Have the Arab media become the victim of political polarization in a turbulent region, or is it possible to have independent media outlets that do not follow the agenda of major powers in the region?
Observers doubt that they will see neutral media organizations that enjoy a fair degree of freedom without the intervention of authorities, citing the closure of the Bahrain-based Alarab News Network, owned by Saudi billionaire prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal. The founders of the network are discussing moving the headquarters to Istanbul.
The channel, which vowed to provide objective coverage of all issues in the region, was closed the day it went on air, 1 February 2015, as authorities in Bahrain accused it of failing to adhere to the norms prevalent in Gulf countries in fighting extremism. Manama shut down the network because it ran an interview with a Bahraini Shiite opposition leader.
The decision to suspend Alarab triggered questions among activists and media specialists in the Arab world on where media freedom is headed in the troubled region, which has seldom seen such political polarization. Even average audience debated the incident on social-media networks.
Khaled Shoqran, director of the Amman-based Al Rai Centre for Studies, described the majority of media outlets in the Middle East and North Africa as advocates for regimes or for national political stances and said that media organizations are burdened with defending the religious ideologies of countries in the region.
“Following the 2011 Arab Spring, the press seemed to liberate itself from the domination of regimes, but unfortunately all attempts failed, due to the diversion in the track of revolutions in
certain countries,” he told Fanack Chronicle.
He said that the Arab media have begun to deliver sectarian-oriented messages and that most press outlets follow sub-identities inside one country. He added that the Arab media have also played a major role in igniting sectarian conflicts in the region.
Egyptian media specialist Ayman Al-Sayyad, who is also a columnist, believes that Alarab was a victim of political polarization in the region, accusing those who decided to shut it down of being unable to provide objective coverage to critical issues in Arab countries.
“Only in the Arab world you see a state linking its foreign relations with the type of content broadcast on a new channel. In the Arab world, a country would not hesitate to request that another country suspends a certain channel,” Al-Sayyad wrote on Facebook, on the second day of the network’s suspension in Bahrain. There are no free media in the Arab world, insists the columnist, who had worked as a special adviser to former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
“As a rule of thumb, there is no 100 percent independent media outlet in the world. There is always a master who has the final say over what to publish and how to say it. The Arab media are no exception,” said Mahmoud al-Abed, managing editor of the Jordan Times newspaper.
In fact, the intensity of conflicts in the region and the complexity of the issues the Arab press has to deal with on a daily basis keep the credibility, consistency, and integrity of these outlets constantly in the spotlight, said al-Abed in remarks to Fanack Chronicle.
But Jihad Khazen, columnist at the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, believes it was a mistake for the channel to host a Bahraini opposition figure, who, according to Khazen, had repeatedly insulted the leadership of the small Gulf state. “This is not journalism or responsible media, this is stupidity,” the veteran columnist wrote on Facebook.
Khazen’s statement triggered dozens of comments, some agreeing that news channels should play a responsible role, particularly when it comes to the interests of Arab countries, which, they say, have to deal with extremism and Iranian interference in the region. Laek Abdel Ilah accused the channel of foolishly hosting a Bahraini opposition figure “who follows the orders of his masters in Tehran.” Others, however, commented that the channel was objective, as, later in the day, it hosted a Bahraini official to comment on the claims of the opposition leader.
According to social-media users in the Arab world, politicians in the region tend to ignore opposing opinions. Reports and analysts indicate that freedom of the media in Arab states is now more restricted than it was a few years ago, before the Arab Spring of 2011. Some experts assert that Arab regimes currently control the media as a tool to defend their policies or as part of the political war they are waging against each other.
“The State of Press Freedom in the Arab World (2014-2015),” a report released by the Federation of Arab Journalists in May 2015, states that the political changes and turbulence following the uprisings of 2011 have led to a worsening of press freedom in many of the 17 countries covered in the study, saying “General, political and press freedom were restricted compared to the previous [era], especially the two years preceding the Arab Spring.”