The question seemed very simple and basic: What is needed to make the Arab media genuinely independent? It was posed by a team from the US State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), IREX, a Washington-based NGO, international agencies as well as private European and American foundations. Asked to answer this question during a two-day seminar organised in Abu Dhabi between Oct. 3-6, was a group of young, open-minded journalists and media practitioners from the main regions of the Arab world, from Oman to Morocco.
Waiting for the answer were key US officials in Washington involved in the push for democratic reform in the greater Middle East, as well as the US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and this Gulf country’s information minister. Sheikh Abdulla Ben Zayed told us that he stopped going to meetings of Arab interior ministers because of his profound disappointment with the Arab media scene.
The participants in the conference succeeded in quickly overcoming what has been referred to as the Arab street’s deep suspicion of the US motives. Instead, participants chose to challenge Washington to prove it is serious about reform, despite its strategic relations with some autocratic Arab rulers.
A woman journalist from Oman spoke about the impossibility of talking about human rights in her country, let alone expecting a free press or thinking of creating a journalists’ syndicate or a human rights NGO. A Saudi editor who was forced to resign from a leading newspaper explained how the minister of information in his country must approve the choice of editor of any Saudi newspaper. A journalist from Syria explained that emergency laws are often used to put away journalists and muzzle the press, while a Jordan publisher explained that tens of interconnected laws act as a sword in the hands of government officials if they choose to curtail media freedoms. A Kuwaiti lawyer spoke about the attempts by Islamic parliamentarians to legislate the capital punishment for any journalist who curses the Almighty.
To be sure, Arab journalists did agree that improvement, albeit slow and ambiguous, is taking place throughout the Arab world. Licensing of newspapers is being eased, government interference has lessened and journalists, especially the Egyptians, have succeeded in changing laws and practices that favour fines rather than imprisonment for media-related offences. Private radio and television, which has been and largely continues to be a government monopoly, is also changing. Audiovisual laws are being discussed or have already been made into law.
Efforts are being made to convert state-run media into genuine public media and private radio and TV, with news and talk shows (FM music stations are plentiful) closer to becoming a reality than any time in the past.
For the Arab media practitioners, these improvements are too few and too slow. One participant noted that when private and community radio stations abound on every continent, it is hard to understand why Arab listeners (with the exception of Lebanon and Palestine) are still denied their own radio stations while international radio stations are allowed to broadcast in their countries.
Arab journalists were quick to name what is needed. While all agreed that genuine media law reforms are needed, many felt that to do that, a combination of external pressure, and raising the awareness of local legislatures, judges, prosecutors and politicians is necessary.
Official information is rare in many Arab countries where basic statistics, like the country’s census results, unemployment figures or bilateral agreements are not public. An access to information act was seen as crucial to invigorate the Arab media which were universally declared as weak in quality and local content and highly dependent on Arab and foreign news and wire service. Furthermore, participants suggested that live and unedited broadcasting of each country’s parliament works can give voice to the people even at a time when most parliaments are not elected freely and fairly.
The American expectation that any problem could be solved by money was quickly shot down by one Saudi editor saying that his newspaper can fund training, but what is needed is more than just a few journalism training workshops and rather a holistic plan that includes long-term training by fellow Arab trainers, revamping business structures and removing interference in the work of the media. Medium- and long-range training, including internships, feature story writing as well as training business managers was requested by many.
The Arab media practitioners realised the problem facing legislatures wanting to curb some of the excesses of the Arab press, but noted that existing legislation vis-‎-vis press associations is detrimental. Most Arab press syndicates are similar to the Soviet-style closed shop unions. Membership is compulsory for anyone wishing to work in the profession. The government-owned press controls most of the unions in the Arab world and often a journalist finds that the head of his professional association is his employer or one of the senior editors or publishers.
Satellite and Internet were recognised as having created a huge dent in the attempts by governments and their allies in some of the business elite to control the flow of information, but bureaucratic officials close to the security services are unwilling to make changes even when some of the countries’ senior leaders are interested in change.
The media scene in the Arab countries is no different from other areas in which undemocratic rules and practices have been in practice for decades. Many believe that even if all the laws are changed, it will take some time to get the Arab public that has grown up in undemocratic cultures to deal with such sudden change, leading some to suggest media literacy and democratic education to begin in the schools.
The effort to reform the Arab media landscape is daunting. It will require a holistic approach that includes hard work in the legal, social and professional fields. Undemocratic leaders in the Arab world will grudgingly go along with the minimum requirement for change in order to preserve their own powers and interests.
If the US is serious about the effort to see a thriving and effective independent media, it must supplement any programming efforts on the ground with an articulate public approach that reflects the issues called for by Arab journalists themselves and the freedom-seeking Arab population as a whole. Otherwise, this latest effort will be a waste of money and yet another lost opportunity.