Al Jazeera Journalism Review

The West forms a new Arab “Imaginary”

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the value of journalism has lain in its ability to mold public opinion in line with new ideological trends, which in the past have called for democracy, human rights and a market-based system. Influential media hubs in the West, particularly in the United States, have followed in the footsteps of the “Voice of America” radio network and the means by which it was able to undermine the Soviet Union—an adversary with a once gigantic military arsenal and an influential ideology.

The Arab world in particular became the focus of major attention after the fall of the Berlin Wall in order to create a new imaginary. Some of the key entryways for external influence at the time were journalism, women’s rights and the status of ethnic and religious minorities. Research centres were also interested in civil society and its nascent forces, deeming traditional institutions – be it political parties or labour unions – calcified and unable to keep up with the new trends, in addition to being unable to form the foundations of the new socio-political ecosystem.

There is no doubt that at the time, the Arab World was in need of a good shake up due to its inert political institutions, the dominance of one-party regimes and a political culture that rejected differences, be it political or cultural—all of which contributed to a need for free and bold dialogue.

Hence, journalism which was labelled as independent, broke free from the common moulds of state or party domination and reversed many taboos. Some examples of these media platforms were the Moroccan “Le Journal,” Algeria’s French publication “Al Watan,” the Arabic publications of “Al Saheefah” (Morocco), “Al Shorouq” (Algeria).

Thus, “free press” became a parallel power, begging the question: To what extent was this media independent?

صورة..
The new platforms enjoyed easy access to media, influential figures, and purposeful leaks from powerful bodies. As globalization progressed, these platforms were also granted publicity from international companies. Picture: Mohamed Messara - EPA

Without citing specific cases, it was evident that this “free press” was not free of foreign agendas. The actual godfathers of the “media revolution” hid behind noble values, betting on a new generation unencumbered by the remnants of the Cold War, Arab nationalism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The new platforms enjoyed easy access to media, influential figures, and purposeful leaks from powerful bodies. As globalization progressed, these platforms were also granted publicity from international companies. The “free press” became more than a parallel power, and was viewed by authorities as having the potential to undermine state institutions and weaken the fabric of society, as was expressed by a major Algerian official at the Montana Forum in the Autumn of 1999.

In light of this new transformation, state agencies armed themselves with their own alternative media. They did this by regulating the advertising market and creating journalism platforms associated with decision-making centres. They also actively fostered ties with Western journalistic hubs to better the image of regimes and push narratives of “democratic transformations” and investment potentials. 

These western platforms also sometimes threatened to expose transgressions or became hostile to the regimes, which were signals to push some regimes into making a public-relations deal or buy the platform’s silence. Such journalism flourished on the banks of the Seine and the Thames, with journalists switching loyalties easily and with seemingly no qualms.

A famous example of this was the fall of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which exposed the Carthage Agency’s financing of media platforms, named by the Le Monde daily. Media in Algeria has also recently exposed the endemic corruption in the media market that benefits media platforms and powerful personalities.

Morocco is not an exception to this trend. Its control over the media is exemplified by its control over the advertising market, as it bestows permission to some platforms and denies it to others, as well as its special ties with French platforms who are involved in public relations, rather than credible news and objective analysis.

The second moment that changed the West’s priorities was September 11, 2001, after which the positions of Arab regimes intersected with those of the West against terrorism—resulting in the drafting of a new imaginary. This transformation impacted the view of media, as issues of human right and freedom of expression no longer ranked high on the priorities of the West. Arab and Western regimes became objective allies due to their similar priorities, as well as disregard for violations of human rights and freedom of expression.

To create a new imaginary, the West used the media, the educational system, and religious reforms and programs. For this purpose, the United States created “Al Hurra” TV Channel, “Sawa” radio, and after the Arab Spring, “Aswat Magharbeyah” (Voices of Morocco). 

All of these media tools have the common stance of combatting religious extremism and supporting ethnic and religious minorities. Aswat Magharbeyah alone is an interesting exemplification of the new position, as it aims to dismantle extremist discourse, as well as calls for the reading of religious texts and the overturning of social taboos.

Many Arab countries adopted new press laws, the purpose of which was to control the directions of non-compliant media platforms and constrict freedom of expression via penalties consisting of imprisonment at times, and severe fines at others.

It was not easy to provide foreign financial assistance to platforms directly, because it could subject donors to state retaliation. This happened to some research centres, the owners of which were brought to court under charges of espionage and conspiring against state security. 

Therefore, support to media platforms took convoluted routes: Through international companies which gave centers advertising and publicity; via direct ties with journalists that gave access to certain information and international media institutions; through training courses and field trips for junior journalists; by entrenching an economic culture via training programmes at the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank with the purpose of localising the “Washington Consensus.”

This does not mean that all platforms are already penetrated. Rather, it means that they are all penetrable, and that there are many possible forms of penetration—some more obvious than others. It is even possible for a platform to be penetrated without the knowledge of its owners.

 

صورة تقرير رويترز00
The second moment that changed the West’s priorities was September 11, 2001, after which the positions of Arab regimes intersected with those of the West against terrorism—resulting in the drafting of a new imaginary. Photo: Marwan Ali - EPA

The media became a power broker, and media platforms – similarly to journalists – became susceptible to pressures and temptation. If not temptation, they were subject to various means of external pressure, including control over advertising, prosecution, defamation and hacking, and the fabrication of serious charges, such as consorting with foreign powers, threatening state security and safety, and charges of tax fraud or ethical transgressions.

However, what is remarkable about many platforms in the Arab World is that despite generous financial, state or commercial support, most were not able to survive. This is because the power of the media lies in its credibility, its integrity in defence of just causes and the tendency of journalists to side with the truth, and its adherence to its own conscience. 

Independence of the press is no light matter. It is not enough to just rely on the conscience of the journalist or certain media platforms, which is why certain media bodies have been formed to prioritize professional ethical standards and create transparency around sources of financing and in distribution and circulation numbers. Still, above all the most important jury remains the reader.

Despite the major transformation of the industry due to the digital revolution, print journalism continues to play a key role in news, forming public opinion, and creating a new public opinion. Journalism, as worded by Albert Camus, is the noblest of professions when it sides with the truth, but can be awful when it sidesteps to defend certain interests and become a tool in service of those with money.

Yes, independence remains relative, and it must continuously be subject to evaluation and rectification through entities that oversee the ethics of the profession, including sources of financing. 

 

Related Articles

Secrecy is journalism's deadliest foe

When journalists unquestioningly swallow the narrative put forward by governments in the name of 'secrecy', it serves no-one

Clive Stafford Smith
Clive Stafford Smith Published on: 12 Sep, 2021
Professional Integrity: The Cornerstone of Protection

Propaganda and censorship are as old as war itself, but that has generally been a struggle to control the story rather than targeting

Peter Greste Published on: 29 Jul, 2021
The Palestinian struggle to be seen in the media

Does the global media treat Palestinian lives as inherently less valuable?

A picture of the author, Abeer alNajjar
Abeer al-Najjar Published on: 30 May, 2021
In coverage of Palestine, biases and irresponsible journalism emerge

In the coverage of events in Jerusalem and Gaza, mainstream media outlets are failing to report on the situation fairly.

A picture of the author, William Christou.
William Christou Published on: 13 May, 2021
Journalism and sociology; uneasy bedfellows

Journalism and sociology cannot be at odds since they are based on the same principle, and they use the same tools to construct social analyses. Still, the two disciplines do not see eye to eye. The sociologist sees the journalist as superficial, while the journalist sees the sociologist as cloistered in an ivory tower.

A picture of the author, Mohammad Ahdad.
Mohammad Ahdad Published on: 10 May, 2021
Should foreign laborers in Oman have their own media outlets?

Asian migrant workers in Oman face a host of challenge in adjusting to their host country. Could media outlets in their native languages ameliorate those challenges?

A picture of the author, Summayya al-Yakubi
Sumayya al-Yakubi Published on: 2 May, 2021
Slow versus instant journalism: Is digital media the answer?

Digital media might be the answer to a question gripping the journalism industry: Slow or instant journalism?

The Al Jazeera Media Institute logo.
Muhammad Ahmed Published on: 25 Apr, 2021
Beyond objectivity: The rise of reformist news

The core mission of the news industry is telling viewers the day's events. But another core mission of journalism is to make the world a better place, which means going beyond the facts to change what’s wrong and defend what’s right. Those two missions are in conflict today.

A picture of the author, Mark Lee Hunter.
Mark Lee Hunter Published on: 23 Mar, 2021
Importing credibility: Why does foreign private media invest in the Arab media market?

Why are western media companies all of a sudden interested in opening channels in the Arab World?

A picture of the author, Ahmad Abu Hamad
Ahmad Abu Hamad Published on: 1 Mar, 2021
Foreign funding and orientalism: On the need for an organic journalist

When many North African countries achieved their independence, nationalists began to repeat a sentence of great importance: Colonization will leave out the door, only to come back through the window. The sentence has proved to be prescient, as colonization has come back through the gateway of media, with an orientalist view that detaches reality from its cultural, and socio-political contexts.

Muhammad Khamaiseh Published on: 28 Feb, 2021
Close up and personal

Can Arabs accurately report their own affairs? Can Muslims be reliable sources of objective information about their daily lives and historic changes? We from the Arab and Muslim world are rethinking the news.

Hamid Dabashi Published on: 15 Feb, 2021