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October 21, 2011

The hypocrisy of Arab media

October 21, 2011

October 21, 2011

This is an unpublished article written in March/April:


The two popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt took the world by surprise. This sudden uninterrupted absence of never-ending tenures exposed the many faults in the Arab world, especially the hypocrisy of most of its media outlets and their biased coverage. Using new media tools like twitter, YouTube, blogs, and Facebook, the revolting youth in Tunis and Egypt brushed away the opposing state sponsored and financed traditional media; many Youtube videos listed “the before and after” media coverage and statements, and the results were shocking contradictions that only display how the sweeping swift revolts caught journalists by surprise in bed with dictators. The most popular video, with 250,000 hits and counting, is the Egyptian TV show star Amr Adeeb who switched in a few days from calling Mubarak a historical leader who is allowed to have the exception of unlimited tenures, to criticizing his despotism. Till the advent of the Qatari al-Jazeera news channel, Saudi Arabia dominated the traditional pan-Arab media scene, mainly through the leading al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat dailies, along with the various publications associated with them, most were based in London. Qatar, a small but extremely wealthy state, made a surprising advent into the media scene through al-Jazeera. The secret recipe behind the channel's success was to a large extent a factor of its sponsor's wide foreign policy margin; a small rentier state has tensions and fear of its giant neighbour, and a strong alliance with the U.S. which maintains its largest military base near Doha. Saudi Arabia, Qatar's main foe, though still not publicly, enjoys strong ties with the vast majority of autocratic regimes in the Middle East, which usually translates into less critical reporting, if hardly any in its news outlets. Al-Jazeera’s advantage is that its Qatari sponsorship does not require praise-showering exercises such as the Saudi Media, though it remains noncritical of the Absolute Monarchy. An example of this “disadvantage” would be Al-Hayat editor’s eulogy of late King Fahd, titled The Custodian of the Ancestry and the Architect of the Renaissance”, in which Ghassan Sharbel says that “Fahed Bin Abdul Aziz was one of the few that won the people’s medal of love and appreciation, completing the collection of many other medals”.


The most notable two exceptions have been of course Syria and Iran, where Saudi media takes varied interest in reporting any form of local descent against the repressive regimes in place, watering down in times of rapprochement.
Al-Jazeera, in spite of its wide editorial margin, tends to be less vigour in its reporting of events in those two countries than its Saudi owned rival, Alarabiya news channel. For instance, this popular blogger has criticized the channel for “ignoring” the recent Iranian protests.
But in case of Ben Ali and Mubarak, both staunch Saudi allies, al-Jazeera had by far the most influential and aggressive coverage of popular demonstrations, while the Saudi owned media was reporting hesitantly, and usually in subtle or open support of those regimes till the very end, when it was too late. The fall of those two regimes exposed a web of hypocrisy in Arab media, all of which has been uncovered through Email forwards, tweets, and above all, YouTube videos.
On Tunisia, whose demonstrations began in mid-December, the Saudi media was cautious, while alJazeera has been reporting non-stop. A Saudi journalist recently refered to Alarabiya’s as “a channel that struggles with its fear, then races to catch up what it missed the next day”. A commentator for the pro-Saudi Al-Mustaqbal newspaper wrote on the 15th of October an article showering praise on Ben Ali’s great achievements in almost all fields, and he referred to his wife’s Layla Tarabolsi role as proof Tunisian women’s “pioneer role”. Exactly 30 days later, the same author wrote a front page commentary on Ben Ali, citing that the latter thought of himself “a semi-God capable of reducing Tunis to his own self and his wife’s family and … become a president for life”.
In Egypt, where state media was exposed by the promptness of developments, journalists were quick to join the demonstrators and expelling their Union’s chief from their headquarters, and some of them issued statements against the biases of their outlets.
Hafez Al-Mirazi, a famous Alarabiya presenter in Cairo, criticized the Saudi media flippant coverage of the revolutions, and dared them to mention a word about the Saudi King or his government. He said that if Alarabiya is an independent news channel, his show the next day would discuss the implications of Egypt's revolt on Saudi Arabia, or "goodbye, and thank you for watching my show". It was his last show, as he was reportedly dismissed in a few hours.
It seems certain Tunisian tweets were right, their revolt's first martyr and certainly the spark, Mohamad Bouazizi, the 26 year-old unemployed university graduate who set himself on fire in protest and died later in hospital, burnt with him every bit of remaining fear. There is no more room for blunt hypocrisy.


PS. The links to Al-Hayat have been disabled by the newspaper's new website.

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