Sitting, as I do,
in that strange no-man’s-land between journalism and academia,
I am frequently struck by the gap separating theory and reality.
That’s true when it comes to Middle East politics—it
was, after all, neat theories of democratization disconnected
from regional realities that led to Iraq's current woes—and
it’s also true of media studies.
I’ve been reading a lot in the academic journals lately
about the emergence of a “global ethic” of journalism
and a common “journalistic ideology.” Many of these
articles are written by Western academics safely ensconced in
the ivory towers of North America and Europe and peppered with
unyielding dictates: Journalists “should” do this,
they “must” do that, they are “required”
to act in a certain way. Such prescriptions for a "new"
journalism are thick with "paradigms," "hierarchies"
and "models," often drenched in a sauce of cultural
imperialism and heavily spiced with Orientalism.(1)
A few go so far as
to envision a media Utopia in which the borderless footprint
of television is populated by a new breed of borderless journalists
who report not through the prism of their own cultural worldview,
but rather affect a “cosmopolitan attitude.” One
of my favorites demands that journalists subscribe to a set
of three “imperatives,” to whit: “to act as
a global agent, to serve world citizens, and to enhance nonparochial
One can but wonder
if the authors of such pie-in-the-sky manifestos have read a
newspaper or watched a TV news broadcast lately, much less spoken
to a journalist. They certainly haven’t attended any of
the recent media gatherings in the Middle East.
The question of the
role of journalism is at the top of the agenda in the Arab world
these days. It dominated discussion at both December’s
Arab Thought Foundation "Arab and Media World Conference"
in Dubai and at the rival Al Jazeera Forum in Doha the following
Arab League Secretary
General Amr Moussa unwittingly touched the raw nerve at the
heart of this debate in his opening comments in Dubai, declaring
that journalists "must be respectful and truthful."
The comment raised
eyebrows among Western and Arab journalists alike and discussion
in the hallways quickly turned to definitions of "respect"
and "truth"—and where the balance between them
lies. As Peter David, foreign editor of The Economist,
noted during a panel shortly after Moussa's speech, for many
reporters, truth must come before any consideration
of respect. The Danish cartoon controversy, which broke during
the Al Jazeera conference, demonstrated that not everyone in
the profession agrees.
The evolving role
of reporters in the region was underlined by the comments of
ATF Chairman Prince Khaled al Faisal, the founder of the reformist
Al Watan newspaper, who bankrolled the Dubai gathering.
"The media is a dangerous weapon, no less than the weapons
of war if it is misused," he said, referring to post-9/11
Western coverage of the Arab world, "and we ourselves are
among those who have been targeted and affected by its fire."
But Khaled, governor of Saudi Arabia's Assir Province and son
of the late King Faisal, was also critical in a more unexpected
way. "The media's first mission is truth and they sometimes
hide the truth," switching from "a tool for revealing
truth to covering up reality."
There is an old Arab
saying, "Truth should be known, but not declared."
Today, cover-ups remain a fact of life in the Middle East. As
Jamil Mroue, publisher of Beirut's Daily Star told
the Dubai gathering, the media continue to serve as "tools"
of political structures in which "control is the name of
"The Arab media
is still very much state-owned and state-controlled," agreed
Anwar Gargash, a political science professor at United Arab
Emirates University. "The way forward is to break the chains
of the media."
A critical, independent
media is generally considered an essential building-block for
democracy. Why then, I asked Prince Khaled's son, Prince Bandar
bin Khaled al Faisal, would a members of a feudal regime spend
a reported $5 million to bring in journalists from around the
world for a free-for-all debate about the role of the media?
"Journalism is a part of change," said Bandar, the
ATF president and chairman of Al Watan's board. "And
this conference is an effort to say, 'Okay, maybe we should
expedite the process a little bit because we really do have
a lot to lose.'"
While they debated
definitions and struggled with the question of their ultimate
role in a changing Middle East, there was little suggestion
from Arab media representatives at either conference that they
were anything but Arab journalists. No pretense to
global citizenship here; they are Arabs first and foremost,
proudly reporting from an Arab perspective for an Arab
may, in some sense, be blurring national borders within the
Middle East, even altering notions of identity. But psychological
boundaries still exist, they have just shifted among the public
and in the newsroom. The essential line that divides the Arab
world from the West—politically and journalistically—remains
firmly in place.
That was vividly
apparent in Doha. While the Dubai gathering included breakout
sessions on individual Arab countries, which provided some interesting—as
well as some very politically-correct—insights into the
state of media and politics in the region, the Al Jazeera forum
quickly became a venue for Western-media bashing, with speaker
after speaker decrying the biased and "controlled"
nature of the Western, and particularly American, media.
Western media “has
always bragged when comparing itself to the Russian media but
... it should stop comparing itself with the Soviet Union and
start comparing itself with us," said Palestinian author
and intellectual Mounir Shafik, voicing a common view. The overweening
message: It is the Arab media that deserves to be emulated.
It wasn't until well
into the second day of the conference, when Assafir
Editor-in-Chief Joseph Samaha paid tribute to slain An Nahar
Publisher Gibran Tueni, that the audience heard the first
indication from the dais that all might not be roses and light
in the Arab media. Even then, there was no mention of the scores
of Arab journalists imprisoned, intimidated or murdered (Atwan
Article). As this writer pointed out on a later panel, it would
have been easy for those attendees new to the Arab world to
think the region was a bastion of media independence. Such a
misleading presentation is itself an insult to those brave Arab
and Iranian reporters risking their lives daily.
But even the many
who acknowledge the sad state of media freedom in the Middle
East understandably have little time for lectures about universal
journalistic mores, implicitly grafted onto a Western framework.
are struggling with some of the same issues as their Western
counterparts. In Dubai, Saudi editor Othman Al-Sini put his
finger on the essential question being asked in many newsrooms:
“I wonder if media should be change makers or reporters
of change?” But that does not mean Arab journalists are
ready to—or should—shed their Arab identity in exchange
for some plain-vanilla ideology of global journalism.
Which, of course,
brings us to Al Jazeera International (AJI), the much-discussed
and long-delayed English-language sister to the channel that
the Bush administration has portrayed as the font of all evil
(see Issander El Amrani's article on Al Jazeera International
in this issue). With reporters drawn from more than 30 countries
and a rolling broadcast day anchored from Washington, London,
Doha and Kuala Lumpur, AJI could begin to represent the kind
of borderless journalism some media theorists advocate. AJI
Managing Director Nigel Parsons has said the channel will offer
a "global perspective" with reporting that provides
"all sides of the story."(3) From the standpoint of
many Arab journalists, this is exactly the problem.
"We might as
well buy a new channel in the US," Mahmud Shammam, the
Washington, DC bureau chief for Newsweek's Arabic edition,
said at the Al Jazeera forum, to a roar of applause. Al Jazeera
International “will not have Arabic characteristics and
that's a big challenge." The session quickly degenerated
into a forum for disgruntled Al Jazeera staffers to voice their
suspicions, sometimes bordering on disdain, for the new English-language
service. Chief among the complaints is a widespread perception
that AJI's Western management has, ironically, discriminated
against Arabs in its hiring, and a worry that it will, as one
staffer told me, betray the ideals for which so many have sacrificed.
Al Jazeera the mother
ship wears its Arab identity on its sleeve. Its original mission
statement defines it is an "Arab media service with a global
orientation." Likewise, the mission statement of rival
Al Arabiya makes clear its self-view is also firmly embedded
in the Middle East, declaring that it is "an Arabic station,
from the Arabs to the Arabs, delivering content that is relevant
to the Arabs." It further vows "to remain true to
the voice of the Arab world, to the world, on a Regional and
That issue of Arab
identity, sources say, was at least in part behind the late
March elevation of Al Jazeera Managing Director Wadah Khanfar
to the post of director-general for
the new umbrella structure that oversees the rapidly expanding
family of Al Jazeera stations. The move means that the British
Parsons and his British, Australian, New Zealand and American
managers ultimately report to Khanfar. At the same time, AJI
began a flurry of announcements about the hiring of Arab on-air
talent. Word is that Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, the Qatari
royal in charge of Al Jazeera’s growing family of channels
(which now includes sports, children’s, and documentary
channels), objected to Parsons' emphasis on the global over
the Arab. Parsons is now talking more about "Arab"
perspectives. Borderless journalism may have to wait.
Standing in the Al
Jazeera newsroom not long ago, I asked anchor Mohamed Krichen
how he saw himself. "I am an Arab, Muslim journalist,"
he replied, with pride in his voice.
tell us that culture is inherently part of the person. Despite
rumors to the contrary, reporters are people, too.
Pintak is publisher and senior editor of TBS Journal
and director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at
The American University in Cairo. His latest book is Reflections
in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas.
1. See for example,
Reese, Stephen D. (2001). "Understanding the Global Journalist:
a hierarchy-of-influences approach," Journalism Studies
2(2), pp. 173-187 and Roberto Herrscher (2002). "A Universal
Code of Journalism Ethics: Problems, Limitations, and Proposals,"
Journal of Mass Media Ethics 17(4), pp. 277-289.
2. Ward, Stephen J.A. (2005). "Philosophical Foundations
for Global Journalism Ethics," Journal of Mass Media Ethics
20(1), pp. 3-21.
3. Nigel Parsons Interview (2005). Perspective, Radio National
Australia. Aug. 18.