The Arab media divides into two camps over every important event, with each camp becoming entrenched in their views and people following the dictates of their convictions – and occasionally their raw emotions – which is something that varies according to the changing information.
Do you recall the 9/11 attacks? In the beginning there was a sense of joy and elation with regards to America suffering this blow, and then positions began to form and solidify, and the position of people in the Arab and Islamic world divided into [opposing] teams.
Currently the Arab media – both newspapers and satellite channels – has again divided over what is happening.
This is something that has occurred over more than one hot topic during the first decade of the new millennium, from the war in Afghanistan to the war to topple Saddam Hussein to Hezbollah’s wars to the Gaza war and then the events in Sudan, the Tunisian revolution, and finally the protests in Egypt.
Why does the Arab media divide over events such as these?
The nature of analyzing events and the nature of interests differ [between one media camp and another]; this is natural and is neither cause for praise or satire, this would be the nature of human beings and the logic of different interests even if Arab satellite channels like Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya did not enjoy the influence that they do today. We would have witnessed the same division and contrast in style in 1990 over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; we would have seen Al Jazeera embracing the speeches and statements of [Iraqi Information Minister] Latif Naseef Jassim and devoting long hours of broadcast to the Jordanian [Muslim] Brotherhood, or Yasser Arafat’s group or Algeria’s [religious] fundamentalists, or Egyptian nationalists, or Yemeni Baathists, who would praise and cheer Saddam Hussein’s invasion [of Kuwait]. On the other hand, we would see Al-Arabiya focusing its coverage on the Kuwaiti voices of resistance, and the views of the Gulf and Arab public that reject and oppose Saddam Hussein’s invasion. Of course, both Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya would ensure there was sufficient space [in their broadcast] for certain coverage that stood in contrast and opposite to their main coverage, although by its very nature this would be controlled. This is because a media outlet that only broadcasts one viewpoint is a media outlet that no longer possesses even a minimum of professionalism but rather is just loudly sermonizing [one point of view].
What is true for satellite television channels is also true for newspapers, and we all recall Asharq Al-Awsat’s battles against those that have attacked this newspaper, from fundamentalists to nationalists. For example, Asharq Al-Awsat has been attacked for not adopting the language or rhetoric of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, which utilizes a language of mobilization and systematic attack against the opponents – both fundamentalist and secular – of the revolutionary trend in the Arab world.
The Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper has fought huge media battles with regards to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and then later over the 9/11 attacks, Hezbollah’s occupation of Beirut, the Gaza war, the Iraq war, and other hot topics.
However due to the predominance of the television culture or the “image culture” as some experts like to describe it, the [television] screen – thanks to its very nature of depicting events live as they are happening – has an immediate and more visible influence, even if this is not necessarily a deeper influence [than that of newspapers].
With regards to the events in Tunisia and Egypt, we could notice that Al Jazeera was warmly received by many of the protestors, and this is natural as this channel has been transformed into a loudspeaker for the protests, as well as an even greater tool to help mobilize the people than before, where the channel’s previous behavior and coverage was not free from this nature of mobilization! Al Jazeera became the [media] platform that would broadcast [media] content with the aim of raising the morale of the protestors and contributing to weakening the opposite front, namely the regimes and the governments. Here we are looking at a different kind of media, in other words that of a mobilization media, and there is nothing wrong with a media representing one party in the conflict, such as the army’s media or Hezbollah’s media; one of the functions of such a representative media is to issue rhetoric, raise morale, weaken the opponents, and provide an embellished image of victories. In the case of Egypt, Al Jazeera doubled or even trebled its figures with regards to the number of people taking part in the demonstrations, or the number of demonstrators killed. As for Al Arabiya, it’s coverage of events fluctuated, sometimes giving more [broadcasting] time to the supporters of Hosni Mubarak’s regime – who seemed to be confused and in a state of turmoil at the beginning of the crisis – and then later it moved closer to the opposition and the youth who had been arrested, even broadcasting an interview with former head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Mahdi Akef. However following this, Al-Arabiya quickly took a different approach, oscillating between the protestors and those calling this crisis to be resolved and dialogue to take place [between the demonstrators and the Egyptian government].
A friend in the media who supports the youths of the Tahrir Square revolution against the regime told me “I cannot watch Al Jazeera in a continuous manner, because I feel that it forcibly grabs me and drags me towards a specific point of view. I say to myself, addressing the channel: Let me choose my own point of view, I support the revolution of the Tahrir Square youth, I do not need to be spoon-fed by you!”
The question that must be asked here is: is Al Jazeera to blame for this behavior and manner of media coverage? This is particularly interesting since the angry youth and protestors do not want anything at this moment other than for somebody to listen to their viewpoints, news and analysis of events, and nothing more. Personally, I do not think Al Jazeera is to blame for this so long as it views itself as a major player in the region – beyond even that of some states – and so log as it, and those behind it, believe that such behavior profits one side and bears fruit. From here, the nature of its coverage of events is consistent with the nature of the media discourse of the Iranian – Syrian axis, and what we are now seeing is the state of Al Jazeera! We have seen Al Jazeera behave in this manner – the manner of an international state – with regards to its coverage of the Iranian protests, that was extremely biased towards the story being put forward by Ahmadinejad’s side; we did not see the same close attention that Al Jazeera has paid to the Egyptian scene, and it is certain that were this happening in Syria, Al Jazeera would not rush to cover events there in the same manner.
Al Jazeera has become akin to a [political] party; it has its admirers and supporters, and it even has international relations with states, and it enough to look at this item of news published yesterday [in the Los Angeles Times]. The news headline reads “US mends frosty relations with Al Jazeera” and the news story reads “the Obama administration is courting the pan-Arab television network Al Jazeera in an attempt to improve a history of testy relations with one of the most influential news outlets in the Middle East.”
Therefore we are looking at the news of two superpowers, the USA and Al Jazeera, reconciling relations with one another!
The conflict over the portrayal of news is simply part of the nature of this scene; the media does not just report events, it also influencing the course that these events take. Even the protestors and the regimes are well aware of this, and that can be seen in the questions put forward by the Lebanese critic Ibrahim al-Arees in his excellent column for the Al-Hayat newspaper entitled “One thousand faces for thousands of years.” In this editorial, al-Arees looks at the protests that occurred before the age of satellite television, digital cameras, and reality television; he writes “the age of television and breaking news with regards to the demonstrations and protests has become a form of reality television.” He then went on to talk about the revolutions that occurred in the 1960s, writing “anybody who returns to the images and videos of the demonstrations during these years of struggle – regardless of our [political] position today towards this and the years of tumultuous politics that truly guaranteed that street protests could change the world – can see that the sincerity and passion on the faces of those involved, and their belief in what they were doing, without their being concerned whether they were being recorded by television cameras or not.”
Some may believe that al-Arees’s words are harsh, but he is speaking in a general manner and not about what happened in Cairo or Tunisia in particular, this is because what these youths are doing today is important and complex that is extremely difficult to analyze or trace back to any single influence. However what cannot be denied is the large role played by the media, particularly after traditional media (television and newspapers) have merged with more modern media forms (the internet and mobile phones) resulting in everybody beginning to address everybody else, and every media outlet being keep to monopolize the reporting of events.
The scene is mixed, with the interest of the state and parties blended with the dreams of the new revolutionaries, the appetite of the new media, and means of influencing the course of events rather than just reporting what is happening in a negative manner. Therefore the talk about the impartiality of this [media] outlet or that now belongs to children’s bedtime stories.