(Winter 2005) “Anyone who tells you they are not scared silly is lying,” retired Annahar publisher Ghassan Tueni, the living symbol of Lebanese media independence, said in mid-autumn as we sat in his office overlooking Beirut’s port and newly reborn downtown. “We built this glass tower as a symbol of the new Lebanon. Now it has become a fortress under siege. I’m waiting for someone on one of those ships out there to fire a rocket through my window.”
Two months later, his son, Annahar publisher Gibran Tueni, was dead; his armored sports utility vehicle torn apart by a remote- controlled car bomb. The assassins struck less than 24 hours after the heir to the journalistic dynasty returned from Paris, where he had been in self-exile after being warned he was at the top of a hit list. Media has always been a tool of power, nowhere more so than the Middle East. With the levers of media control, and thus the power to shape perceptions, slowly—very slowly—beginning to shift away from governments, Arab journalists are being buffeted by an array of competing forces as they attempt to redefine themselves and their profession.
“Profession” That word alone epitomizes the sea-change underway in a region where reporters have too often served as apologists for dictators and autocrats or sold their souls for an envelope of cash. Most Arab journalists remain subject to pressures that range from subtle political “guidance” to threats of imprisonment and death, as the assassinations and attempted assassinations of journalists in Lebanon so vividly demonstrate. Yet as I travel the Arab world these days, I am struck by the newfound sense of professional purpose among journalists.
I am part of a generation of American reporters who flocked to journalism schools in the early 1970s. Vietnam and Watergate had inspired us to believe we could change the world. That same sense of excitement can today be found among aspiring young Arab journalists. “I can’t criticize from within my country,” wrote one of my students at The American University in Cairo, explaining why she wanted to report for the Arab satellite channels, “but journalism allows me to criticize from outside and begin to make things different.”
Even many of the graybeards of Arab journalism have a new view of themselves and their mission. “We can’t say the government changed the media, we changed the media,” says Hassan Amer, a long-time reporter for Egypt’s official press who recently founded an independent newspaper called Al Fajr (The Dawn) to signify that a new day has arrived. “We face pressures but enjoy a lot of freedom now. Even in the national newspapers, there is a lot of change taking place.”
If US public diplomacy czar Karen Hughes had truly wanted to learn about the transformations underway in the region during her so-called “listening tour” in early autumn, she would have done well to trade her string of photo opportunities for a few days shadowing the reporters and news media barons at the vortex of Middle East change.
Everywhere the rules are in flux; everywhere reporters struggle to maintain their equilibrium on the constantly shifting sands. In Egypt, the recent elections resulted in a slight loosening of the reigns on media, but numerous journalists—including the Al Jazeera correspondent—have been attacked and beaten and others are left wondering whether overt restrictions will return. In Iraq, the deadliest place in the world for reporters, journalists are killed for being perceived as too close to the government, too close to the resistance or too close to particular political parties. Saudi Arabia’s Al Watan has gone through four editors in recent years as news executives have tried to interpret conflicting signals from within the House of Saud.
Lebanon has always been the region’s media Tower of Babel; its highly ideological press representing—often bought and paid for by—a range of Middle East governments and political movements. That’s still true. What has changed is the way reporters look at themselves and each other. The media-led popular uprising against Syrian occupation has produced a new sense of mission. Journalism itself is emerging as a new ideology. “We feel we can no longer just represent some, we must represent all,” explained a young reporter with the traditionally pro-Syrian newspaper Assafir, which is reevaluating its own mission following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. But life at the hard edge of media independence can be dangerous.
While Karen Hughes was posing with establishment preachers, prime ministers and smiling babies in late September, reporters in Beirut were reeling under the shock of an assassination attempt on one of their own. May Chidiac lay unconscious and badly burned in a Beirut hospital, her left arm and leg blown off by a bomb placed under the seat of her car. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation anchor and talk show host had been an outspoken critic of Syrian involvement in Lebanon.
Hurtling down the coastal highway from Jounieh to Beirut after a televised media solidarity rally a few days after the attempt on Chidiac’s life, anti-Syrian radio talk show host Rima Njeim fielded serial phone calls—one hand on the wheel of her BMW, the other on the phone—as her producer, Johnny el-Saddik, told me of the endless death threats Njeim receives from what Lebanese reporters have come to call “the unseen hand.” Warned one email: “We know where your children go to school.” Unlike Njeim, many reporters in Lebanon no longer drive their own cars for fear of what might happen when they turn the ignition key.
In a twisted kind of way, the attacks on Lebanese reporters are a compliment to the growing influence of Arab journalism. In the weeks before his assassination, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was called in by Syrian President Bashar Assad and ordered to either force Annahar, the country’s most respected mainstream daily, to end its criticism of the Damascus regime or sell his 20 percent stake in the company. In one of the small glassed-in offices off the Annahar newsroom, a Lebanese flag is draped over the chair of Samir Kassir as a memorial to the outspoken columnist whose white Alpha Romeo exploded in a ball of flames in late spring. “I still can’t believe it,” whispered reporter Roula Mouawad as she paused before the glassed-in office. On a plaque beside her was etched Kassim’s likeness and the dates: 1960-2005. “We have to fight for them, and the next,” she said later over coffee, referring to her fallen colleagues. “Because there will be a next.”
Another kind of war is being tought between journalists and the powers-that-be in other parts of the Middle East. In Jordan meanwhile, media reform is being trumpeted as a harbinger of greater political reform. A panel discussion about media liberalization organized by the Jordanian government at an international conference in Amman turned into a free-for-all as Jordanian journalists mocked the government’s decision to scrap the ministry of information and repeal a key press law. “You eliminated one law but there are 22 others on the books that can send us to prison,” one reporter shouted at then Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher. Yet the fact that the event, broadcast on Jordanian TV, even took place was itself an indication of the dramatic changes underway.
In the Gulf meanwhile, the media operates under strictures less visceral than in the Levant, but equally real. “What kind of pressures do you face?” I asked the editor of one Gulf paper after chatting about the recent attacks on Lebanese journalists. “None,” he replied. “We don’t report about political issues.” Complained another senior Gulf editor: “Our press is infected with the self-censorship virus.”
That is not the only chronic ailment still contaminating the culture of Arab journalism. “How can we talk about media reform when a whole people are imprisoned in their own country?” one Arab reporter angrily challenged a group of colleagues discussing the future of journalism in the region. That fixation on resolving the Palestine conflict before tackling any other issue plays right into the hands of authoritarian regimes like Syria, which have long used the confrontation with Israel as an excuse for tight media control.
There is contradiction wherever you turn. Oman and Bahrain have, respectively, issued licenses for their first private television and radio stations, but for most of the past year, the prime media engine in the region, Al Jazeera, has been banned from operating in a half-dozen Middle East countries, including that supposed bastion of democracy, Iraq. And for all the talk of independence, both Al Jazeera and its rival, Al Arabiya, face red lines around issues it is “better” that they not touch.
Then there is the whole issue of money. Economic sustainability is one of the greatest challenges to media organizations in countries transitioning from an authoritarian model to a free press. The tendency is for a plethora of media organizations to spring up in the first heady days after deregulation, fragmenting the market and making it difficult for anyone to make money. As Russia exemplifies, the survivors are frequently gobbled up by business tycoons—usually cronies of the government-of-the-day—and the rest are susceptible to economic coercion, becoming mouthpieces for political parties and special interests. The Arab world may well be in the process of skipping that intermediate, free-for-all step.
Idealistic startups like Jordan’s first private FM station, Ammannet, a spin-off of an innovative Internet radio station based in the West Bank, are exceptions to the rule. Unlike the Balkans or Africa, there’s plenty of capital in the Middle East, so poor, scrappy journalistic entrepreneurs are few and far between. Instead, the overwhelming number of pseudo-independent media outlets in the region are owned or heavily-influenced by members of royal families, such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and its cousin MBC; tools of mega-rich would-be politicos and influence peddlers, such as Hariri’s Future TV and Michel Murr’s soon to be revived MTV in Lebanon; or bully pulpits for political parties and preachers of every stripe.
It all comes back to power. The emir of Qatar didn’t finance Al Jazeera to get a membership card at Washington’s National Press Club. He did it for the same reason he invited the US Central Command to set up shop—to make himself a player in the region. That’s also why the Saudis and Emiratis are building media empires in the Gulf, Jordan’s King Abdullah is talking up media liberalization and Syrian intelligence thugs and their Lebanese minions are killing journalists. It all has to do with power and how it is leveraged. Arab media may be helping to fuel political reform but it also remains a prisoner of those reforms.
As the assassinated columnist Kassir put it exactly a year before his death: “Thanks to a handful of journalists, we have indeed re-conquered our freedom of opinion and expression—if not yet fully our freedom of information.”
Whether it is in Al Jazeera’s newsroom in Doha or on the mean streets of Beirut, wherever I talk to Arab journalists these days, I hear a guarded hope that change is on the way—and a pride that they are helping to bring it about. But after each trip, I return home wondering whether this newfound sense of mission will be nurtured by the atmosphere of political reform it is helping to foster or whether Arab journalism will ultimately trade one master for another, stifled by economic forces and bullied by political muscle manipulated by those who would be king.