June 4, 2002







photo by Al-Jazeera/Getty Images

When Palestinian 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.

Al-Jazeera meets CNN
Western and 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.

Kai Hafez

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 tradition.

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 out Islam.
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 Message (4/2001).

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