Growing bolder, Arab media begin to act in democratic way, but blocks remain

July 05, 2005

* This dispatch follows yesterday’s dispatch on the problems of the Arab media. Today, I attempt to illustrate some more optimistic trends. Even more so than yesterday’s, I believe this is an important dispatch, worth reading in full.

 

CONTENTS

1. “Arab press grows bolder, but blocks remain” (The Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2005)
2. “NBC: Misjudging Al Jazeera led to terror alert” (Reuters, June 28, 2005)
3. “Al Arabiya satellite TV starts reporting from Gush Katif” (Ha’aretz, June 29, 2005)
4. “Israelis, Arabs See Groundbreaking Film” (Yahoo News / AP, July 2, 2005)
5. “The loser in Iran was the Western media” (Beirut Daily Star, June 28, 2005)

 


[Note by Tom Gross]

ARAB MEDIA BEGIN TO ACT LIKE DEMOCRATIC MEDIA

Yesterday’s dispatch (Outspoken Arab commentators lament the anti-Israel & anti-US lies of their own media) dealt with many of the impediments in the way of Arab news outlets. By contrast, this dispatch charts more positive developments.

In a period of unprecedented change in the Middle East, some Arab journalists are increasingly showing that they have the potential to monitor and criticize the abuses of their own governments.

Amid mounting American pressure on Arab governments to democratize, some Arab media have started speaking out, criticizing their leaders, attacking corruption, and demanding more freedom and transparency. One indication of this can be seen on the website of The Daily Star in Lebanon (www.dailystar.com.lb/home2.asp) with adverts urging a “support (for a) free press in Lebanon”.

AL JAZEERA

Al Jazeera TV has had an enormous impact on the media in the Middle East. Its importance is illustrated in the second article in this dispatch, which alleges that a US terror alert that interrupted about 30 overseas flights, was triggered by a CIA analysis of what were thought to be hidden messages broadcast on Al Jazeera.

On March 23, 2005, I sent out a dispatch titled Al-Jazeera to be launched in English in America. This story is now being reported by mainstream news outlets. Yesterday, the Associated Press finally reported on it, and this AP article was picked up by many newspapers today and yesterday, including the Chicago Sun Times, the Globe and Mail (Canada), the Guardian, and China Daily. The June 27, 2005 issue of Time magazine also had a four page spread on this “international media powerhouse”.

ISRAELIS NOW ALLOWED A VOICE ON ARAB TELEVISION

Previous dispatches on this list have charted how Arab television stations have ignored Israelis. For example, earlier this year Lebanese TV refused to show the Eurovision Song Contest because an Israeli was singing. (See the dispatch of May 21, 2005, titled Lebanon pulls out of tonight’s Eurovision Song Contest because an Israeli will sing.)

In a marked change from the way Arab TV stations have ignored any “humanization” of Israelis in the past, in recent days the Dubai-based station Al Arabiya has begun to report directly from the Gush Katif Jewish communities in the Gaza strip.

Al Arabiya, which has tens of millions of viewers and is considered Al Jazeera’s leading rival, was the first to break the unwritten rules of the Arab media by interviewing Israeli politicians, army officers and settlers, and is the only station in the Arab world that does not call suicide bombers “martyrs.”

ISRAELI AND PALESTINIAN SIMULTANEOUS TV BROADCAST

Last Saturday, both Israeli and Palestinian TV a private Palestinian station, not the official station of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority simultaneously broadcast a documentary called “The Shape of the Future,” which explored possible solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Whilst this does not signal any political shift as such, it is nonetheless a significant breakthrough for Palestinians and Israelis to directly hear and see ideas which are of great consequence to the future of both peoples.

THE BIGGEST LOSER IN IRANIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION WAS THE WESTERN MEDIA

As an illustration of the importance of the Arab media I have included a piece from the Daily Star in Lebanon which highlights how poorly the Western media understood the Iranian Presidential election. The lack of accurate coverage by western journalists is particularly worrisome as Iran, its foreign policy and its nuclear program are likely to dominate the news cycle in the Middle East for some time to come.

I attach five articles, with summaries first for those who don’t have time to read them in full.

-- Tom Gross

 

ARAB PRESS GROWS BOLDER, BUT BLOCKS REMAIN

“Arab press grows bolder, but blocks remain” (By Sarah Gauch, The Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2005)

Amid mounting global pressure on Arab governments to democratize, journalists across the region have started boldly speaking out, criticizing their leaders, attacking corruption, and demanding more freedom and transparency.

... Egypt, for example, is experiencing a more open, vibrant press, which has dared in recent months to criticize Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the extension of his 24-year rule, and the possible succession of his son. In fact, most subjects seem fair game these days. “We are free to report on almost anything, except defense,” says Hisham Kassem, vice chairman of the independent daily Al Masry Al Yom.

... Other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, which allowed journalists to address such taboo topics as religious militancy, government mismanagement, and terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, have opened their press for short periods but then cracked down.

... But even as media outlets embrace calls for press reform, many Arab states continue to attack the press through restrictive laws, imprisonment of journalists, and, allegedly, even murder...

 

NBC: MISJUDGING ALJAZEERA LED TO ALERT

“NBC: Misjudging Aljazeera led to alert” (By Reuters, carried on the website of Al Jazeera, June 28, 2005)

A US terror alert in late 2003 that interrupted about 30 overseas flights was triggered by a CIA analysis of what were thought to be hidden messages broadcast on Aljazeera TV, NBC Nightly News has said.

CIA analysts mistakenly thought they had found secret al-Qaida messages embedded in the crawl on the news channel, but the analysis turned out to be wrong, NBC reported on Monday, citing senior US officials.

... A CIA spokeswoman referred a call seeking comment to the National Counterterrorism Centre. Spokesmen for the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security could not be reached for comment.

 

AL ARABIYA SATELLITE TV STARTS REPORTING FROM GUSH KATIF

“Al Arabiya satellite TV starts reporting from Gush Katif” (By Nir Hassom, Ha’aretz, June 29, 2005)

... For the first time, a television crew from the Arab satellite station Al Arabiya was also visiting the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza. The Dubai-based station had decided to cover the run-up to the disengagement for its viewers.

... “The entire Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel,” one of the Tal Yam teens told Al Arabiya reporter Ziad Halaby.

... “It’s very colorful here, very interesting,” commented Halaby afterward. “I understand the settlers and their feeling that they were betrayed by [Ariel] Sharon. I believe that the rift on the right is real, not feigned.”

... Al Arabiya, founded in 2003, broadcasts via satellite to all the Arab states. It has tens of millions of viewers and is considered Al Jazeera’s leading rival. When it broke the unwritten rules of the Arab media by interviewing Israeli politicians and army officers, “the other stations criticized us, and then followed suit,” said one of its local producers, who asked to remain anonymous. Al Arabiya is also the only station in the Arab world that does not call suicide bombers “martyrs.”

 

ISRAELIS, ARABS SEE GROUNDBREAKING FILM

“Israelis, Arabs See Groundbreaking Film” (By Steve Weizman, Associated Press, July 2, 2005)

In a groundbreaking cooperative venture, Israeli and Arab TV stations on Saturday simultaneously broadcast the first part of a documentary exploring possible solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Program’s producer Search for Common Ground, a conflict resolution foundation, hopes that by presenting the dispute in graphic human terms and focusing on the need for territorial compromise by both sides, then the series could have a greater impact than previous documentaries, which centered on the conflict’s history.

The first two parts of the four-part series, titled “The Shape of the Future,” were aired in Hebrew on Israel’s Channel Eight cable channel and in Arabic on the public Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), on the privately-owned MAAN Palestinian channel. They were also aired throughout the Arabic-speaking world by the Abu Dhabi satellite channel...

“It was a good program. It showed that both sides had concerns, both sides were human, both sides suffered similar troubles and have metaphorical hopes for the future,” said Marwan Awwad, a contractor, watching in Jordan.

Assad Azzouni, a Jordanian novelist of Palestinian origin, said the program was “awful.” ...

 

THE LOSER IN IRAN WAS THE WESTERN MEDIA

“The loser in Iran was the Western media” (By Gordon Robison, Daily Star, Lebanon, June 28, 2005)

So Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is not Iran’s new president. That result must come as a particular surprise to anyone who tried to follow the campaign by light of the Western media...

The answer may be much simpler, if no less embarrassing: Granted how little most of us outsiders know about the politics of the Islamic Republic, it was probably just easiest to focus on Rafsanjani because he, alone among the candidates, was a familiar figure to Western journalists.

That quality made him easy to write about, and easy to cover; it made it especially easy for us to assume that he would win...

 



FULL ARTICLES

ARAB PRESS GROWS BOLDER, BUT BLOCKS REMAIN

Arab press grows bolder, but blocks remain
This week, Al Jazeera aired a controversial program about torture in Arab jails.
By Sarah Gauch
The Christian Science Monitor
June 28, 2005

www.csmonitor.com/2005/0628/p05s01-wome.html

Amid mounting global pressure on Arab governments to democratize, journalists across the region have started boldly speaking out, criticizing their leaders, attacking corruption, and demanding more freedom and transparency.

But even as media outlets embrace calls for press reform, many Arab states continue to attack the press through restrictive laws, imprisonment of journalists, and, allegedly, even murder.

“Journalists who have tried to stake out an independent position from the government very frequently face the wrath of local officials,” says Joel Campagna, senior program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. A free press, he argues, is a prerequisite for greater democracy throughout the Arab world. Media freedom, however, varies greatly across the region, say analysts.

Egypt, for example, is experiencing a more open, vibrant press, which has dared in recent months to criticize Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the extension of his 24-year rule, and the possible succession of his son. In fact, most subjects seem fair game these days.

“We are free to report on almost anything, except defense,” says Hisham Kassem, vice chairman and chief executive officer of the independent daily Al Masry Al Yom.

With a long history of freedom and openness, the Lebanese press, too, has been outspoken in its criticism of the government and its former occupier, Syria, especially since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February and the massive demonstrations that followed.

Other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, which allowed journalists to address such taboo topics as religious militancy, government mismanagement, and terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, have opened their press for short periods but then cracked down.

And in other countries, including Tunisia and Libya, press freedoms actually deteriorated in recent years, analysts say, despite the push for democratic reform.

Speaking out often carries a steep price. Earlier this month, Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, a journalist with the daily Lebanese newspaper An Nahar, was killed by a car bomb in what was widely suspected to be an assassination backed by Syria. Syria denies the allegation.

After Mr. Kassir’s death, his columns were reprinted in An Nahar’s newspaper and on its website.

“Even if we assume that Syria has convinced the world it is innocent of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the strong popular outcry surrounding the crime has raised the possibility of examining again the other crimes the Baathists [the ruling Syrian party] committed while suppressing Lebanon’s public freedoms,” reads a reprinted column by Kassir that ran after Hariri’s assassination.

Last month, supporters of Egypt’s governing party beat and sexually assaulted female journalists in Cairo at antigovernment rallies during a referendum on an amendment to allow multicandidate presidential elections in September.

The attack on women journalists in Cairo last month led to meetings and demonstrations denouncing the government and calling for the resignation of Egypt’s interior minister. Meanwhile, Al Masry Al Yom printed photos showing voter fraud during May’s referendum about direct presidential elections.

The growth of electronic and broadcast media in the Arab world, like the pioneering satellite television station and website Al Jazeera, has also had a tremendous effect on the region’s press. Besides being an important platform for political debate, they disseminate information the population cannot get from the local media.

“We discuss subjects that they [Arab governments] consider taboo,” says Ahmed Sheikh, editor in chief of Al Jazeera, the satellite station. “We cover reform, democracy, ... human rights.”

Just this Sunday, Mr. Sheikh says, Al Jazeera did a controversial program on torture in Arab jails, focusing mainly on Egypt, where there had been a protest Sunday outside the state security headquarters denouncing the widespread use of torture in the country’s prisons.

Still, supporters of more press freedom in the Arab world emphasize that what’s really needed for true reform is a complete change of attitude: Arab regimes must welcome the media as a pillar of democracy, instead of rejecting them as an enemy of the state.

“There needs to be a new mentality about the role of the free press in a democratic society," says Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist at Cairo’s state-run daily Al Ahram, “and to truly believe that this is the way of good governance.”

 

NBC: MISJUDGING ALJAZEERA LED TO ALERT

NBC: Misjudging Aljazeera led to alert
Reuters
Al Jazeera
June 28, 2005

english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/5AFD91E7-361F-4067-8FFF-9A8E4D91703D.htm

A US terror alert in late 2003 that interrupted about 30 overseas flights was triggered by a CIA analysis of what were thought to be hidden messages broadcast on Aljazeera TV, NBC Nightly News has said.

CIA analysts mistakenly thought they had found secret al-Qaida messages embedded in the crawl on the news channel, but the analysis turned out to be wrong, NBC reported on Monday, citing senior US officials.

According to the report, CIA experts thought they found numbers signalling upcoming attacks hidden in the information that scrolled across the screen.
“Dates and flight numbers, geographic coordinates for targets, including the White House, Seattle’s Space Needle, even the tiny town of Tappahanock, Virginia,” the report said.

NBC said the CIA would neither confirm nor deny the report, but said it is the “agency’s job to run all plausible theories to the ground, especially when American lives could be at risk”.

NBC said the alleged threats were found through steganalysis, using sophisticated software to analyse images for hidden messages.

Former secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge was briefed on the analysis and was asked whether he considered it to be “a little bit bizarre”.

“Bizarre, unique, unorthodox, unprecedented. Speaking for myself, I’ve got to admit to wondering whether or not it was credible,” Ridge told NBC.

Ridge said the possibility of hidden messages could not be discounted, given other intelligence chatter and an attack on Saudi Arabia.

Asked whether in retrospect it was a mistake to raise the alert level based on the analysis, Ridge said, “No.”

“We informed a lot of people and we acted accordingly based on our best information and best conclusions and the information that we had at the time.”

A CIA spokeswoman referred a call seeking comment to the National Counterterrorism Centre. Spokesmen for the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security could not be reached for comment.

 

AL ARABIYA SATELLITE TV STARTS REPORTING FROM GUSH KATIF

Al Arabiya satellite TV starts reporting from Gush Katif
By Nir Hassom
Ha’aretz
June 29, 2005

www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/593534.html

The dozens of journalists who descended yesterday on the Al Ara house in Muassi, which settler youths had turned into a new stronghold called Tal Yam, included one surprise: For the first time, a television crew from the Arab satellite station Al Arabiya was also visiting the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza. The Dubai-based station had decided to cover the run-up to the disengagement for its viewers.

“The entire Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel,” one of the Tal Yam teens told Al Arabiya reporter Ziad Halaby. “If the Arabs want to live here, they can be foreigners, without rights. That can be considered. But no other nation has rights [here].”

“It’s very colorful here, very interesting,” commented Halaby afterward. “I understand the settlers and their feeling that they were betrayed by [Ariel] Sharon. I believe that the rift on the right is real, not feigned. But I don’t believe Sharon regarding the other settlements, and I fear that while the entire world is focusing on the disengagement, he will work to expand settlements in the West Bank.”

Halaby, who speaks excellent Hebrew, is perhaps the only journalist in Gush Katif who calls the Jewish inhabitants mityashvim rather than mitnahalim (both mean “settler,” but the latter, used by all the Hebrew media, is considered more derogatory). And contrary to his fears, he said, he encountered no hostility from the settlers, except for once when a few of them yelled “Shabbos!” (Shabbat) at him. “I didn’t understand what they wanted,” he admitted.

Even Eran Sternberg, spokesman for the Gush Katif Regional Council, agreed to let Halaby interview him. When Halaby asked whether he believed the disengagement could be stopped, Sternberg replied: “As a believer, I must make a 100-percent effort. As for the results - Allahu akhbar” (Arabic for “God is great”).

Al Arabiya, founded in 2003, broadcasts via satellite to all the Arab states. It has tens of millions of viewers and is considered Al Jazeera’s leading rival. When it broke the unwritten rules of the Arab media by interviewing Israeli politicians and army officers, “the other stations criticized us, and then followed suit,” said one of its local producers, who asked to remain anonymous. Al Arabiya is also the only station in the Arab world that does not call suicide bombers “martyrs.”

Its local crew is comprised of Israeli Arabs, most of whom had never been to Gush Katif before. From now on, however, they plan to visit every week to prepare a report. The next one, said the producer, will be about the signs in Gush Katif: “Why are signs in Gush Katif written in Arabic [as well as Hebrew]? Who does it serve?”

“The Arab public is longing to know what is happening here,” concluded Halaby. “Nothing more important than the disengagement will happen in 2005.”

 

ISRAELIS, ARABS SEE GROUNDBREAKING FILM

Israelis, Arabs See Groundbreaking Film
By Steve Weizman
The Associated Press
July 2, 2005

news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20050702/ap_on_re_mi_ea/israel_palestinian_simulcast

In a groundbreaking cooperative venture, Israeli and Arab TV stations on Saturday simultaneously broadcast the first part of a documentary exploring possible solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Program’s producer Search for Common Ground, a conflict resolution foundation, hopes that by presenting the dispute in graphic human terms and focusing on the need for territorial compromise by both sides, then the series could have a greater impact than previous documentaries, which centered on the conflict’s history.

The first two parts of the four-part series, titled “The Shape of the Future,” were aired in Hebrew on Israel’s Channel Eight cable channel and in Arabic on the public Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), on the privately-owned MAAN Palestinian channel. They were also aired throughout the Arabic-speaking world by the Abu Dhabi satellite channel.

Israeli and Arab viewers had mixed feelings about the impact the four-part series would have on the course of a conflict that has claimed the lives of 3,487 Palestinians and 1,042 Israelis in just the past five years.

“It was a good program. It showed that both sides had concerns, both sides were human, both sides suffered similar troubles and have metaphorical hopes for the future,” said Marwan Awwad, a contractor, watching in Jordan.

Assad Azzouni, a Jordanian novelist of Palestinian origin, said the program was “awful.”

“Why are Arab countries so eager to normalize ties with Israel?” Azzouni asked.

Israeli analyst Hirsh Goodman, after watching the program at his Jerusalem home, said the content did not break new ground. “But I think it recorded very important voices and I think it laid out for the people who are going to have to conduct future policy the clay they’re working with,” Goodman said.

Palestinian journalist and author Daoud Kuttab praised the segment’s forward-looking emphasis.

“Contrary to other films dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this documentary did not stop in analyzing the problem, but rather tried to see possible solutions,” Kuttab said.

Producer John Marks said the documentary had been offered to larger networks but they had deemed it insufficiently commercial.

The first 30-minute segment shows that opinions within Palestinian and Israeli society are not monolithic, and can sometimes vary widely within the same family.

Benny Eilon is a right-wing settler and former Cabinet minister, who was fired from the Israeli government over his opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharons’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In the program he says Scripture gives Jews an inalienable right to settle anywhere in the Holy Land by force if necessary.

“I am a sheriff with a tank and a rifle, who defends the right of the people of Israel the return to the Land of Israel,” he said. “I don’t have to be an underdog to be right.”

Eilon’s brother Ari, a teacher, says the Jews’ connection to the Bible does not confer upon them the right to seize Palestinian land.

“I think that oppressing another people and withholding their rights in order to keep hold of a larger piece of territory is a crime,” he said. “One of the clear symptoms of growing up is to realize that not everything can be mine.”

On the Palestinian side, journalist Nabil Khatib says there can be no peace while Jewish settlements remain, but he acknowledges that a final resolution will demand compromise from both sides.

“Each side was brought up on dreams,” Khatib said. “Both parties should perhaps reach a truce with their dreams.”

 

THE LOSER IN IRAN WAS THE WESTERN MEDIA

The loser in Iran was the Western media
By Gordon Robison
Daily Star Lebanon
June 28, 2005

www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=16288

So Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is not Iran’s new president. That result must come as a particular surprise to anyone who tried to follow the campaign by light of the Western media.

As recently as last Thursday - the day before the run-off vote between Rafsanjani and his rival, Tehran mayor Mahmood Ahmadinejad - reputable polls gave the latter a clear lead. Yet headlines in the International Herald Tribune continued to describe Rafsanjani as the “front-runner.” In the run-up to the first round of voting on June 17, his campaign was the focus of most election coverage in the Western media. CNN’s interview with Rafsanjani during the campaign treated him as a president-in-waiting.

So what happened, exactly? Was the election actually much freer than most Western observers were willing to credit? Or, on the other hand, if it was fixed from the beginning, then we of the Western media were obviously woefully ill-informed about Iranian politics, particularly with regards to exactly who fixes elections and to what end.

The answer may be much simpler, if no less embarrassing: Granted how little most of us outsiders know about the politics of the Islamic Republic, it was probably just easiest to focus on Rafsanjani because he, alone among the candidates, was a familiar figure to Western journalists.

That quality made him easy to write about, and easy to cover; it made it especially easy for us to assume that he would win. It was also relatively easy to assume that Rafsanjani’s candidacy represented a bid by conservatives to reclaim the presidency, which they lost eight years ago to the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani, after all, was Khatami’s predecessor.

Rafsanjani ran as a moderate reformer, a position that, granted his history, most in the West found difficult to credit. It was only in the final few days of the campaign that some reporters began noticing that Iranians, too, seemed to find his new-found liberalism a bit difficult to believe. With Rafsanjani the Iranian system’s consummate insider, it was easy to dismiss his moderate platform as a pose and to assume that the results had been fixed in his favor, particularly since he was standing against a field of candidates most outsiders had never heard of.

Yet, when the first round of voting produced no clear majority for a single candidate, thereby forcing a runoff, media coverage focused more on the fact that no previous Iranian campaign had gone to a second round. “Historic” and “unprecedented” were common terms used in the press. Rarely asked was how the Western pundits and reporters could have been so wrong. Rafsanjani did, indeed, top the first round of voting, but with barely 20 percent of the total in a seven-candidate field.

More surprisingly, the second-place candidate was not the reformer Mustafa Moin, who came in fifth, but Ahmadinejad, a candidate generally described as being so hard-line that, by comparison, Rafsanjani’s status as a reformer was hardly open to question.

Prior to the election Moin was often seen in the West as Rafsanjani’s main competition. The assumption in that narrative was that Rafsanjani represented the conservative old guard. Moin, a former cabinet minister who was initially barred from standing by Iran’s Council of Guardians (the body that approves potential candidates for Parliament and the presidency), was seen as the obvious successor to Khatami.

That might have been true, but it ignored the fact that there is more than one type of “reform.” Reform can mean loosening restrictions on how people dress and behave in public and private. But it can also mean tackling corruption and cronyism - which was the vein of popular anger into which Ahmadinejad tapped.

None of this is meant as commentary on the fairness or unfairness of the Iranian electoral system. Nor is this to pass judgment on the claims of electoral fraud made by some of the candidates defeated in the first round; or to debate the effect President George W. Bush’s criticism of the vote may have had on turnout (anecdotal evidence suggested it may have increased it).

The simple fact is that Iran is a society in transition - to what is not exactly clear, but in transition nonetheless. Eight years ago the unexpected election of Mohammed Khatami seemed to promise an era of reform. We in the West did not know exactly what to make of Khatami back then, and we seem equally unsure of Ahmadinejad today.

Perhaps, though, we have learned a lesson about not assuming that outcomes in certain situations are preordained.

(Gordon Robison is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. He is based in Amman. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.)

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.