Hosni Mubarak on Al Arabia And the revolving door of Arab journalism

Al Arabia satellite news channel, founded in 2003, and based in Dubai, conducted an interview with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last month in which President Mubarak talked with reporter Sa’ad Silawi on various topics about Egypt and the Arab world politics.

Al Arabia promoted the interview as a major journalism coup in landing an interview with a major head of state of a major Arab country, the interview, however, did not live to its hype, and looked more like a pre packaged stunt.

During the interview, President Mubarak appeared relaxed and came across as plain talking and level headed president who talks sense to his people without the air of arrogance the region’s leaders are famous for

Mubarak’s level headed, down to earth image was fueled by Al Arabia’s reporter Sa’ad Silawi’s chit-chat type interview as oppose to engaging in serious questioning of a president of a major Arab country on issues of policy and governance.

One of the interview lowest points were when Mr. Silawi was going back and forth with questions about the late Sheik Zayed of the United Arab Emirates. His questions were centered on Sheik Zayed’s philanthropy and his donations to poor Arabs and Arab leaders.

One could argue that the interview looked more like a documentary about Sheik Zayed, who nonetheless deserves to be honored for his philanthropy, but not necessarily in a piece that was packaged to us as an interview with the president of Egypt to talk about Egypt’s future, the war in Iraq, and the Palestinian Israeli conflict.

Al Arabia describes itself on it’s website as an independent, self-empowered (whatever that means) news organization, and that it takes it upon itself to speak to the “viewer’s heart and emotion" “by talking full honesty to their minds and intelligence.

However, Silawi’s repeated attempts to stuff PR materials about sheik Zayed were annoying and shameless. Moreover, it was an insult to the viewers’ minds. The minds Al Arabia said that it wants to be honest with.

Shabby journalism presupposes that the viewers or readers are no more than a bunch of cattle that could be spoon-fed propaganda masquerading as “Journalism”

“Mr. President, do you think that the United States will become a religious state” (meaning a theocracy). Asked Mr. Silawi

Like an old hand politician President Mubarak laughed the question off perhaps enjoying such an easy ride.

The question served no meaningful purpose to the viewers; however, it was obvious that such question was meant to run the clock down.

With little research, Mr. Silawi could have found that the United States is ruled by a secular government which means that the government does not and should not support any particular religion, and that it has a constitution which prohibits the republic and therefore the president from injecting religion into politics.

Although religion is well and alive in the United Sates, Americans in fact are more conservative and religious than many parts of the world; moreover they tend to be more socially conservative than certain segments of Arab societies that are supposed to be “traditional” and “conservative"

Another question was dealing with the newly published report about the state of illiteracy in the Arab world which revealed an embarrassing 40% illiteracy rate and in some Arab countries it was over 70%.

President Mubarak put the blame for the high illiteracy rate in Egypt on the increase numbers of the Egyptian population. That response did not raise an eyebrow, or a hair on Mr. Silawi’s head.

Poor government planning, mismanagement of state resources, corruption and other factors were absent from President Mubarak’s response.

The interview sunk to lower depths when Mr. Silawi, bashfully, asked President Mubarak about the controversy of his son, Jamal Mubarak, and the prospect of succeeding him in ruling Egypt.

Such an important issues was kept toward the end of the interview with little room to elaborate or ask more questions, which again lead me to question Al Arabia professed commitment to truth!

President Mubarak, answered that question by saying that “Jamal is my son, and he is helping me like any other son of the region’s leaders”

This response gave an indication about President Mubarak’s thinking regarding his view of the office of presidency, the concept of governing, and his view of the Egyptian people.

We know that in business, a son could learn and maybe inherits his father’s trade or business, but Egypt is not a super market or a butcher shop or a personal property of President Mubarak which he could bestow upon his son Jamal to rule those 70 million Egyptians without asking them first.

Mr. Silawi saw no problem with this response which would have been any keen journalist dream to cease the window of opportunity and engage the president with tougher questions about this particular issue.

Mr. Silawi, and more importantly Al Arabia owe it to their viewers to bring them the truth and ask questions the public deem very important. But from what we saw, this interview was far from it.

On its web site, Al Arabia declares in its Channel image/ identity (mission statement) written in English-Al Arabia says in it that it will respect the “hearts and emotions” of the Arab people and bring them “speedy news”

In order for Al Arabia to win the hearts and minds, and therefore market share, it should first establish a level of trust between itself as a news organization and its viewers. Principles such as objectivity and fairness in reporting the news, integrity of its news room operations, and develop a code of ethics for all of its news gathering and reporting operations which should be the bedrock of any news organization.

Although such basic journalistic principles were no were to be found on its Channel/image identity, however, it’s not too late to start implementing those principles.