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A NEW MINISTER OF INFORMATION, - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Choosing to dissociate yourself from resembling Ahmad Said, famous broadcaster during Nasser’s regime, or Mohamed Said Al-Sahhaf, former Iraqi Information Minister, when you appear the first time before public as an Arab “Information Minister”, is in fact a good and subtle start. Isn’t it?

This is how the new Saudi Information Minister, Dr. Iyad Madani, presented himself while addressing the “Janadriyyah” cultural festival recently. The minister asked the audience to change their stereotypes and traditional images about the role of the Information Minister, especially with regards to him. He wanted them to wipe the image of Ahmad Said – who broadcasted false information about the war-front during 1967 Arab Israeli war – and that of Mohamed Said Al Sahhaf the former Information Minister of Iraq. “Bureaucracy is notorious, especially if it is associated with the media.” Madani added.

Undoubtedly, it is an encouraging start and a cordial acquaintance between the person in charge of “regulating” or “controlling” the local media one hand, and the journalists who always complain secretly and publicly about restrictions imposed by the Ministry of Information. However, in spite of the sweetness of these words and their positive impact on the psychology of media people, they remain as mere “re-assurances” not up to the level of the talk on a new Media culture.

It is still too early to speak about that “culture”, which realizes that the ceiling has to be elevated as much as the sky is. It is still too early to stop dealing with the “permissible” and the “non permissible’ with that same old mentality that was operating when there were no increasing satellite channels that say a lot about Arab politics and politicians, and no internet, which publishes what makes the faces of Arab conventional censorship officials sweat heavily.

The official Arab Media Censorship was unable to meet these aforementioned hastening developments. This explains why some standards, known well by media activists, were a subject of astonishment and surprise. These standards are so restrictive to an extent that forces the media activist to remain stuck to the floor and bending his back to pass, whence; the air is jammed with birds from every color and type, sometimes singing and other times crying (freely though)!

As the overriding talk now in the Arab scene, from ocean to Gulf, is the talk on “reform” and “change”, we have to realize that “media reform” is an integral part of this overall talk about undertaking reforms. It is strange that the complaints about the current Arab media situation did not come only from both independent or dependent media people, but they were also voiced by Arab governments.

In Jordan, which was one of the very first Arab countries to cancel the Ministry of Information, King Abdullah was among the first supporters of developing the media. He also called for freedom of expression in the media so that it could reflect the changes that are taking place in the Jordanian kingdom. It is again surprising that state officials in Jordan welcomed the cancellation of the Information Ministry. The fact is, one does not really know why is it useful to keep the Arab Information Ministries while their abilities to control what the audience receive or not receive has greatly diminished?

I do acknowledge the government’s right – as any other party – to deliver its voice, explain its goals and defend its policies. However, this could be met by varied and several means, not the most important of which expanding and enlarging the role of the Ministry by casting its awesome shadow on all places.

To the contrary of the above, if the governments relief themselves from the media file and consequently went on breaking up the responsibilities relates to it, the impact would be very positive on the media itself. It will drop most of the criticism presently directed against governments concerning what is written and said in Arab media. The external, as well as the local, observer believes that the local media is all governed and controlled according to the political ceiling of the political authority, which allows no output unless by its approval. Even though, the person engaged in the details of the media activities knows that things are not as decisive and static as what is being said, and that – at least in some Arab countries – there is no usurpation of all the media parts. Yet, such knowledge is useless versus what is settled in the general feeling.

Going back to Jordan, and the usefulness of giving up the ministry of information by making it a part of the historical administration, Jordanian observers saw that: “the reform of the Jordanian official media, liberating it from the permanent security obsessions and dissociating it from the state, are some of the main challenges that are going to test the ability of the Jordanian government.”

These opinions about the official Arab curtailing of Arab independent and local media do not – by any means – acquit some non-governmental media, nor that we think that they are the way out of the immobility and official nature of the government media. Some of these independent medias make us regret the days of the boring and officially oriented government media.

So, let us ask: who feeds religious extremism in the Arab World, glorifies Al-Qaeda, and proselytizes the tapes of “Sheikh Usama Bin Laden” (as some permanent guest speakers of “Al Jazeera” like to call him)? The answer is that all what is previous and worse is carried out by an Arab “independent” media forum that is proud of its “independence” as it claims.

I will not speak about other Arab newspapers and satellite channels that do not lead anywhere except to the world of fundamentalism and the forest of dictatorship; meanwhile, they insist that they combat despotism and injustice. I mean these media voices who glorify Saddam’s or Syria’s Baa’th or the “Green Book” of Qadhaffi. These mixed papers and confused minds make us say to their model, which feeds backwardness under the pretension of revolting against the current situation, the following Arab poetry: There might be a day that made me cry, yet, I regretted its passing when I moved to another.

This however, does not mean that every voice critical of the Arab situation necessarily belongs to that backward regiment. There are those who correct, reform and criticize for the future not driven by the feeling of humiliation –caused by the general deterioration – to nihilist or destructive choices such as Bin Laden’s and its nationalist variations.

Talking about the decent jokes of the Saudi Information Minister, who is an intellectual media person (i.e. a solid professional), makes us expect from him more understanding to these fears. I do not think that he sees the Arab Media, which is subject to either the state’s frame of reference or the politicized Islamic (or for the same matter Nationalist) discourse, as leverage for a renaissance or a source of truly professional information – let alone a harbor of enlightenment and rationalism. I do not ask him to think and act in this manner; all that I wish to point is that we are asking for some “truthful” and “sincere” media. That’s all.

The criticism of the Media condition is not new for the Minister, who was the former Editor-in-Chief of “the Saudi Gazette” as well as the former General Director of the “Okaz Institution for Publishing and Journalism. He is also the son of the journalist and literary writer Amin Madani.

We do not want to remind the “writer” Iyad Madani with his own old words about the imperativeness of reforming the media and lifting up restrictions, for these are past days. We remain, however, expecting the fruits of his actions after his “excellency’s” appointment in the top of that hot Ministry.

As some Arab media personnel think, because of the high sense of censorship, the importance of the Interior Ministry in our societies are only matched by the importance of the Ministry of Information. In many cases, some parties that are not even officially entitled to practice censorship and guidance do so because of an imagined fear on “virtue”, “ideas” or “public interest”. This “public interest” has a meaning that entails a lot of ambiguity because of the possibility to include both a narrow and wide interpretation of such “interest” without any decisiveness or clarity.

We do not want to be over-optimistic, but what is not totally attained should not be totally abandoned. The appointment of an intellectual and humorous – in terms of telling and accepting jokes – person as a Minister of Information remains the best possible option under our current socio-political condition.

Translated By Mohamed El Ansary.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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