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The Arab media's problems

Opinion: Censorship of the media limits chances for better government in the Middle East.

A general view shows an event marking the 10th anniversary of Al Jazeera's Arabic channel in Doha November 1, 2006. (Fadi al-Assaad/Reuters)

DEAD SEA, Jordan — Arab media bosses face a host of problems. Of course, that’s also true of Western media executives. But most of the problems the Arab news media face stem from the retarded development of their social institutions and the authoritarian nature of their governments.

On the one hand, Western news media are bleeding to death, losing money at an alarming rate and desperately looking for new business models that will allow them to make a profit. On the other hand, Arab media executives participating here in the annual World Economic Forum on the Middle East point out that most of the Arab media do not even try to make money. They are bankrolled by governments or political parties and exist to make propaganda, not profits.

Nakhle El Hage, director of Al Arabiya News, said that although there are more than 400 Arab television channels, only 10 of them (his included) have a sizable audience. The rest are mainly mouthpieces for their political sponsors. He claimed that Iran (a non-Arab country) spends more than $200 million a year on several Arab TV stations to promote its point of view throughout the Middle East. He failed to mention that Al Arabiya and a number of other Arab broadcast and print organizations are financed by the Saudis, who have an even larger influence on the Arab media. (Arab media bosses at the meeting did not want to bite the hand that feeds them.)

Other points made by the media executives:

  • When Arab governments use the state-run media to get their message out, few people listen. Most Arabs mistrust their official media and would rather watch Al Jazeera or other notionally independent channels.
  • Al Hurra TV channel has no credibility in the Arab world because it is run by the U.S. government.
  • There are no good measurements of audiences in the Middle East. Plans to introduce “people meters” have been thwarted because governments fear public opinion.

There was a whiff of hope at the media round table that the old system of censorship and government control will break down in the Arab world because the new social networking sites are stealing the youth audience from traditional media. Saudi children (like their Western counterparts) spend more time on Facebook and MySpace than watching TV. The hope is that the Internet will encourage the feedback and grassroots input that the official Arab media lack.

But a former minister of information for the Jordanian government warned it will take a generation for really independent and responsible Arab news media to become the norm.

Most of the working journalists I spoke with here (as opposed to the media bosses) complained privately about government restrictions. An Egyptian editor for an Arab business magazine told me he risks imprisonment if he reports facts that contradict the government line. He added, “If I steal a document that backs my story, I could be jailed for that as well.”

Journalists based in Dubai, which has gone from boom to bust in the current recession, said that new government media restrictions will impose draconian fines for reporting “misleading news that harms the national economy.” The recession has been a blow for press freedom in the Middle East.

The reality is that Arab journalists still find it safer to criticize Israel than the incompetence or corruption of their own governments. And until heavy handed government restrictions are eased, chances for better government in the Middle East remain dim.

More GlobalPost dispatches on the media:

Taiwan: Black and white and "red" all over?

Venezuela's media is caught in a vicious circle

Thailand's front page horror show

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/worldview/090519/arab-media-problems