July 29, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 755

Arab Media Expert: 'There Are No Journalists in the Arab World'

July 29, 2004
Special Dispatch No. 755

Columnist and expert on the Arab media Dr. Mamoun Fandy wrote a critique of the Arab press in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, stating that it does not provide a platform for the diverse views in the Arab world. The following are excerpts from his article: [1]

'The Lack of [Arab] Journalists is Embarrassingly Obvious'

"'There are no journalists in the Arab world,' the editor of one of the Arabic papers said to me when I asked him why [his paper] was not covering a particular journalistic story. I heard the exact same complaint from one publisher who said, 'We have authors, but no journalists.'

"[Judging by] the Arab media coverage of events such as the trial of Saddam and the situation in Iraq in general, this lack of [Arab] journalists is embarrassingly obvious. We know little about Saddam, who ruled Iraq for over 30 years, except for a single hackneyed story about a doorman or greengrocer in Egypt, where Saddam lived in his youth. If only this story was true! This greengrocer has already changed his story more than once.

"It is interesting to know why Arab journalists have not succeeded in conducting hundreds of interviews with people who knew Saddam up close, or with entire families that were victims of the Saddam era. Weren't some 300,000 Iraqis buried in mass graves? Or is this, too, an American lie? Didn't [the victims] have families and relatives who can be interviewed, or aren't their pain and their lives important?

"It would be interesting to know, for example, about the life of a woman whose husband and children were murdered by Saddam. [It would be interesting to know] how exiled Iraqis moved from place to place and country to country, and whether their children speak Arabic. [It would also be interesting to know] how the French or German-speaking [raised in exile] children will adapt to the Arabic language in the new Iraq. What is their attitude towards the Arab resistance fighters and Al-Zarqawi's cronies? Do they prefer to maintain relations with the neighboring Arab [countries] or with Europe? These are all people with names and with opinions on these matters.

"Thousands of stories should be written on the lives of Iraqis – but where are the journalists?! Is it the lack of professional journalists that [makes] these journalistic stories remain unknown?"

'Our Newspapers Focus Only on Heroic Deeds'

"There are many ways to investigate this matter. A newspaper owner or a television channel owner can, for example, show us evidence of ordinary citizens talking or writing of their personal experiences with oppression, emigration, and the loss of family. [But] there are problems facing the newspaper supervisor or the radio or television [editor] when they want to do this.

"The first [problem] is that our culture is not like the Catholic culture that emphasizes confession, particularly when the individual has sinned. Likewise, an individual confessing a crime against himself or others [is considered] unacceptable among us. We raise our sons [with the belief] that it is not manly to confess, to cry, or to acknowledge that repression and oppression have broken an individual's determination and perhaps damaged his masculinity.

"Our newspapers will focus only on heroic deeds and overcoming difficulties. This is praiseworthy. But there are many personal defeats, retreats, and torments, and we must let those who have experienced them talk about them. This requires change in the newspaper culture, or in the so-called newsroom culture.

"This also requires that the papers realize that not only a certain group of people exclusively represents the view of all the Iraqis, Syrians, Saudis, or Moroccans. This also requires that the papers understand that everyone has his own opinion, and that given the chance, someone may perhaps express his opinion better than the regular columnists, because he has personal experience…

"Why, for example, doesn't a soldier who has confronted [terrorists] write about terrorism? Why can't we hear the opinion of the commander of the urban patrol of an Arab capital where there are clashes with terrorists, or his comments on our [i.e., journalists] role … [that is,] are we helping or hindering them? What is their view on the entire matter? Up until this very moment, we have heard no detailed explanation of their view from any of them – except for a statement here and there, conveyed by a novice journalist, as a sidebar."

'An Official's Respect for a Journalist Can Come Only from the Journalist's Self-Respect'

"It is no shame for a senior official to write a long article for a newspaper's opinion page presenting his policy in general and the policy of his ministry. Why does U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell write an article about every three months in The Washington Postand The New York Times? Why does he write an article as long as an entire study for Foreign Affairs? Powell and Rumsfeld write [in the press] to persuade the public of their policy, and if they feel that the public grumbles after one article, we find they write another one…

"In our case, the senior [Arab] official sees no need to explain his policy because he thinks the people support him unquestioningly, and that there is no need for explanation and no need to seek their support.

"Senior Arab officials do not respect the press as a means for conveying information. The responsibility for [conveying information] lies partly with the journalist and partly with the senior government official. The journalist's part is that no [Arab] journalist can make the official respect him. An official's respect for a journalist can come only from the journalist's respect for his own profession… The journalist can make the official respect him if he is well-versed in the subject about which he is talking – and doesn't just position the microphone in front of the official and let him say whatever he wants…

"But even our officials behave differently [than officials in the West]. Instead of rebutting the author of an article by [writing another] article, he picks up the telephone and talks to the newspaper's owner to [have him] silence the author.

"The main [problem] is that we still have no professional journalists. The proof of this is [first], that the [media] coverage of [events in] Iraq to date have given us nothing but many slogans, [and second], that the [Arab] officials do not respect the press."

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 5, 2004.

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