by Al-Jazeera/Getty Images
Authority President Yasser Arafat could not attend the Arab Summit
and was refused a videolink, he turned to the Qatar-based al-Jazeera
satellite television station to spread his message.
Islamic media share similar problems.
by Kai Hafez
During the first few weeks after September 11, the Arab TV channel
Al-Jazeera in Qatar was on everybody's lips - it was the only network
reporting directly from Afghanistan. Since it played videotapes from
Osama bin Laden, the U.S. and British governments criticized the Arab
station for what was perceived as a lack of objectivity. When the Emir
of Qatar complained that the American ambassador had actually asked
him to censor Al-Jazeera, a wave of criticism both by international
and Arab journalists broke out. The critics said that Western governments
violated the freedom of opinion in order to uphold communication hegemony
at the military front.
But what can be said about objectivity in Arab media? The idea of neutral
and objective reporting is quite common in North Africa and the Middle
East. The only exceptions are those rare Islamic codes of journalism
ethics, in Saudi Arabia, for example, dedicated to Islam as the sole
truth. Most ethical codes designed by journalism associations in the
Arabic world, however, are secular in nature. Values of factual knowledge
are deeply imbued in Oriental culture, which prides itself in scientific
Objectivity, however, is a theoretical aim; it is not something that
Middle East media can practice easily in their everyday work. Political
systems in the region can be broadly categorized as being either authoritarian
or semi-authoritarian in nature. Syria and Iraq, for example, allow
virtually no critical debates, whereas Egypt, Jordan and Algeria tolerate
much freer public discussions. In the latter countries, the trend toward
public debate is closely connected to globalization, particularly global
media such as satellite TV and the Internet. But since most consumers
are unable or unwilling to tune in to western media, regionalization
has proven to be more effective than globalization. This is why Al-Jazeera
is the most popular news channel in the Arab world: it is critical -
and it is Arabic.
The media coverage of September 11 in Arab media demonstrated that
contemporary journalism in the Arab world is highly contradictory. Most
Arab media reacted in a very moderate and compassionate way. Condolences
were sent to American victims, and the media were full of reports of
Arab government reactions that - with the exception of Iraq - condemned
the attacks. The media made it clear that terrorism was not in tune
with mainstream Arab-Islamic culture and religion, and that this culture
was not an antagonist of American culture.
However, when America's answer to terrorism was a war against Afghanistan,
criticism of unfair U.S.- Middle Eastern policies grew in Arab media,
which expressed sentiments that the Americans were themselves responsible
for what happened September 11. The Islamic media sometimes tended to
mix legitimate critique with mythology, and in a smaller number of reports
even went so far as to argue that the United States stood behind the
terrorist attacks itself so as to invade the Middle East or even wipe
Altogether, American and Middle Eastern media reactions to September
11 were consistent in their basic rejection of terrorism. But both sides
justified violence as a reaction to the violence of the other party.
The U.S. media did so when it - more or less without any critical debate
- accepted waging a war in Afghanistan, which would inevitably kill
innocent people, as the only answer to terrorism. The Middle Eastern
media did so when they hinted that the attacks against the United States
were a legitimate expression of political criticism. In the West, the
entire concept of Islam was often held responsible for terrorism, though
the phenomenon of terrorism is much older than Islamist fundamentalism.
In the Middle East, conspiracy theories overshadowed political analysis.
In many regards, journalism in the West and in the Middle East seemed
blind to the necessities of political reform. Even though Western media
pride themselves on pluralist and open debates, and though Arab media
have improved the onesidedness of their coverage, self-criticism was
a concept that seemed widely alien to both.
Kai Hafez is a staff member of the German Middle East Institute
in Hamburg. He is also a professor of international comparative communication
science in Erfurt, Germany and a teaching fellow at the Institute for
Political Science at the University of Hamburg. This article, translated
by Nicole Balzereit, originally appeared in the German media review
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