In his latest movie ‘Bobos’ the famous Egyptian actor Adel Imam plays the role of a businessman who swindles banks and protects himself through his connections. In one scene, he discusses his new investment plans with his team and lawyers and talks about setting up a satellite channel affiliated to the businessman. We see Adel Imam responding to those who underestimate the project by reminding them that they were the ones who told him that every giant economic conglomerate requires a media institution to serve it.
This comedic exchange sums up the magnitude of rapid change that has suddenly affected the media in the Arab world after the iron fist of state censorship loosened its grip. The state no longer heavily controls the media, the flow and type of information, the interpretation and the quality of news that it transmits to conceal the main news stories. But this reduction in the state’s authority is incomplete; we cannot state decisively that the media in the Arab world has become an independent sphere equal to the political field. These two fields are intertwined and work towards influencing, using and serving “public opinion.”
It is safe to say that the communications revolution, the outburst of information and the successive and multiple forms of communication have baffled the authoritative censor. It is no longer about a few radio stations, television channels and a handful of newspapers; we are now regularly seeing hundreds and hundreds of new television channels being launched, and newspapers of every kind coming into existence. Despite that it is possible, though on a much smaller scale, to control the orientations and contents of such mediums, because of the openness of their proprietors and editorial executives, it is impossible to control the internet, which is loaded with data, news and analyses provided by unknown people.
Just look at the effect that websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have had, not to mention personal emails and chat rooms, on shaping public opinion and building interests. These forms of medium have no boundaries whatsoever. What is discussed online finds its way into newspapers and television and vice versa. Of course there are expensive stories that are fabricated by commercial media, the kind that spends a lot on creating riveting editorial content. But this spending might prove to be damaging because of its economic futility in light of the fierce competition brought about by the free and fast internet mediums. There is still a lot of debate and argument in the media industry over how to deal with this new reality.
The most dangerous of all these transformations and the “revival” in new media is the increasingly voracious appetite of all kinds of media to find content, create news and attract the audience by any means. As the competition heats up and with the presence of rivalry mechanisms that guarantee preoccupying such media with the idea of exclusivity, regardless of serving certain political or cultural projects, we find that a news feature such as Haifa Wahbi’s wedding, some scandal surrounding a footballer or a collaboration between an Islamic preacher and a famous singer, becomes the object of rivalry between liberal and fundamentalist media bodies on the internet or in the newspapers. In other words, everybody, regardless of ideologies and cultures, has an appetite for news rivalry. This rivalry intensifies day after day. Of course every media body “twists” some story or other according to its own orientation, but pursuing “exciting” news is the main factor in this process.
For that reason, many mistakes are committed and inaccuracies occur, and as a result apologies and corrections are made and sometimes even lawsuits are filed or threats of legal action are issued. But this is not enough to curb the vehement media craving, as website designers remain vigilantly on the lookout. How can the owners of newspapers or the producers of talk shows convince their clients that they have something new and something different to offer to what they have already read on the internet or in text messages?
An Arab “media pact” won’t do, nor will preaching in the media about morals or even the hint of resorting to authoritative control, simply because the demand is enormous and it still can’t be met by the supply. The Arab audience is so eager to know the news and what is beyond that news, and there is no confidence, as usual, in what the state media says. I think we need some time to consolidate a new culture amongst Arab media consumers; a culture that distinguishes between what deserves attention and what doesn’t. But until then, we all need to show some patience and tolerance. Of course there are some cases where offence is caused and defamation occurs amid this chaotic media avalanche, but what can we do about that?
At times we find the most bizarre and eccentric of messages in our inbox about economic, religious, political or media figures. Most of these messages belong to the world of lies and fabrication. These messages are widely spread but ultimately they melt like ice cubes under the scorching sun of the desert that does away with everything.
A few days ago, Bahaa Abu Shaqa, Egyptian tycoon Hisham Talaat Mustafa’s lawyer, announced that he had taken the case on after a final ruling of death by hanging was reached at Egypt’s Court of Cassation. Abu Shaqa said that the upcoming period was critical and could not bear a media frenzy or “show”. His statement was published by the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm.
Similarly, a crisis emerged in the Egyptian media and the field of sports because of a talk show called ‘Al Qaheera Al Youm [Cairo Today]. The presenter, whilst quoting some foreign newspapers, repeated accusations cast against the Egyptian football national team regarding their behaviour the night before a match. This enraged members of the Egyptian team and their head coach, and the presenter had to defend himself. What is important here is that the head coach described what happened as a media “show” at the expense of the national team.
The question here is: isn’t this “show” the magic wand that the mass media seeks? Everyone is searching for that kind of propaganda. This industry is run by several parties; even lawyers are involved in this show in quest of fame and fortune. They, as well as others, sell themselves to one client: the masses or public opinion.
But does that mean there is no way we can control the media’s appetite? Or does it mean we should describe the social and media status quo as it really is, away from any talk about morals and principles? I believe that this is the solution. The only guarantee that would save the freedoms and rights of individuals and institutions from the fangs of the bloodsucking media is to lay down a clear legal criterion to which the media and its victims could turn as we live in a new age where data and stories fly around the world without fear.