The turbulent events which the Arab region has witnessed in recent months played a major role in making the Arab old and young once again interested in the Arab media, which is now required to present lively scenes of what is taking place.
It is thus forced to give up old policies which used to please the authorities at the cost of the public, who have become angry, looking for facts, rejecting falsification and circumlocution. Has the Arab media really succeeded in this endeavour? Has the Arab uprisings made Arab visual and print media regain its real role in developing Arab public awareness? Does it need further public and elite uprisings to recover its real role?
The above questions are today relevant, even pressing, in the light of Britain s recent media scandal involving a major media organization. The phone-hacking scandal in which the News of the World weekly was implicated made headline news over the last few weeks, causing closure of the paper. The incident had implications on the political system in Britain as the British prime minister was questioned in the House of Commons, in addition to implications for visual and print media worldwide.
What are the implications as far as our Arab press and media are concerned, particularly in terms of credibility as well as the responsibility of our media organizations for developing Arab societies awareness?
Since the spread of satellite and private channels and private press in the Arab world over the past decade, types of a media circus and lurid headlines have become common at the cost of objectivity and truth, often carrying unsubstantiated rumours and insignificant matters. This poses important questions about the reality of such media practices and whether they are designed to damage Arab awareness and mind, in addition to fabricating false reports, scandals and charges.
Looking at satellite channels shows that the majority are one of these types: oriented news, shallow religious, or variety/song/ entertainment, with exaggeration and more sensational than serious material. The oriented news type is dominated by a certain ideology and political attitudes, and even talk shows lack real dialogue or a serious discussion of a topic and are like a dialogue of the deaf, with the guests exchanging charges and abuses as if they were in a wrestling, or even bullfighting, ring.
The so-called religious type is mostly engaged in insignificant issues and superstitions or focuses on such things as oneiromancy and presents new preachers who deal with superficial matters, claiming that in this way they attract the youth to religious values. As a matter of fact, what these channels present is nothing but chatter and light discourse, far from being a discussion of serious matters which address the minds of the youth and tell them about Islamic civilization in its heyday when Muslims were leaders in knowledge and science and promotion of the values of reason and civilization.
The most popular, the variety type helps spread triviality and superficiality in Arab societies and is interested in gossip and the news of singers and actors at the expense of any artistic values which develop artistic or cultural taste. Some of the programmes are sometimes nothing but a copy or translation of Western ones, regardless of the cultural, moral and value differences.
In this way, many things are absent from Arab media: all that builds real awareness through documentaries which introduce great Arab civilization, the West s daily scientific advances or even Arab scientific effort, however little or rare it may be, high arts which develop artistic taste and critical thinking, the Arab nation s history, heritage, culture and literature (with few exceptions) as well as almost deliberate neglect of Arabic, the raison d être of this nation.
Lack of immunity!
In point of fact, this general Arab media climate has contracted many of the ills of the West s tabloids, with a profound difference:public awareness. The recent phone-hacking scandal has undermined Rupert Murdoch s press conglomerate because the West public have lost confidence in the paper and the publisher and welcomed the closure of the almost 170-year-old paper (News of the World, which first appeared in1843, and it had a weekly circulation of 2.5m in Britain alone). The paper was closed despite its weight in the media world, in addition to Britain s legal system which deals with the cases which mislead the public.
It is not strange or curious in the Arab world today to see press conglomerates which misdirect awareness, e.g. the prestigious Al-Ahram daily (over 100 years old) which tampered with a photo published by all international media. The matter went unheeded, but the paper lost credibility for the first time in its long history.
Today, at the height of Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya or Yemen, two adjacent news channels, or even the same channel, broadcast two contradictory news items. Which will the public trust? Doesn t such contradiction lead to loss of trust in these forums? Isn t this compelling evidence that the Arab media has become just a tool in the hands of interest groups, even foreign ones, who still want to interfere in the region s internal affairs in favour of their political and economic interests?
Such contradiction, superficiality and indifference in handling the news and absence of accurate, serious content in the Arab media have made it a tool of confusion and misleadingness rather than true facts and background information. Many channels broadcast the same image but with a different content, in addition to fabricating images and sounds.
Media fraud and the role of the state
Such facts and contradictions prose a key question about the responsibility of the state for protecting individuals from media fraud, assigning authorities to deal with information flow and misleading political propaganda. What are the professional and ethical criteria to be adopted by the Arab media? What s the difference, e.g., between commercial fraud by way of selling food that is unfit for human consumption and media fraud? Isn t the latter more harmful to citizens minds and lifestyles?
The test which the Arab media has recently undergone proved that its role needs to be redefined to restore its real purpose which is supposed to have credibility, inform citizens of true facts in an honest manner. Its key role should develop critical thinking and reason rather than produce confused, sceptical minds with no self-confidence or trust in the authorities and the media.
The main problem of the Arab media is that it emerged in the post-independence era when it was required to play a key role in deepening citizens sense of independence and developing a nationalist personality full of self-confidence and national trust. The media was also required in particular to promote development, inform the public of the realities of the new sate, arouse national and pan-Arab sentiments and engage citizens in the responsibility for building the nation at all levels.
But this role was gradually blown off its course, and the term directed media has become a notorious one, replacing its key role of national guidance with a new one producing an almost halo of reverence of the ruling authority, making it a source of inspiration above criticism and accountability. The Arab media used the traditions of Arab patriarchal societies to formulate and cultivate these concepts in people s minds, as seen at the height of the Arab uprisings, particularly in Egypt when some condemned the trial of the president on the grounds that he is the father of all Egyptians!
Following the rise of independent papers and private channels the Arab media and press began a period of talk shows which led ultimately to the above-mentioned three news, religious and variety types, clearly showing that the Arab media copies many Western models which distorted it as it is no longer original or at least does not observe the Western media s historical conditions. In this way the political and religious media has become a profitable business which attracts all those who have money and prestige through starting a paper or a channel to serve their political, religious and primarily financial interests.
Fixed historical positions
The Western media has a longer history than that of the Arab press and media. It is known that the first paper appeared in around the year 1465, and newspapers have been printed regularly since then. In the true sense of the word, newspapers took their real shape at the beginning of the 16th century, and regular newspapers spread in Europe and America in the17th and 18th centuries as some persons took up journalism as a career. The French Revolution prompted the appearance of modern journalism, and the print, then the visual media, succeeded in establishing the traditions of credibility, integrity and respect for the public as it appeared in a different climate and in nations which experienced popular revolts earlier and fostered democratic and liberal values which encouraged reason and individualism later, all of which is absent from our Arab societies.
It is true that the history of the Arab media dates back to the19th century when Journal Iraq was published in Arabic and Turkish by Baghdad Governor Dawud Pasha in 1816. During Napoleon s 1798 campaign against Egypt two French newspapers appeared in Cairo, and in 1828 Muhammad Ali Pasha published the Egyptian Gazette, and the newspaper Syria was published in Damascus in 1867. The Arab press movement gathered momentum steadily and the number of Arab papers (including dailies, weeklies and monthlies) in the absence of accurate figures, is nearly one thousand. The number of satellite channels is about 1,500 (subject to verification). Despite these large numbers, the Arab media lacks professionalism, objectivity and credibility.
In addition, though trying to present material that seems to be neutral (i.e. not oriented), the independent Arab media in the final analysis is governed by the interests of the owner of the organization, and in many instances, as seen in recent years, people who have nothing to do with the media enter the area of investment in the media and impose conditions designed to attract the public by any means whatever trite it may be. Accordingly, satellite channels are filled with trivial and highly sensational or lurid programmes which promote certain values of corruption. Many investors have also entered the area of drama production only designed to fill hours of transmission, and thus boost profit, with no useful content or artistic value.
Censorship and spoiling citizens minds
Among the serious weaknesses of the Arab press and media is the problem of censorship and curtailment of the freedom of the press. According to Correspondents without Limits reports a third of the world s population live in countries where there is no freedom of the press, and the majority live in countries with no democratic systems or with fatal flaws in the democratic process, as freedom of the press is a highly problematic concept in most of these regimes, particularly in view of the fact that access to information in modern times is vital to the survival of undemocratic regimes. To this end, most undemocratic societies use state-run news agencies to provide a political support base (often brutal, using police, military and intelligence agencies) to quash any attempt by the media or individuals to disagree with the party line in controversial matters.
What must be subject to censorship, particularly on satellite channels, is all that dulls awareness and misquides. This may be the real task of the censor and not just cutting scenes of kisses or indecent women s clothes. But how far censorship still is from such media demagogy which misdirects the youth s minds!
The new stage which the Arab region is currently passing through requires new types of serious, credible media, particularly as showing a lot of platitude on TV by way of song videoclips, movies or drama on the pretext that it is public demand has proved to be false. The public felt frustration and despair for years and never felt they lived in a real homeland where they choose their rulers with their free will, and, accordingly a state of negativism prevailed which led producers to make such false allegations. That the public are after transparency, credibility and good taste has been proved by the current Arab relentless uprisings in which the public call for regaining lost freedom and basic rights, including the right to such media that shows consideration for their minds.