Ramzy Baroud: The Media is No Exception
The Media is No Exception
By Ramzy Baroud
The further decline of Arab states’ political aptitude in recent years and their failure to produce even a trifling token of unity as a collective, or true sovereignty and self-assertiveness as individual states, is reflected in almost every aspect of Arab life and culture. The media is the most apparent example of this deterioration.
Most Arab media – television, radio, print and digital – is on one hand a prime illustration of the Arab state of affairs’ overriding decline and is itself a purveyor of sweeping degeneration on various other fronts.
Though the reality on the ground wreaks utter corruption, nepotism, unrelenting violations of human rights, economic deterioration, lack of free and meaningful political expression, Arab media continues to celebrate governments’ successes in relieving poverty, fighting corruption, honoring human rights, and so on.
Agitation with the ruling elites and their afflicted systems of government has for long defined the relationship between the ruled and the ruler in many Arab states.
However, such conflicts of interest haven’t turned into massive protests, nationwide strikes and all out hostility – as one might expect and as was the case in other countries around the world in recent years.
Two key explanations have outlived all others in rationalizing the ability of weak governments to hold back the zeal of so-long oppressed nations. One is that foreign powers – principally the United States – has been extremely keen to ensure ‘stability’ – as in mere lack of dissent – in the strategically sensitive and economically viable region, chiefly following the anti-Shah, thus Anti-American popular revolution of Iran in 1979. The rise of Iran’s Khomeini – not precisely as an ideological menace, but rather as a precursor of further revolts – helped strengthen the relationship between successive US governments and their regional alliances, for only they were capable of taming the restless multitudes.
The second explanation doesn’t drift afar, suggesting that the relative calm in various Arab states was the direct outcome of the overtly brutal methods employed by various states’ security practices to quell dissent. Arguing that the regime of Saddam Hussein was inimitable in its mistreatment of its citizens is purely a political assertion often aimed at justifying the US predisposed foreign policy in the region. The use of disproportionate and often extreme violence, arbitrary arrests and other cruel means of punishment, whether collectively or otherwise, is a widespread plague in the region, and is now lead by the US army and Iraq’s ‘democratically’ elected government.
With few important exceptions that compel separate analysis, much of the Arab media is closer to a farce than to objective journalism; newspapers are treated like political movements, with some pro-this while others anti-that. What remain constant however, are the wealthy and politically influential benefactors with a clear and unfaltering self-serving political agenda. Arab satellite television channels, for the most part, disseminate utter nonsense that should not be dignified with thorough scrutiny. Sculpture-like female show hosts, immersed in make up and clearly lacking academic or industrial background waste endless airtime taking live calls in pointless, yet nonstop ‘chats’ as Arab nations endure possibly the most consequential stage in their recent history.
This in part explains the unconcealed enthusiasm and almost disbelief that millions of Arabs felt following the early broadcasts of Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, and later, although to a lesser degree, Al-Arabyia. Although the questionable funding and some of the practices of the first, and the blatant political leaning of the second raised and continue to raise some serious questions, suspicion at times, still, they were viewed differently from the traditional, state-controlled media with its purposefully outdated and out of touch coverage.
If political decline brings about decline in all aspects of a nation’s life, including its media, can the process be reversed? In other words, can the rise of responsible and independent media bring about a social awakening capable of restructuring a decaying political body?
While one is tempted to reply optimistically, there is little evidence that the advent of Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabyia and other like-minded news channels have the ability to inspire positive change, at least in any measurable way. The political divide between various Arab nations has grown significantly since their inception. More dangerous, in my opinion, is that US political conservatives and Israeli officials (keen on breaking the moral support still experienced by Palestinians following the collapse of all lines of Arab defenses) are disproportionately streamed into millions of Arab households through these channels, being foolishly regarded as “experts” (the same designation used by Fox News and MSNBC). However, it seems that the most detectable change in the state of Arab media in the last decade is that the media detachment of the past is being slowly replaced by the confusing and frankly aimless utterances of these semi-state-funded, yet somehow independent channels.
There is little proof that ‘independent’ Arab media are taking serious initiatives to affect solid and lasting political change in their localities or in the region as a whole that is aimed at serving the disaffected and marginalized masses. However, there is ample evidence that superficial political restructuring is taking hold in a few Arab capitals, which inevitably requires the establishment of stated-managed, yet ‘independent’ media initiatives for the purpose of world validation and regional score settling.
Alas, the sorry state of political affairs in the Arab world continues to bring about a decline in all aspects of Arab life and culture. Arab media is no exception.
Baroud, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass
communication at Australia’s Curtin University of
Technology, Malaysia Campus. He is also the Editor-in-Chief