The author believes that Arab news organizations are helping to shape global attitudes.The Arab Spring is spearheading the changes facing Arab journalism today — a subject Lawrence Pintak knows well. He was the Middle East correspondent for CBS news during the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the former director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo. He is currently founding dean of the Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and publisher/co-editor of the online journal Arab Media & Society. Pintak underlines the importance of a new Arab media in the very first pages of his latest book, “The New Arab Journalist.” He strongly believes that Arab news organizations are helping to shape global attitudes:
“Whereas the American TV networks, the BBC and a handful of Western newspapers and wire services once wrote the international news narrative, today Arab journalists are the eyes and ears for half the globe as news organizations across the developing world rebroadcast coverage from the Arab channels. That in turn, has an impact on relations between governments, religions and peoples.”
Nearly a year after the Arab Spring, the Arab media is still very much controlled by the state. For veteran journalist and diplomat, Lebanese born, Ghassan Tueni, Arab journalism has “lost its soul” since the end of World War II.
Back in the 1970s, William Rugh, a former US ambassador classified the regional press into four groups: the “mobilization press,” controlled by governments like those in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Sudan; the “loyalist press” of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Palestine;” The “diverse press” of Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco and Yemen; and the offshore pan-Arab press based in Beirut until the mid 1970s then in London.
The first Gulf War brought CNN onto the world scene. Its live coverage was unmatched and its resounding success paved the way for the introduction of satellite broadcasting in the Arab world. According to Hussein Shobokshi, a Saudi columnist and television host, Arab leaders, weary about the reform agenda of Arab journalists, see the satellite TV “as a catapult of change, but they want to control the catapult of change.”
Egypt was the first Arab country to set up satellite channels, followed by MBC, ART, Orbit, LBC and Future Television. However, it was the arrival of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, in 1996, that had the strongest impact on the nature of Arab journalism.“Without Al-Jazeera and the new constellation of Arab satellite broadcasters, it is unlikely there would ever have been a ‘Cedar Revolution,’” says Pintak, for whom satellite TV provided Arabs with the opportunity to take back some control of the message, even if it meant that long suppressed ideas might also seep in. Al-Jazeera galvanized the world’s attention with its exclusive access to tapes from Bin Laden and its unparalleled coverage of the Second Gulf War while Al-Jazeera English distinguished itself with its reporting of the 2008-2009 Gaza War.However, none of these private channels are independent from the authority of the funding sides. Moreover, a number of these satellite channels implement the tenets of Islamic journalism. According to American Muslim convert Abdullah Schleifer, a longtime journalism professor at The American University in Cairo, the Western norm of journalism such as “the public has the right to know” and “nothing is sacred” are inherently anti-Islamic.
Schleifer who later became bureau chief for the satellite channel Al-Arabiya, believes Islamic journalism offers an alternative:
“It encourages good and discourages evil by providing ‘news’ written in a professionally acceptable, objective style that honors truth; that encourages the belief and practice of Islam and discourages practices and beliefs that deny Islam,” he says.
Although Western journalists believe in the principles of fairness and balance, it is generally acknowledged today that true objectivity does not exist because just and comprehensive reporting cannot rely on facts alone. Furthermore, toward the end of the 20th century, there appeared a new form of journalism known as a “journalism of attachment…which cares as well as knows.” This form of journalism was popularized at the height of the war in Bosnia by former CNN correspondent Christine Amanpour, shocked by America’s delayed intervention as Bosnian Muslims were being slaughtered by the Serbs.
The dominant view of the mission of journalism for many British and American reporters is to “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” Similarly, when Othman Al-Sini, editor in chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, asked if journalists should be change-makers or reporters of change, the vast majority chose: change-makers.
Since Al-Jazeera first went on the air in 1996, its journalists have aspired to be agents of change in the region — a view shared by one of Saudi Arabia’s leading journalists, Samar Fatany who believes:
“The role of the media in shaping public debate and covering politics is one of the most important concerns facing journalists today…It is our mission …to mobilize and move the public debate toward positive attitudes and global thinking — dire needs for the progress and development of our country.”
According to Pintak, the basic difference between Arab journalists and journalists elsewhere in the world, can be found in the set of Arab journalistic approaches, that involve political/social change and the defense of Arab/Muslim ideals. “These are roles,” he says, “largely absent from the self-perceptions of journalists in the US and other parts of the world.”
Many Arab journalists believe that, professionalism and a lack of ethics are the main problems, facing Arab journalism, followed by press freedom issues and business pressure. The media has always been keen on transparency for others with power or influence. However, are journalists, editors and owners willing to declare their interests and list the payments and favors received in relation to specific stories?
The author concludes by highlighting the rise of a new Arab consciousness triggered by the pervasive influence of Arab satellite television and a bolder print journalism fueled by the Internet. This was particularly visible during the covering of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war. “Arab journalists,” he writes, “reflected a worldview that largely transcends borders, a sense of self-identity that sets region above nation and religion above passport, and a commitment to political change that was infecting the body politics of the Arab world through the electronic virus of 24/7 news.”
In “The New Arab Journalist,” Pintak explains the changes, which have shaken and will continue to shake the Arab media. He has been himself a direct witness to the revival of the Arab media and his knowledge of the region shines through this study of the Arab media and politics.