Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

What is there to celebrate?

Plans to mark an Arab Media Day ring hollow given its sorry state in the face of encroaching Arab regimes, writes Ramzy Baroud

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was recently announced that Arab “media experts” plan to “celebrate” Arab Media Day on 21 April 2016. The theme for the first day of what is meant to be an annual tradition is: “The Role of the (Arab) Media in Combatting Terrorism.”

The mockery is surely multi-faceted. One is the clearly politicised choice of the theme of the proposed event. The term “terrorism” is a political one and is rarely applied to violence committed by Arab regimes: it only applies to their detractors.

Another is the fact that the committee of “experts” that made the decision was appointed by the Council of Arab Foreign Ministers at its Cairo meeting last May. The council operates under the ineffectual and mostly ceremonial Arab League.

Of course, various Arab countries are enthusiastically planning to join the “celebrations” with some, unscrupulously, emphasising the importance of the “combatting terrorism” theme for an obvious reason: to position themselves as victims of terror, never as purveyors of violence.

The event  as most other common themes in Arab media  is likely to tout rulers as the saviours of nations and condemn their detractors as terrorists, terrorism sympathisers or potential terrorists.

In reality, Arab media has little to celebrate. If anything, Arabs should lament the moral malaise afflicting their media, whether official, semi-official, independent or opposition. This is not to mention the hundreds of useless, glossy magazines that objectify women, belittle the social challenges facing Arab societies and embrace Western globalisation as if Arabs only exist to consume  not to think independently or critically.

If 21 April is to be of any value at all, it should be a day of candid discussion about urgent and practical steps required to escape the complete collapse of credibility under which most Arab media has prevailed since the so-called Arab Spring began more than four years ago.

As someone who has spent over two decades working in Arab and international media spaces, written about topics related to the Middle East in general, and engaged in issues concerning the Arab world specifically, I wish to put forward a few suggestions for consideration by the organisers of the Arab media committee:

VIOLENCE, NOT TERRORISM: The use of terms such as al-irhab (terrorism) and al-taasub (extremism) by Arab media in all of its platforms has a specific political end: demonising the other. Instead, the term al-unf (violence) should be used and confronted, regardless of who the party responsible for acts of violence is.

While the state is often granted the monopoly on violence through conveniently enacted laws, this monopoly should not be used so nonchalantly and without an iota of accountability, as is currently the case.

 

ENGAGING, CHALLENGING  NOT PREACHING: Arab media in general, and commentators in particular, tend to treat their readers with palpable condescension. It is as if Arab media is the originator of wisdom and of all that is to be known. If there were any truth to that, Arab media would not be in such a poor state.

Instead, owners and managers of media platforms should truly engage society: listen and learn from real people about their real life problems; understand that there exist  outside the sanctified media bubble  intellectuals and ordinary people with much wisdom and insight.

Media is not meant to celebrate the seemingly endless virtues of the regime, or be celebrated for its own supposed virtues. It is a perpetual podium for ideas, one that is challenging, difficult and rarely gratifying.

 

UNIVERSAL RULES REGARDING DISTORTION AND FABRICATION: While some Arab regimes have recently enacted laws that punish journalists for promoting what certain governments perceive as fabrications and misinformation, pro-government journalists are largely exempted from such expectations.

It is neither the right nor responsibility of governments to define what is true, thus permissible, and untrue, thus punishable by prison terms or heavy fines. Journalists’ unions should provide moral guidance to their members, challenge those who permit themselves to serve as mouthpieces for any political party or regime, and protect those who remain committed to the integrity of their profession.

 

CARVING OUT A SPACE FOR INDEPENDENT THINKING:  Media is not just meant to be a platform for opposing opinions. While this is necessary in order for the media to espouse a healthy democratic space in any society, Arab societies are hardly democratic, and opposing opinions often serve as a hate fest between regimes and their enemies.

Whenever possible, Arab media should open up a space for those who want to think outside the political and ideological self-serving box. Arab intellect should not be limited to those who are “pro” or “anti” this regime or that party. There are always alternative ways of rationalising that could, with time, offer real alternatives to the status quo and conventional wisdom.

 

OFFERING SOLIDARITY, REGARDLESS OF POLITICS: Arab media should agree on some basic values that include standing up for and defending those victimised by Arab regimes for voicing honest opinions, however critical. When a journalist suffers, is imprisoned, fined or ostracised, the entire media community loses a battle.

Solidarity among journalists, regardless of personal political views or even ideological affiliation, should be enshrined into the code of conduct of all self-respecting media communities.

 

UNDERSTANDING THAT WOMEN ARE NOT HONORARY CITIZENS: MENA Media Monitoring has recently criticised the marginalisation of Algerian women in the country’s media. According to its report, women are given 29 per cent of available media space, while men enjoy the rest.

Women are often restricted, not just by space, but also by the topics they are meant to contribute to  restricted to areas related to family, food and fashion. In fact, Algeria is, perhaps, more fortunate than other Arab media where women are even more restricted, or used as tokens, as opposed to being active participants in discussions of serious political weight and societal impact.

Engaging women in the media is not a favour to be bestowed by men, but a right  and an essential one  for any thinking society.

 

SETTING SERIOUS GOALS, NOT CELEBRATING FAILURE: One is not oblivious to the fact that no democratic media can truly function in a nondemocratic society. However, it is the failure of Arab democracies that should heighten the sense of responsibility among Arab media and journalists.

Arab media should set realistic but serious goals, and revisit these goals with utmost honesty and transparency, no matter the confines and restrictions. There are many battles to be fought and won, and certainly a price to be paid, but none of these challenges can be undertaken under the cloak of Arab foreign ministers or the Arab League.

This is not a judgement on Arab journalism itself, for the Arab world is teeming with journalistic talents who are yet to be used or developed. It is an attempt at an honest reading of the unfortunate reality under which Arab media is forced to operate.

Until journalists and media professionals, through collective effort and after many uphill battles, redeem some respect for their tightly controlled medium, there is no reason whatsoever to celebrate. 

 

The writer is founder of PalestineChronicle.com.

 

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