the Orbit network broadcasting from Rome and field reports for lively news bulletins on the pioneer channel MBC followed by a short-lived experiment of an all-news BBC Arabic Television service — both broadcasting from London. All of these strands were pulled together with the launch of Al Jazeera from Qatar, at the center of which — setting standards for this 24/7 news channel — were a corps of BBC-trained journalists" (Schleifer 2006).

"The Gulf states, seeing the impact that CNN had on an international scale, grasped the strategic importance of satellite television in times of conflict. Several governments, in particular Saudi Arabia, encouraged their rich compatriots to invest in the installation of satellite television channels in Europe. MBC, Orbit, ART were able to build their hegemonies and set up thrones under the Arab sky. Other countries followed suit by launching their own national channels " (Essoulami 2006).

Practically overnight, this new channel established by the micro state managed to marginalize all competing Arab media. Encouraged by its early success, a media group was created with a number of new, less known media, such as Al Jazeera. Net, Al Jazeera International in English, Al Jazeera Sport, etc. "Only Al Jazeera, financed by the Qatar government, dared to jostle traditions and political taboos by programmes open to all opinions, even the most hostile to established Arab regimes.
Al Jazeera was heavily criticised by governments who did not welcome the space given to their political opponents" (Essoulami 2006).

"The original Arabic news channel, established in 1996 and funded by the emir of Qatar, not only bucked the trend towards frivolity and light entertainment but broke many taboos, interviewing Israeli politicians and allowing debate of a kind rarely seen on Arab television" (Whitaker 2004).

This short historical account shows that contrarily to a stereotype in the West, Arab mass media has always been highly fragmented, the object of competing states in the region attempting to gain hegemonic influence. To underline the existence of this media Cold War in the Middle East, one can perhaps mention the following anecdote. Yamama, the biggest Saudi advertising company in the Arab region, was recently instructed by the Saudi regime not to cooperate with Al Jazeera, a move that obviously had an impact on the revenues of the channel. This leads us to clarify another structural feature of the Arab media world: they are financially or commercially unsustainable. Despite its international success, even Al Jazeera is known for losing money every day. None of the Arab mass media would survive if they did not benefit from the largesse of rich and powerful sponsors, states or princes.

The Rule of the Media Game

Mass media structurally mirror political regimes. The region has been historically resilient to democratic change with states remaining basically authoritarian in kind. Similarly Arab mass media are not democratic. The philosophy of mass media as a public forum, an agora, open to a pluralism of discourses and actors, the value of critical and investigative journalism, the institutional function of media as watchdog of governments, all this is largely foreign to Arab mass media. Journalism, while not necessarily "reverent" (Tackenberg 1996) to governments and their politics, is strongly constrained and — we can say — controlled at a distance by the security services. This control can be exercised directly or indirectly. Ibrahim Nawar comes to the same conclusion. He states: "The fact that Arab countries are lagging behind in the race for democracy is clearly visible. Rulers of Arab countries, many of them have been in power for decades, are denying their own people any real chance for political choice. In most cases one party or a ruling family is the main feature of political life. Restrictive laws and near absolute power of police forces ensure that there will be no challenge for family or one-party dictatorship. The media is controlled by the state in order to drug public opinion and beat up the drums in support for the corrupt ailing ruling clans" (Nawar 2006).

Censorship applies mainly indirectly but is ubiquitous. Critical media or journalists who do not follow the "rules of the game" blindly cannot survive in this environment. Journalists and editors who systematically apply the values of Western critical journalism are quickly and swiftly reminded of the rides of the game by vigilant security services. Journalists who are in permanent contact with security services are left in no doubt over their limited room for manoeuvre. There is not much difference in this sense whether the media is state-controlled or operated by private actors, as is mostly the case in Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, Sudan or Egypt… for instance. In short, all the values that have emerged in the political mass media in the 20th century — neutrality in political debates, critical or investigative journalism, pluralism of voices (Tackenberg 1993) — all these values are cancelled or strictly limited in the Arab media.

One of the "rules of the game" well-known by Arab journalists is the taboo of discussing internal politics critically. There, we can truly talk of the dominance of the "reverence journalism" form. More or less loyally, journalists will reproduce official discourses and avoid giving a voice to local political opposition. On this point, Abdallah Schleifer (2006) writes: "The Arab press becomes furious over the slightest discrimination that befalls Muslims in Europe and America, but there is little or no sense of equity, of equivalence, of an elementary quid quo pro as in the case of church building in Arabia and mosque building in Rome. Indeed, often the opposite is the ride".
These international controversies also serve a useful function of creating scapegoats and diverting potential popular unrest, attention or grievances from internal local political and social realities. In any case, Arabic mass media avoid a serious and honest debate over internal public affairs.

The Weapon of Advertising

Of course, it would be too optimistic to believe that the Western mass media correspond to the Habermasian ideal of an open public sphere in which a critical discourse over public affairs takes place freely. In his doctoral thesis, Habermas discussed the colonization of the mass media that took place at the end of the 19th century and the control operated by well-resourced actors via advertising in particular. In an old democracy such as Switzerland's, it is quite striking to see that while the justice minister is often the subject of critical comments in the media, the two main food-distribution companies — Migros and Coop — remain entirely free from any criticism in the main dailies or on television. Obviously, there is an incompatibility between their advertising powers and criticism in the media.
There are well-known cases in Switzerland of direct influence or threats to stop advertising in newspapers which are not following the “rules of the game”. Hanspeter Kriesi in an analysis of the youth movement in 1980-81 in Zurich mentions a case where a local newspaper was silenced by a sharp drop in advertising following its sympathetic accounts of the demonstrations of the youth movement (Tackenberg 1993). In the Arab world, while advertising does not play a similar economic role in mass media, boycotts are also used as an instrument of control of the mass media. We mentioned above the case of the Saudi regime which instructed its state-owned advertising agency to stop advertising in Al Jazeera in a bid to sanction the television channel. "Advertising is largely used by the state and business groups to reward or punish newspapers, radio and TV stations. As the case of Al Jazeera can reveal, no advertising agency can place ads in an outlet that has politically crossed the line from the official Saudi point of view or the view of any other government. As they are the biggest advertising spender in the Arab world, Saudi companies and agencies almost control the advertising market [...] All business groups in the Arab world that see their interests at odds with the Saudi policy share the same advertising policy, no advertising to be given to media outlets that are not politically correct. As a result, advertising in the Arab world has become largely political. In every Arab country, advertisements are placed in loyal or affiliated papers and radio and TV stations. Some newspapers have been left to suffer until they close down while some others have to change course in order to win support" (Nawar 2006).

The Internal Stakes

The Arab media seem free to voice criticism towards Israel, the United States, to criticize the democratic situation in this or that Arab regime. But these media will never cross the line to publish reports critical of the internal affairs of the governments. Their guiding principle resides in applying the rule of critical journalism selectively to others rather than themselves. "There is no information act in any Arab country that can force the state to open up its files for public interests. Journalists have to believe official stories about all sensitive issues while senior civil servants have been made immune by law against any attempt to challenge their official behaviour or statements. State-owned news agencies are the mouthpiece of Arab governments. In some cases no media organization can dare to publish news reports unless it has been verified or confirmed by the official news agency of the relevant country" (Nawar 2006).

It is obvious that freedom of expression and the freedom of the press are the first victims of non-democratic regimes. The Arab world seems to live under dictatorial political systems that vary in their degree of openness but resemble each other in principle: the control of Society and public opinion by powerful security services. Space for liberty is limited, yet exists in varying degrees. Discussing the Arab media landscape, Rami Khouri (2007) states: "Yet they are not part of today's democratic trend, because Arab political systems remain firmly in the hands of soft hereditary monarchies or brutal security states. Nevertheless, Arab democrats and liberals persist. They meet, write articles, publish reports, hold conferences, create political parties and non-governmental organizations, occasionally demonstrate in the street and even sit and talk with their autocratic leaders, reminding them that non-democratic regimes are also non-sustainable".

Freedom of the press and authoritarian regimes are antithetic. Arab states are a regular target of criticism from international Non-Governmental Organizations. "Reporters without Borders" regularly underlines in its reports that the freedom of the press in the Arab region is precarious: newspapers are censored; journalists are imprisoned and sometimes assassinated. According to Ibrahim Nawar: "As a result, freedom of expression and public liberties in general are severely restricted in the Arab world. Many entities have become legitimate targets for state repression. These include political parties in opposition, NGOs, trade unions, professional associations, student unions and public forums. Such circumstances surrounding Arab media have resulted in lower professional and ethical standards, distortion of information and biased reporting. In most cases media controlled by the state is playing the game of denying the general public their basic "right to know". In short most of the Arab media is working as mouthpiece for the ruling clans" (Nawar 2006).

Arab Media and Mosques: the Algerian Experience

The low status and credibility enjoyed by mass media in the Arab world has fueled Islamic radical tendencies and sometimes led to the unintentional reinforcement of the role of the Mosque in providing for critical communication space and propaganda. The Mosques have started to become a unique alternative to the official media. The Algerian case almost paradigmatically illustrates this exploitation of the weaknesses of Algerian and, beyond, of Arab media by politically astute Islamic movements.

The Islamic Salvation Front (ISF) has never had its own television channel or radio, nor an influential press organ. It has, however, been able to agitate the whole society. Economic and social deterioration has allowed the creation of networks of small informal groups run by the ISF, structured around the dense network of Mosques and growing rapidly outside the control of the Ministry of Religions Affairs (St. John 1996).

The action strategy based on taking to the streets and mobilizing militants and sympathizers permanently has managed to create a continuum between the public space and the Mosques. In his book "Les Frères et la mosquée" (1990), Ahmed Rouadjia has empirically studied the linkages between the emergence and the consolidation of the Islamic movement, its growing capacity for mobilization and the growth of the network of Mosques in the country. In Algeria, recent growth is significant: from about 2,000 in the wake of independence to over 11,000 today (Khalladi 1992: 29). Despite the law of 1971 granting the state the right to control the building of Mosques, their activities and the contents of sermons (Fuller 1997: 77), the Islamic movement has been able to position itself and indeed dominate religious spaces which have been transformed into spaces for political communication, propaganda and mobilization.

The first step in the process is the building of a Mosque, often financed by external private charitable sources. Then the limited freedom and tolerance of these religious spaces granted by the state — in particular after the events of October 1988 — are exploited advantageously by the movement, despite the 1989 law granting control of Mosques (Fuller 1997) to the state. The Mosques become unique spaces where followers are indoctrinated and recruited and a critical discourse on the Algerian state and its institutions can take place, more or less without control. In this process the mass media, owned by the state, lose any of the credibility they might have had before. The testimony of an Algerian general, member of the power elite until 1996, date of his retirement, is quite telling in this regard. Talking about the state-owned television, he said: "[...] the consequence is that paradoxally this channel that everybody knows to be in the service of the system has become a major handicap for the system itself'" (Rahhal 1997: 94).


The Arab media are an integral part of the existing socio-political landscape. Their destiny is closely associated with the democratization process in the Arab world. Today, this process is impaired by stagnation and a crisis characterized by a deepening fault line between society and regimes, between authoritarian regimes and Islamic opposition. Two extremisms face each other, alimenting their own growth in this confrontation. The Arab states need the radical opposition to justify the maintenance of repressive security systems whose primary victims are the "third force" (democrats, liberals, leftist militants, human-rights activists and feminists) and the international community which wants democratic reforms. Their response, embodied in a slogan, is: "Choose between us or the Islamic inferno". The tragic events of September 11 have reinforced the position of Arab regimes worldwide. They are solicited to cooperate with the United States in the fight against international terrorism. The imperative
of fighting Islamic terrorism has sidelined the earlier wishes for democratization. Diplomatic pressures in this regard have weakened. The critical role is left to international NGOs, who remain advocates of democratization and can still play a positive role in the process.

One report correctly states the following: "International organizations involved in journalism training have a responsibility to assist an emerging independent media in the Arab world, and to lobby Western governments not to support the media machines of authoritarian regimes. Arab defenders of press freedom and independent journalists and editors need to draw closer and learn to work together and develop a strategy to help independent journalism gain ground and reporters to acquire professional skills and protection" (Labidi 2004). "There is very Little hope of practicing journalism without danger as long as we have laws that limit freedom of speech," (Jamal Amer).
Of course, the task is quite demanding. To quote Amer Jamal, Editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat in Yemen "We must change the laws and promote the free press. We must work with international organizations that promote freedom. We must call on the United Nations to play a role in implementing Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights. We must consider that attacking journalists is an international concern, no matter where it occurs. We have to let everyone know what is going on."

The emergence in the Arab region of "window dressing"-type liberal media bides, in fact, a precarious situation of total domination of political communication by repressive regimes. The mass media have been turned into instruments for the manipulation and manufacturing of public opinion with the sole objectives to preserve the survival of the regime and the prevention of democratization.

Salaheddine El-Hafez, who is Secretary General of the Arab Journalists Association,
provided an overview of the problems encountered by the Arab press. "I am not exaggerating when I say the Arab press is witnessing one of the worst periods of its life — political upheavals, changes, coups d'état and revolutions," he said. "The Arab press has suffered a great deal. The soul of this press is at risk — and what I mean by “soul” is freedom and liberty. The margins of freedom for the Arab press is severely limited, and we have evidence of that in our daily lives." (El Hafez 2006)

The future of media freedom in the Arab region remains dark. It is closely related to the political, ideological and cultural realities, foreign and antagonistic to the idea of democracy, which historically has been the guarantee of freedom of expression. Today, the obstacles are legion: "Enemies of freedom of expression do not only hide behind governmental curtails, they are everywhere, even on the political opposition ground. Political party newspapers are the least independent ones among all sorts of newspapers. Almost in all Arab countries, freedom of expression comes under severe pressure from political parties including those in the opposition, religious groups, and business interests and also from neighbouring countries" (Nawar 2006).

According to the Lebanese political commentator Ghassan Salamé, "the Arab world remains an intriguing, an irritating exception" — given "the democratisation wave elevated into a worldwide programme and in view of the picture of crowds destroying the statues of falling dictators, from Prague to Seoul, from Sao Paulo to Tirana." (Salamé 1991). He suggests a response on four levels: culture, religion, external factors, and economy.

The use of these four factors to study the Arab world in order to understand its resilience to democracy is certainly a worthwhile enterprise. In this conclusion we will discuss only the cultural factor, which we relate to the absence of a liberal democratic elite. The Arab world has historically produced only political elites attached to authoritarian values. The political debate has been dominated by four of them:

1) the Populism-Nationalism which emerged from independence
2) Arab Nationalism with the competing wings of Baathism and Nasserism which dominated the political landscape in the 1960s
3) the flourishing Marxism of the 1970s
4) finally, the Islamic Fundamentalism of the eighties
None of these elites believe in democracy. Beyond their differences, their common characteristics are rather a totalitarian project rejecting liberal democracy viscerally. An analysis of their political literature is quite telling. We can then ask the question: Can we establish democracies without democrats? And how can we have liberal media without democracies?


* El Hafez, Salaheddine (2006): Deadly Profession - Journalists in Danger. Contribution to the "Media in Danger Conference", 10.11.06, Beirut, Lebanon, recherche=Salaheddine

* Essoulami, Said (2006): The Press in the Arab World: 100 Years of Suppressed Freedom, last revised version from January 7,

* Fuller, Graham (1997): Algérie, l'intégrisme au pouvoir, Paris:. Editions Patrick Banon

* Khalladi, Aissa (1992): Les islamistes algériens face au pouvoir, Alger: Alpha

* Khouri, Rami (2007): The Heroism of Arab Democrats, in Arab Media Watch, May 29,

* Labidi, Kamel (2004): Planting the Seeds of an Arab Press Freedom Network,
in Arab Press Freedom Watch (APFW),

* Nawar, Ibrahim (2006): Freedom of Expression in the Arab World: Taboos are falling under the Hammer of Independent Press, Arab Press Freedom Watch (APFW), in, December

* Rahhal, Yahia (1997): Histoires de pouvoir, un général témoigne, Alger: Casbah Editions

* Rouadjia, Ahmed (1990): Les Frères et la mosquée, Paris: Khartala

* Salamé, Ghassan (1991): Sur la causalité d'un manque: pourquoi le monde arabe n'est-il donc pas démocratique?, in La Revue française de science politique, Vol. 41,Nr. 3,p. 307

* Schleifer, Abdallah (2006): Media and Religion in the Arab-Islamic World, Foreign Policy Research Institute,
schleifer.mediareligionarabislamicworld.html and Arab Media and Society,

* St. John, Peter (1996): Insurrection, légitimité et intervention en Algérie, Commentary Nr. 65, Canadian Security Intelligence Service,

* Whitaker, Brian (2004): Al Jazeera has made News in Arabic... now it hopes to make its mark in English, in The Guardian

* Wisler, Dominique & Tackenberg, Marco (1993): Des pavés, des matraques et des caméras, Paris: L'Harmatta

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