Al Jazeera Journalism Review

A graffiti by Italian artist Ozmo depicting Italian writer Antonio Gramsci covers a wall in Rome on March 31, 2014.

Foreign funding and orientalism: On the need for an "organic journalist"

8 Minute Read

Western media financing programs cannot be separated from the ideas of cultural hegemony. The agenda set by these financing bodies appear to service the communities they fund, but in reality, money does not necessarily create change on the ground.

In 1988, Indian scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published her famous paper “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. The Subaltern refers to a person who has lived through colonization and whose knowledge was formed by the colonizer’s tools.

Spivak’s question originated from the idea that the tools for forming and creating knowledge were created by the colonizer and its intelligentsia, and that these tools were imposed on the nations they colonized. After the departure of the colonizer, the “Subaltern” was unable to conceptualize their reality apart from on the basis of these tools, which are – necessarily – decontextualized and inapplicable to societies that differ in their composition and contexts from Western ones. Thus, the “Subaltern” was rendered incapable of expressing themselves in the terms of their culture and socio-political context, but rather from the culture and context of the colonizer which did not represent them.

To return to Arab media, new trends have appeared in the past years, specifically manifesting in what was dubbed at the time as “alternative” or “independent” media. This new form of media became increasingly prominent at the turn of the millennium and even more so with the spread of the internet, the latter of which functioned as a more effective channel for communication between journalists and other bodies, away from the mediums controlled by authorities. Moreover, globalization enabled journalists to create reference points which in turn helped them understand their journalistic reality. With a new awareness of the scale of the global media, journalists began to realize the size of the gap between Western and Arab media, and, more importantly, their own reality and its complications.

The result was a backlash against all previous models of Arabic journalism. What had previously been accepted had been thrown into sharp relief, as it became obvious that Arab media had been reared in the shadow of authoritarian systems which imposed their desires on the press, as well as relegated its role to limited and defined frames. These imposed frameworks ultimately sought to entrench the dominance of the authorities over knowledge and identify the priorities of the society in service of authorities’ agendas.

Journalists then began to turn to the Western model, out of the idea that it constituted the opposition to the status quo and achieved positive results “there.” So, members of the media sought to humour the agendas set by Western donor, for two key purposes: Ensuring continuation by acquiring funding and desiring a “globalised” approach to media that generally secures international recognition for these media institutions.

A television cameraman and colleagues standing on the awning of a shop transmit footage by satellite-phone of the continuing protest in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt Monday, Feb. 7, 2011.
Picard said that the teaching of Western media principles and practices has drastically failed to develop a healthy press in many areas, because Western programs and agencies specialized in media development did not consider the existence of different social and cultural realities in these countries. (Photo: Nariman al-Mufti AP)

Decontextualized reading

Away from the demonization or glorification of financing institutions, a general reading of the programs of donor organizations reveals that their aim is to encourage new media initiatives and oversee the development of existing ones.

The agendas of donor institutions for media development programs usually focus on causes such as combating corruption, enhancing governance and accountability, women’s rights, and other issues that hold genuine importance for the Arab region. However, these programs address these causes from a Eurocentric and orientalist perspective, derived from their own reading of Arab societies and deductions on how the media can carry out its role more effectively in beneficiary communities. This is of course, if we accept for the sake of the argument, that these stated goals are indeed the aims of said donor programs. The problem however, with such a Eurocentric approach, is that it ignores the particularities of each country they engage with in the Arab world.

At the “Media Development and Sustainability in Africa Conference”, media economic studies professor and former director of Oxford University’s Reuters Institute (2010 – 2014) Robert G. Picard said that the inefficacy and lack of sustainability of media development projects in developing countries is  due to the that Western development programs and agencies make efforts to develop media outlets to serve urgent foreign policy objectives of the home countries of said agencies, rather than set sustainable development objectives for media in these countries. 

He added that the Western development programs’ efforts to develop media outlets sought to recreate the media forms and practices of the West verbatim, without a proper acknowledgement of the wide variances between Western societies and those of developing countries. “What is worse,” – he added – "is that there is an effort to recreate media types and systems that are declining and failing in the developed world.”

Picard said that the teaching of Western media principles and practices has drastically failed to develop a healthy press in many areas, because Western programs and agencies specialized in media development did not take into account the existence of different social and cultural realities in these countries.

Picard’s points highlight the most prominent issues in Western media financing programs, namely that they analyse the media scene in developing countries from a purely Western approach, believing that by re-enacting Western media work patterns and principles, they can solve the problems of media in developing countries.

In fact, they might actually be causing their aggravation, as neither the political climates in “third world” or “post-colonial” countries are free or democratic, nor do their problems or cultural contexts resemble those in western societies. Hence, when media financing programs focus on issues such as women’s political empowerment, they miss out on the fact that these issues are symptoms of a root cause: a political system in which neither men nor women enjoy free political say.

Thus, financing programs target issues, which, while undeniably important, do not address the root of these problems. For financing programs to focus on issues such as governance without seriously working on the independence of the media, they leave journalists exposed to legislative systems that restrict their freedom and criminalise them should they indeed hold the authority accountable. Asking journalists to expose corruption without a legal umbrella that facilitates their access to information nor their own protection, means that journalists will be restricted to the limited information they are allowed access to, which, by necessity, will not encompass major corruption cases that hit to the core of society’s interests.

An Egyptian walks past a stand displaying state-owned newspapers in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012
The political climates in “third world” or “post-colonial” countries are neither free nor democratic, and their problems and cultural contexts do not resemble those in western societies. (Photo: Ben Cartes AP)

 

Cultural Hegemony

We cannot understand Western media financing programs as separate from the concept of cultural hegemony, which was used prominently in post-colonial studies as it pertains to the nature of imposing northern countries’ knowledge discourse and production on the south.

In this context, cultural hegemony – as defined by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who explained that control is achieved not only by imposing actual power, but also by imposing ideas – is the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, which manipulates the culture of that society (beliefs and explanations, perceptions, values, etc.).

Hence, the worldview of the “ruling class” becomes the prevalent culture, and its narrative became the only one deemed “rational.” Through social institutions such as universities, schools, places of worship, courts and others, the ruling class imposes its values, principles and beliefs.

By applying the theory of cultural hegemony to a global scale, and by looking at the process of colonisation that the world has undergone, manifesting today as the great powers in the West and the emergence of globalisation, it is clear that great powers culturally dominate the knowledge narrative in the rest of the world.

Though the stated goal of donor institutions is to encourage and facilitate change in beneficiary communities, this is not necessarily a true imperative and can actually be a secondary goal of their work.

Egyptian men read newspapers as they wait for the Friday noon prayer in the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo
  The journalist must set out in their propositions from the existing culture of nations, weighing their moral and “backwards” positions simultaneously, in order to return people’s trust in the media as a power capable of change, representing their voices and speaking for them. (Khalil al-Hamra-AP)

The need for an “organic” journalist

Media coverage in its ideal form focuses on issues central to the lives of people. In order to ensure that this coverage treats these issues with the proper sensitivities and locates them in their proper contexts, the communities being covered must be understood well and if any barriers to such coverage exist, their causes must be correctly analysed.

Local journalists are best positioned to be able to perform this analysis and interpret their reality objectively and realistically, away from its stereotypes and superficial understandings. Having grown up in these communities and having internalized its modes of knowledge production, they are well suited to define their own reality.

Therefore, the news agendas of Arab institutions must be grounded in the interests of their local journalists and the issues that concern them, rather than follow the “trend” of Western funding.

Sociologists often begin by analysing the structural relationship between power and knowledge production, and how power – in its various forms – monopolises knowledge creation tools which enable their owners to read their reality in a culture and context-specific mannerBecause the press is one of the most important tools to shape people’s awareness of their communities, the issues the media chooses to focus on must be derived in this manner. 

The press then must strive to disseminate information about these topics to make the public aware of them. However, the media’s current reliance on “globalized” tools and criteria to determine what issues they focus on is an obstacle to better serving their communities and public interest.  Before Antonio Gramsci wrote his famous theory on the “organic intellectual” while in prison, he was a journalist that analysed his community, as well as investigated its problems and the means by which to resolve them. 

The intellectual, as seen by Gramsci – in this case the journalist – must set out in their propositions from the existing culture of nations, weighing their moral and “backwards” positions simultaneously. This approach is key to establish a presence in said culture, and, consequently, return people’s trust in the media as a power capable of change, representing their voices and speaking for them.

This trust can secure a place and a voice for journalists in society, rendering them able to form and elevate public awareness around certain issues, which ideally could lead to their resolution. If, however, newsrooms remain sequestered in ivory towers, in thrall to Western stereotypes and their epistemological models, newsrooms will stay isolated from the public sphere, as the former cannot influence the latter, nor can the latter see itself represented in the discourse of the former. 

This is how newsrooms turn into a mere piece of decoration, unable to facilitate real societal change, and instead, proving the turn of phrase in the Arab world which describes lofty speech which has no use or value as “newspaper talk.”

 

* Photo Credit: Graffiti by Italian artist Ozmo depicting Italian writer Antonio Gramsci covers a wall in Rome on March 31, 2014. (AFP-Alberto Pizzoli)

More Articles

Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
The Perils of Unverified News: A Case of Nonexistent Flotillas

Can you hide one thousand ships in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? I would say not. But some of my fellow journalists seem to believe in magic.  

Ilya
Ilya U Topper Published on: 16 Jan, 2024
In the Courtroom and Beyond: Covering South Africa's Historic Legal Case Against Israel at The Hague

As South Africa takes on Israel at the International Court of Justice, the role of journalists in covering this landmark case becomes more crucial than ever. Their insights and reporting bring the complexities of international law to a global audience.

Hala Ahed
Hala Ahed Published on: 12 Jan, 2024
Did the NYTimes Manipulate the Sexual Violence Allegations of October 7?

An in-depth examination of the New York Times's investigation of alleged sexual assaults by Hamas during the Israeli war on Gaza, highlighting ethical concerns, and the impact of its reporting on the victims' families. It questions the journalistic integrity of the Times, especially in the context of Western media's portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 7 Jan, 2024
Is The New York Times Reproducing Allegations of 'Sexual Violence' to Downplay Israeli Crimes?

The New York Times' report on alleged sexual violence by Palestinian militants raises profound concerns about discrepancies in key testimonies and a biased reporting that aligns with Israeli narratives and downplays Israeli crimes in Gaza.

Mohammad Zeidan
Mohammad Zeidan Published on: 31 Dec, 2023
Embedded journalism: Striking a balance between access and impartiality in war zones

The ethical implications of embedded journalism, particularly in the Israeli invasion of Gaza, raise concerns about the compromise of balance and independence in war coverage.

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 19 Dec, 2023
Through a Mexican lens: Navigating the intricacies of reporting in Palestine

A Mexican journalist's journey through the complexities of reporting on Palestine and gives tips on how to manage this kind of coverage.

Témoris Grecko
Témoris Grecko Published on: 10 Dec, 2023
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Critique of German media's handling of Gaza Conflict

The German media's coverage of the Gaza conflict has been criticized for being biased, presenting a distorted view of the conflict, focusing only on the Israeli perspective, and downplaying the suffering of Palestinians. This biased reporting undermines the media's role as an objective source of information and fails to provide a balanced view of the conflict.

AJR Contributor Published on: 16 Nov, 2023
Colonial legacy of surveillance: hidden world of surveillance technology in the African continent

African nations’ expenditure on surveillance technology from China, Europe and the US is a direct threat to the media, democracy and freedom of speech, and an enduring legacy of colonial surveillance practices.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 14 Nov, 2023
How the New York Times fuelled a crackdown on journalists in India

Vague reporting and a piece ‘laden with innuendo’ by the New York Times gave Indian authorities the excuse they needed to crack down on news website Newsclick

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 31 Oct, 2023
Journalists feel the pain, but the story of Gaza must be told  

People don’t always want to hear the historical context behind horrifying events, resorting even to censorship, but the media must be free to provide it

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 30 Oct, 2023
Queen Rania is absolutely right - Western media’s double standards on Gaza

Why does international media use loaded and dehumanising language about the Palestinians when reporting on the Israeli bombardment of 2.2 million people in Gaza?

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 27 Oct, 2023
'War propaganda' - Brazil’s media has abandoned journalistic standards over Gaza

Brazil’s mainstream media, in its unwavering support for Israel, is out of step with public and social media responses to the bombardment of Gaza

Bruno
Bruno Lima Rocha Beaklini Published on: 25 Oct, 2023
‘Emotional truth’ is not a cover for fabricating stories

Comedians who engage with the news should not be free to ignore the rules of ethical journalism

Akanksha
Akanksha Singh Published on: 16 Oct, 2023
Get this straight, Western media: Palestinians aren’t sub-human

Dehumanisation of Palestinians is as central to Israel’s war strategy as the deadly missiles it wields

Mitrovica
Andrew Mitrovica Published on: 10 Oct, 2023
Victims of the Mediterranean: ‘Migrants’ or ‘Refugees’?

The term ‘migrant’ insufficient to describe victims of the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea; it dehumanises these people and is a failure of journalism

A picture of the author, Mohammad Ahdad.
Mohammad Ahdad Published on: 2 Oct, 2023
Why is a Western news organisation funding propaganda in India?

ANI, the world’s largest source of Indian news, receives funding from Thomson-Reuters, despite widespread condemnation for its misinformation about Muslims

MM
Morley Musick Published on: 18 Sep, 2023
How do we determine 'newsworthiness' in the digital age?

The relentless flow of news in the digital age has re-shaped the parameters by which we decide what is 'news' and what is not

Muhammad Khamaiseh Published on: 11 Sep, 2023
‘Focus on the story, not the storyteller’ - the dilemma of a diaspora journalist

When reporting on their homelands, diaspora journalists walk a fine line between emotional connection and objective storytelling

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 4 Sep, 2023
Why does Arab media fail so badly at covering refugee issues?

Arabic media discourse on refugees and migrants frequently aligns too closely with the Western narrative, often spreading fear of migrants while emphasising the burdens of asylum

A picture of the author, Ahmad Abu Hamad
Ahmad Abu Hamad Published on: 28 Aug, 2023
What does Zimbabwe’s new ‘Patriot Bill’ mean for journalists?  

As Zimbabwe heads into elections this week, a new law dubbed the ‘Patriot Bill’ will further criminalise journalism

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 21 Aug, 2023