The Arab media paradox

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the general Arab decline in the press freedom rankings, the region’s media have, in many ways, actually become freer.

Monday 13 February 2012

Since the Arab quest for freedom from authoritarian rule rippled out across the Middle East and even beyond from the unlikely epicentre of Tunisia, the region’s hopes and aspirations for freedom and dignity have never been higher, at least since the end of colonial rule.

Against this backdrop, Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) makes for a depressing and demoralising reality check – at least at first sight.

“The Arab world was the motor of history in 2011 but the Arab uprisings have had contrasting political outcomes so far,” the independent media watchdog said. “Most of the region’s countries have fallen in the index because of the measures taken in a bid to impose a news blackout on a crackdown”

The highest ranking Arab country is Lebanon (93), which is just behind regional leader Israel (92). This means that, given all the tied positions, around 100 countries have, according to the PFI, freer media.

On a relatively successful note, Tunisia, which provided the spark of hope which fired up the so-called Arab Spring and has since managed a fairly smooth transition to greater democracy, has risen 30 positions from 164th to 134th.

In contrast, my native Egypt – which captivated the world with its “Tahrir” spirit – has plummeted 39 positions to stand near the bottom of the global league at 166, sandwiched between Laos and Cuba.

Reporters Without Borders puts this down to “attempts by Hosni Mubarak’s government and then the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] to rein in the revolution’s successive phases”. These tactics included the arrests and convictions of Egyptian journalists and bloggers, not to mention the harassment of foreign journalists.

And at a certain level this relegation is justified. “The Egyptian media grew inside the dictatorship system, which shaped its values, principles, views and its performance, so we shouldn’t expect to see serious change in media performance [so quickly],” argues Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and columnist. “The window to our freedom of expression is sadly still narrow.”

“Abuses against the freedom of the press have increased significantly,” says Wael Eskandar, a young Egyptian journalist based in Cairo who has been closely following the revolution. “In every paper, there is a military censor… Reporters and media personnel are targeted during their coverage of important events on the streets.”

 

Eskandar sites as an example how talk show host Reem Maged and her guest activist and journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy were summoned by SCAF due to on-air accusationsthat the military, which has tried to portray itself as the protector of the revolution, had attacked protesters.

That said, Eskandar feels that his profession has become “more meaningful”. “Politics is now at the forefront of people’s thoughts and the opposition is real,” he reflects. He also admits to feeling freer, despite the obvious dangers of harassment and even prosecution by a military court. “At times like these, it’s worth the risk,” he says.

For all its strengths, the PFI is imperfect and incomplete because it is based on the subjective scoring assigned by various observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical.

It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media. Reporters Without Borders admits as much. “The index should in no way be taken as an indication of the quality of the media in the countries concerned,” the watchdog notes in its methodology.

What this boils down to is that the index can provide a misleading impression about the nature of the media in a given country. For example, someone who is unaware of the nature of the media in the region could easily conclude that Saudi Arabia (158th) enjoys greater media freedom than Egypt because it is eight positions higher in the index.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In many ways, it piles on insult to the injury already experienced by the dynamic segments of the Egyptian media which first faced down Mubarak’s state security apparatus and then SCAF’s military crackdowns, epitomised by the likes of dentist-turned-novelist-and-revolutionary-columnist Alaa al-Aswany whom Foreign Policy named its top global thinker for 2011. In contrast, most of their Saudi colleagues refused or have failed to rock the boat in the kingdom’s stagnant and closely controlled media.

Moreover, just because the regime hounds and intimidates journalists and tries to curb their freedom, that does not mean that it has been particularly successful in its endeavour. Sure, most of the state-owned media remains the loyal lapdog of whoever runs the show, whether it’s a pre-revolution dictatorship or a post-revolution junta.

But, in Egypt, it is really a  tale of two media, with the independent media breaking significant new ground, not only since the revolution but also in the years running up to it.

Although self-censorship remains something of a problem even in the independent media, as demonstrated by the controversy over the shelving of an entire print run of Egypt Independent, the revolution has galvanised legions of journalists and media personalities to take on SCAF as they did Mubarak.

Many Egyptian journalists and media personalities express a newfound pride in their vocation and an irrepressible determination to carry on exposing the truth. For instance, late last year, al-Tahrir TV’s talk show host, the hard-talking Doaa Sultan, dedicated a special episode of her talk show to mount a scathing if melodramatic attack on the Egyptian military and the media and political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has co-opted as a fig leaf for its rule.

Moreover, there is a third pillar to Egypt’s media landscape that has overshadowed even the independent media, the social and citizen media, which spearheaded the revolution and refuses to be put down. A good example of this is the defiant blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad who, despite having spent more than 300 days behind bars (including at least 80 on hunger strike), was not cowed into silence. On his release, he said: “We have one enemy, the military regime and its political dictatorship … It is imperative that we bring [it] down.”

And that sense of defiance is Egypt’s greatest hope for the future.

 

This article was published in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 9 February 2012. Read the related discussion.

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