Arab Journalism: Between De-Westernization and Objectivity
Adel Iskandar 16 July 2008

This is the text of the speech held by the author at the Doha International Conference, organised in Qatar by Reset Dialogues on Civilizations on February 26th 2008.

At a time of infinite regress, there is a growing chorus among Western media scholars and media development specialists as well as representatives of Western political institutions regarding the “state” of Arab journalism. Caught between the rhetoric of accusatory and the congratulatory, much of this anthem has concluded that despite the upsurge in the number of media sources, their origins, content, allegiances, and markets, all fall under the realm of the ideologically maligned and journalistically anemic. This has justified a substantial and sustained corpus of institutions (governmental, NGOs, contractors, and subcontractors) whose purpose is to offer remedial and corrective assistance to support and improve Arab journalism. While it is not my intention here to review these initiative, I would rather draw attention to the premises on which they are built.

Much of this discussion is a byproduct of the events of September 11, 2001, either explicitly or implicitly, thereby suggesting that there is a definitive battle of ideas between news narratives from the Arab world and the West. This has further invigorated the contestation of discourses about media institutions in both regions and their varying approaches to news. However, these debates precede 9/11 and are instead an extension of a substantial body of literature from both the dependency theory and the cultural imperialism traditions—traditions which have also influenced attempts to describe and categorize regional media systems. Abdelrahman (1989), for example, questions Rugh’s typology of Arab media on the premise that it imposes Western theories of the press on the Arab World. She further argues that this omission overlooks the possibility that the region’s media have been shaped by the specific social and cultural history of the Arabic-Islamic World. While the take-up of technology, innovation, and institutional practice is a far less exclusive terrain for Arab and Islamic media, the argument nevertheless possesses much currency in the region.

Decades of Western colonialism throughout the Arab world and numerous foreign military engagements in the region have set the ground for published works tackling the relationship between the two media systems—Western and Arab. In most cases, both environments are cast as separate and distinct. Indeed, many works written in the Arab world see Western press and broadcasting as a threat (Abdelrahman, 1996, 2002; Abdo, 1949; Abdullah, 2005; Awdat, 1990; Fahd, 1975; Haris, 2006; Khalifah, 1980a/b; Saab, 1984). For example, Abdelrahman (1996) discusses the extent to which Arab journalism is capable of confronting “Zionist propaganda”, a model of Arab journalism that Western observers of the Arab media seem to have overlooked in the Arabic literature..Examining the role played by journalists in producing sociopolitical change in the face of perceived (or actual) external threat, Abdelrahman highlights a social history that is unaccounted for in the discussion of characteristics of Arab media. Her assessment suggests that Arab journalism, in this sense, constitutes an alternative and revolutionary press which advocates for freedom, liberty, and independence.

Although for many in the West, a key role of Western Arabic-language programming is to enable greater freedom for the region’s media, Arab scholarship tends to see things differently. Some notable Arab analysts believe that foreign government programming (or what the US government refers to as public diplomacy) is a euphemism for propaganda. Three expressions are used commonly throughout the Arab media to refer to “public diplomacy” (Iskandar, 2005). The most neutral of these is a direct translation of the same term, al-diblomasiya al-sha’biya. The second, al-i’lam al muwajah, translates to “directional media.” The third term, Al-ikhtirak, is the most common, and also the most subversive. The term translates as “penetration.” In a Freudian reading of the term, it signifies the violation and dispossession of the body and mind, especially when stated as al-ikhtirak al thihny (penetration of the mind). In other Arabic media writings, such as Abdelrahman’s study of “Zionist broadcasting” intended for the Arab world, this notion of ikhtirak is understood not only as a violation of viewer’s mind but also a transnational force that penetrates political boundaries. Hence it is important to comprehend how Arab media studies in the region have constructed and reproduced a sense of common belonging in their classification of Arab media. As a response to foreign broadcasting and the perception of an imperial media project, the very term Arab media comes denotes a pan-Arab journalistic tradition with a sense of common belonging—a necessary component of any discussion of Arab media typologies.

The proposition that Arab media is a model for cultural de-Westernization has produced a litany of accounts investigating whether Arab media constitute a  genuinely alternative modality. One intriguing example pertains to the rights of journalists in the Arab world (Salih, 2004). In an appeal for the protection of journalists’ rights, Salih states that he dreams of a “free press for a free nation” in Egypt (p. 5). As would be expected, he argues this can only be accomplished with the solidarity of professional collectives, journalism and broadcasting syndicates, and public support for journalist rights. But contrary to Western norms, he also advocates contesting what he describes as Western “myths” of objectivity and the over-reliance of Arab journalism on Western models in both language and style. In addition, Salih argues the ideal environment would ensure complete freedom and protection for journalists, but would also expect from journalists responsibility and commitment to the nation. His vision of a thriving native Arab journalism is fundamentally at odds with any American model. Instead, his enthusiasm for what he labels the Arab “freedom-responsibility” theory of the press leads him to suggest that it could be a new model for journalism in the region and serve as an exemplar for the world, thereby reversing the unidirectional flow of communication principles from west to east.

Nonetheless, the prevailing notions that media systems from the West are on a head on collision with their rivals in the Arab world, act to reify and ossify the categorical distinctions between media systems “here” and “there.” This is evident in a significant number of treatises on Al Jazeera for instance. The construction of Al Jazeera as inflammatory and unprofessional, Arab national media systems as authoritarian and regressive, and the private entertainment stations as dulling and numbing can produce a singular image of regional media which is unsalvageable. Elsewhere, Arab media are seen as a positive force—the oppositional “other” vis-à-vis a Western counterpart. The rise of Al Jazeera, as the chief Arab media export, often features prominently in these descriptions where a seemingly concerted counter-hegemonic approach poses significant challenges to the global order of news. The view that Al Jazeera offers a variable model outside classical Western-centric media research extends into studies of mass communication where the peculiar institutional and political economic order of the network Al Jazeera is believed to be inapplicable with the epistemological and methodological approaches to traditional media research (Wojcieszak, 2007).

It is on this very premise and at this moment that Western media development and aid initiatives enter the fray and offer an opening salvo in the campaign to transform Arab media. With most of these projects focused squarely on transforming the Arab media systems into something akin to Western private profit-based institutions with an objective outlook on news construction and production, they often end up missing the very essence of what makes Arab media inherently post-colonial. So the view that Arab media have an counterhegemonic, anti-imperial responsibility and imperative is often set in opposition to the professionalization of contemporary journalism. Objectivity is seen as irreconcilable with advocacy. Government media and alternative agendas alike pose an inherent problem for advocates of objectivity.

While in its totality, Western media influence in the region (from its early days of Radio Bari onwards), has been able to create vestiges of Western media institutions in the region, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah being notable examples, the task of taking the “Arab” perspective out of these media has becoming increasingly dauntingly and infinitely improbable. Hence, media aid, assistance and development agencies operating in the Arab world and their partners in the region will not be going out of business anytime soon. All the while, ironically, publics worldwide are turning to the Arab media in ever-growing numbers for a corrective alternative interpretation on news events.

Adel Iskandar is the co-author of Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism (Westview, 2003), and co-editor of Edward Said: Emancipation & Representation (University of California Press, forthcoming 2008). Iskandar is Visiting Scholar at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), Georgetown University.