The new Arab media are not only changing how Arabs are perceived abroad, they are also changing the face of journalism, says a Middle Eastern media analyst.
Arab media build bridges to the West
DUBAI // The new Arab media are not only changing how Arabs are perceived abroad, they are also changing the face of journalism, a Middle Eastern media analyst said. Arab broadcasts once relied on western media for news of the Arab world, but no more, said Adel Iskandar, co-author of Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East. "Finally, the Arab media is reaching out to tell their own story in their own way and the world is listening," he said in an interview.
Dr Iskandar, an Egyptian-Canadian who is a visiting researcher at Georgetown University in Washington, was in town to lecture at the Dubai School of Government. Although Arab media have been around for hundreds of years, until recently they were directed solely to an Arab audience. The West's perception of the Middle East was cast by how its own media portrayed the region. English newspapers and other news sources have been in the Middle East for many years, but "they were still for local consumption, expats and English speaking Arabs", Dr Iskandar said. "We weren't targeting the West, we were targeting ourselves in English."
The launch of the 24-hour television news service Al Jazeera English in Nov 2006 gave the world an alternative. "The use of western reporters or western-trained Arabs based in the Middle East to tell their own story became a hit," Dr Iskandar said. Western media began to rely on Arab news outlets. And, by hiring native reporters for jobs previously held by western reporters, news agencies are trying to give their coverage a more authentic flavour.
Al Jazeera's slogan became: "Everyone watches CNN, but who is CNN watching? Al Jazeera." "There is a market for this kind of reporting in the West," Dr Iskandar said. "I attribute the progress to the increasing diligence and professionalism of Arab journalists. "They are becoming far more interested to communicate their own stories to the West. "Until recently, there was a great deal of antagonism towards Arab media, at least in America, because it was perceived to be biased towards the region. Things like Osama bin Laden's video messages to Al Jazeera are an easy target for criticism of the Arab media. It gave the perception of radicalism."
The objectivity of Arab news media, many of which are owned by government, is much-debated. "This question of objectivity is being answered more and more by Middle Eastern bloggers," Dr Iskandar said. "Blogging ambiguity is where its strength lies because its everything but objective. It's the ultimate equaliser." Bloggers such as Egypt's Sandmonkey, who is pro-Israel and pro-American, angered many Arabs by supporting the US war on Iraq and became a favourite source for the western media, Dr Iskandar said.
"Without this platform where someone can express such an uncommon view, we would all believe the same thing." Dr Iskandar tempered his praise for the Arab media. "We have to provide constructive criticism of ourselves." For example, he noted the lack of reporting on Qatar - where Al Jazeera is based. "You cannot be critical of other nations and neglect your own." In his study of the Arabic Al Jazeera, Dr Iskandar said he found "neither positive nor negative news" about Qatar.
"It was as if Qatar wasn't on the map". The major obstacle to success for the Arab media is censorship, he said. "First it was the government and now it is self-censorship. ''This is the glass ceiling that you know is there but you don't know how high it is. But you will know when you hit it." email@example.com