Wednesday, April 14th 2010 / Claremont McKenna College / USA
Ladies and Gentleman,
Allow me to express my pleasure to be amongst you today, and to thank your esteemed University for providing me with this opportunity.
As you may know, we are here today to address the topic of the Arab Media with a focus on the impact of the television on the political context and the role the news and dialogues play in connecting us to the world around us on one hand, and in fabricating events and shaping the public opinions and minds on the other hand.
It goes without saying that the present is a development of the past. And to understand this evolution, we need to go back in history to the beginning of the Arab media and consider its different aspects.
The first printed periodical publication carrying news written by and for Arabs was Jurnal al-Iraq, which began appearing in Baghdad in Arabic and Turkish in the year 1816, by order of the Ottoman ruler Daud Pasha. Two Arab newspapers began publishing in Cairo in the French language after Napoleon Bonaparte campaign in Egypt in 1865. These were followed by Al Waqa’eh newspaper published by Mohammed Ali Pasha in 1828. In 1867, Suriya official gazette began publication in Syria, in addition to Al-Furat and Al-Shahba which appearedin Aleppo. In the early twentieth century, many newspapers, including Al Mu’ayid, Al Liwa’a, Al Siyasa, Al Balagh, appeared in Egypt and Syria. During the nineteenth century and until the early twentieth century, all newspapers and publications were controlled by the ottoman and foreign authorities.
After the Ottomans collapse and the First World War, the Arab Nationalism ideology started to evolve in the fifties and sixties to reflect the political views that invaded the Arab region after the defeat of Palestine in 1948. However, the journalists of this episode failed to bring together the diverse currents of the Arab Media to found the principles of a common Arab identity. As a result, the Arab media remained dispersed in divergent and competitive communities swinging to the rhythm of the Arab Dream, an Arabic song that turned into a large success when heard broadcast on the transistor radios and the televisions throughout the Arab world. This experience revealed the reality of the Arab Media that do not go beyond the boundaries of the State institutions they represent.
With that being said, I come to the subject of recent history, without doubt much more important, at least for me because I tend to view the Arab Media from a more realistic perspective whereas I lived during a period where the Arab Media has faced many challenges in overcoming the lack of advanced communication means. I used to climb onto the roof of my house to get a clearer reception of one of the very few radio stations that existed at the time. Broadcast conditions were even worse for television, and viewers were limited to whatever channels the antenna picks up. Worse still, the broadcast news has largely ignored the deprivation suffered by those areas, while its main focus was – and still is – to report the daily activities and visits of the president, ministers and other political officials. This was one of the main reasons that led the Arab communities to seek the latest news information from other reliable and objective sources like the BBC.
Despite these challenges, the Arab journalists continued to struggle for freedom of opinion and expression, working on the frontlines of their respective country’s regulations unraveling the tangle of events. Many are the examples that could be cited but I am going to report only brief ones.
Allow me to start in Lebanon, not only because I am Lebanese, but also because the Lebanese experience is very diverse in terms of text, audio and videomedia streams and because Lebanese journalists paid high price, received threats and were even exposed to murder for speaking their opinion and expressing their opposition. May 6 is yearly celebrated in Lebanon as Martyrs’ Day where commemoration of twelve journalists perpetrated by the Ottoman ruler (Jamal Pasha) is made. It is a real paradox that Riad Taha, Head of the Journalist Union who dedicated this yearly memory to the journalist martyr, was murdered in 1980, hit by six bullets in his head. Taha was known for his opposition of the political, intellectual and social feudalism. One of his famous statement delivered during a celebration organized by his hometown compatriots to honor his achievements as successful journalist, was that he addressed them saying: It is not important for me to be a journalist. It is more important for you to be readers. He strongly advocated the freedom of expression and worked to raise public awareness of human rights. I quote a brief of his front page article in Al Kifah Al Arabi newspaper addressing the political officials and which was believed to be one of the main reasons for his assassination:
“The caravan of consciousness and progress runs fast, therefore do not oppose it because it will run down anyone who stands in its way. I wish you read, so that you know that the gladiators who are men of thought and principle do not become weak under terror or oppression and are not scared by weapons because they do not fear death. But you do not read and you do not know. If you kill Riyad Taha, his death will make him immortal and a fire from his blood will eat you and your descendents. Truthfully, I pity you more than I hold grudge against you “.
During that same period, another journalist was killed: Salim Al Lawzi. He was kidnapped, shot and had his hand burnt by acidic solution. The crime was registered as carried out by an anonymous… before them, Kamel Marwa, the founder of Al Hayat Newspaper and Nassib Metni were also murdered..
This has not stopped the journalists from continuing their struggle.. and journalists continued to lose their lives for the sake of their cause.. after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, two of the most prominent figures in the media sector were assassinated, being Gebran Tueni and Samir Kassir, not to forget the assassination attempt on May Chidiac, a media colleague that I’ll come specifically to her later in my speech.
As I go through those historical events, it occurs to me that I could have possibly been one of those who have paid and are paying heavily for expressing their opinions and advocating their cause, should I have not chosen, like many others, to seek freedom and objectivity in foreign countries … and should I have not opted to enjoy comfortably the freedom of speech through the Arab air… a freedom that is almost inaccessible on the Arab land. But despite all these facts, the media situation in Lebanon enjoyed and still enjoys better conditions than in many other Arab countries..
This does not mean that challenges have always cropped up and things have never worked out along the way as the Arab media has also witnessed important developments and reforms. However, the controlling eye of the government and security services has been omnipresent and internalized on the journalists and the press activities considered to have crossed the red lines, not to mention the deeply entrenched self-censorship practiced by a number of media persons. Each Arab country has established prevention defenses and included them explicitly in their constitutions guaranteeing freedom of expression, but restricting by force the use of this freedom or the invocation of phrases and slogans, such as discord, violation of public morals, insult to Islam, provoking hatred or prejudices, etc. that constituted a reference for many prosecutors in customary, exceptional and military courts without any transparent foundations.
I would like to cite some examples to clarify my argument:
According to Freedom House, the Algerian authorities restricted the right of expression of the journalists stipulated under the Constitution through intimidation and imposition of prison terms. But in 2007, the organization of “Reporters without Boarders” expressed satisfaction vis-à-vis the status of freedom of speech in Algeria and reported lower cases of condemnation and harassment for journalists. However, other organizations reported decline in press freedom during the presidential election last year.
In Morocco, media restrictions have been reformed after amendment of the Press Code. However, it is still prohibited to criticize the King and the Kingdom or to publish unauthorized news about the Western Sahara problem. According to the Organization of “Reporters without Boarders”, the freedom of press in Morocco has declined in 2010.
In Jordan, it is forbidden by law to criticize the ruling family, the parliament or the armed forces or even to harm the exterior relations of the country.
In Egypt, despite the evolution of media and the relative freedom gained by the journalists, repression and imprisonment are still actively practiced and it came to an extent where an assault has been committed against the editor of a local newspaper (Al-Arabi).
In Yemen as well as in Tunisia, chasing reporters on various charges, closing down newspapers and arresting media figures are acts exercised to diminish the freedom of expression.
I would be able to include lots more examples, but this is good enough to give you a picture of the reality of the local Arab media. However, the picture is not the same but quite different when it comes Arab satellite channels, where the freedom of speech has broken the barriers and taboos, including religious and political taboos, are openly debated giving the opportunity for Arab viewers to watch and listen to various opinions and views.
The foundation of Al Jazeera television was behind this phenomenal revolution. Al Jazeera is a TV station specialized in regional and international news coverage. The station’s motto “the opinion and the other opinion” has largely contributed in solidifying the station’s reputation in the Western hemisphere and in serving as the sole voice broadcasting the Arab world’s news around the globe.
Al Jazeera has pumped oxygen into the Arab media, and formed an outlet for journalists and presspersons from all over the Arab world, including myself, who flocked to work for the station. The first thing I remember about joining Al-Jazeera is being for the first time among a large number of Arab colleagues who came from different backgrounds and spoke with different Arabic accents. It required me a lot of effort and focus to understand what they say, and thus to be able to communicate with them. However, this difference in the dialects and experiences has soon melted down and molded into a unified community that gathered the station’s personnel within a genuine Arab league, as described by one of our guests, reflecting the different aspirations of the Arab viewers who started to demand for reform of the freedoms of opinion and expression and the promotion of open debates within their local communities. Actually, this has contributed in raising the expectations from the other Arabic satellite channels, born after Al Jazeera, and incited them to engage in open and frank dialogues, allowing the viewer to listen to other opinions.
In addition, the Arab viewer is no longer a mere receiver but becomes an active participant welcomed to express his views during the various TV talk shows. Al Jazeera, for example, had dedicated a TV program for ordinary citizens who would be given the opportunity to participate as guests and analysts engaged in an open debate about current issues and hot topics, which included during that time, the Iraq and Afghanistan issues, in addition to the Arab-Israeli conflict and other topics of interest. I was the first who presented this program called Manbar AL Jazeera (Al Jazeera Platform). I still remember the excitement and reaction of the callers who could hear themselves expressing publicly their true opinions without fear or favor…. Of course, this was at the beginning of the freedom of speech revolution… today, the viewers’ interest in politics and news has dropped and their interest has turned to reality television and entertainment programs … But of course, upon the occurrence of any breaking news, all eyes turn increasingly again to the latest news coverage.
Back to the beginnings, I would say that this episode was the golden age of our experience during which we exercised our unrestricted rights without violation of the media ethics: we were constantly in search of one opinion against another opinion. We acted as devil’s advocates in search of the truth in our role as reporters and presenters… Impartiality and objectivity were our weapons….
Impartiality and objectivity ….. Is there really absolute objectivity? This question has constantly intrigued scholars who ended up by advocating the concept of relative objectivity…
Objectivity in our work has faced in recent years a number of ideologies that were impossible to challenge, especially after the events of September 11 when President Bush divided the world into two concepts: people with and people against … And those who were unlikely to accept either side found themselves lost, albeit for a while…
In the midst of the divisions of the world and the regional and international political conflicts in the Arab region, the Arab media lives the same state of division. This causes us to wonder about the role of the Arab media in today’s world: is it a mere reflection of the reality of the world around us, or a key player that dominates and drives the Arab public opinion? Is the role of those players restricted to transmit the events or to contribute to their fabrication? Is it at least influenced by the current events or influencing them?
All these questions may be also addressed around the Western media that is considered by some researchers as being serving some financial and political interests and facing many challenges ….
Finally, allow me to quote the late U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who said: “the only security of all is in a free press.”
Years after his death, and despite the great progress achieved by the global media, we still wonder whether free press really exists. And what freedom are we talking about here? Is it the freedom of the media in presenting the opinion of those in charge? Or the freedom of the journalist in expressing his own opinion of the world by means of the audio, visual or text media?
I do not know if you have came to a conclusion that the freedom experienced by the satellite Arab media, in particular, has set the grounds for efficient improvement… Al Jazeera is a dream that has come true thanks to the efforts and support of H.H. the Emir of Qatar.. this dream was set as an example for others who struggled for the Arab media freedom.. Of course, everybody has benefited from this reform: the decision makers, the media person and the viewer … But the media persons who chose to remain independent and free, they had to face dramatic challenges… I would like to go back here to the Lebanese journalist May Chidiac, who was victim of an attempt assassination… however, her severe injuries did not stop her from pursuing her journey … She restarted a TV talk-show entitled Bi Kul Jura’a (Boldly).. However, her boldness did not fit the television station, and this has led May to render her resignation live on air…
I would like to ask another question: Will we be able to get to the day when the media and media persons would be free, with “objectivity” being the measurement of all media behaviors. What’s the way to get to there? Is it by returning to our origins or by transmitting the truth and only the truth? This may be the only logical way, but hey: Is there only one truth?
I think you expect me to answer your questions rather than asking you questions… for this reason, I’ll stop at this point and look forward to answering any and all of your questions.