April 9, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 428

(Un)Civil War of Words by Dr. Mamoun Fandy: A New Book Analyzing the Arab Media

April 9, 2008
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 428

Many analysts in the world today wonder why the Qatari TV station Al-Jazeera has suddenly stopped its almost daily attacks on Saudi Arabia. Mamoun Fandy's book (Un)Civil War of Words sheds light on, and indeed predicts, this development, by showing that Al-Jazeera functions primarily as an arm of the Qatari government, and as a tool for advancing Qatar's policies vis-à-vis its rivals in the region.

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The book, which looks at contemporary Arab media - print, TV and radio - argues that despite the proliferation of competing media outlets in the Arab world, the Arab media remain inherently political. That is, these media are operated and controlled by various political, religious, and ethnic forces, which use them to promote their policies and interests. Furthermore, nearly all these media - whether government- or opposition-affiliated - are subject to rigorous oversight and restrictions by the Arab regimes, and many serve primarily as instruments in the external and domestic battles of these regimes.

Fandy argues that because of the authoritarian setting in which they operate, the Arab media are very different in nature from Western media, and cannot be analyzed using the same concepts and models. They can, he says, be understood only in the context of the historical, social, and especially political forces that shape the Arab world.

Dr. Fandy is a renowned researcher of the Middle East and a veteran writer in the Middle Eastern media. He has authored several books on the Middle East, including Kuwait as a New Concept of International Politics, The Road to Kandahar: On the Trail of bin Laden and Zawaheri, and Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. Previously the editor of the Arabic bimonthly Qadaya 'Alamiyya, and a research fellow at several U.S. research institutes, today he directs the Middle East program at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

(Un)Civil War of Words is highly informative and well researched, and offers insight into the important trends in the Arab media. It is a must read and a basic resource for any student of the Middle East. Praeger Security International, the publisher of the book, could have done readers a greater service with better editing as well as by providing more context and explanation for names and concepts with which the Western reader may be unfamiliar.

Arab Media and Inter-State Conflict: The Case of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya

To illustrate the political nature of the Arab media, Fandy focuses on Qatar's Al-Jazeera and the Saudi-controlled satellite network Al-Arabiya.

Al-Jazeera, which is known for its willingness to tackle contentious issues and shatter long-standing taboos, is often touted as "the Arab BBC" - the first truly independent, Western-style news network in the Arab world. Al-Arabiya is likewise praised for its willingness to criticize Arab governments and to take a bold look at problems in the Arab world. But in his book, Fandy notes that while Al-Jazeera is allowed to flirt with some provocative issues, and to censure other Arab countries, it is not free to criticize its owners - that is, the Qatari royal family and the Qatari government. Similarly, Al-Arabiya may castigate every country in the Arab world, but it is severely restricted in its ability to criticize the Saudi regime or the Saudi social order. Moreover, Fandy points out that neither network generates profits, since their revenues do not begin to cover their operational costs. All this is explained, he says, by the fact that these networks are political, not commercial, enterprises, which serve primarily as tools in the power struggle between the two countries - and are funded by their respective governments precisely for this purpose.

To better explain the nature of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, Fandy's book traces the history of the Middle East media wars from which they emerged. He argues that the Saudi media empire - from the London-based dailies Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat to the broadcasting company MBC and the numerous religious TV channels (such as Iqra) - were all launched as a counterbalance to the nationalist media that had dominated the Arab world for decades. These media were represented by, for example, Nasser's immensely influential radio station Sawt Al-Arab. The Islamic or quasi-Islamic slant of Saudi Arabia's new media was designed to attract audiences away from secular Arab nationalism. This strategy succeeded in part because of the enormous funds invested, but also because the revived Islamist discourse appeared indigenous compared to the "alien" discourse of Arab nationalism, which incorporated many elements from the socialist ideologies of Marx and Lenin.

By the end of the Cold War, even secular Arab nationalists like Saddam Hussein understood the power and appeal of Islamic rhetoric - as evidenced by Saddam's decision to add the words "Allah Akbar" (Allah is Great) to the Iraqi flag during the Second Gulf War. Thus, in its earliest days - before Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya were founded - the Arab media battle was waged between Arab nationalism and pan-Islamism, and this battle was decisively won by Saudi Arabia's Islamist-oriented media.

The emergence of Qatar's Al-Jazeera in 1996 was a direct response to the Saudi media which now dominated the airwaves. Fandy explains that Saudi Arabia poses a threat to Qatar just as Saddam’s Iraq posed a threat to Kuwait. To counter this threat, Qatar employed a three-pronged strategy. First, it guaranteed American protection for itself by hosting U.S. military bases. Second, to protect its economy from the competition of its powerful neighbor, it formed partnerships with big U.S. oil companies like Chevron, which are currently developing its natural gas industry. Third, it launched Al-Jazeera - and Al-Jazeera became the main weapon in its media war against Saudi Arabia.

As part of this war, Al-Jazeera frequently airs negative news on Saudi Arabia, such as items on human rights violations in the country. For example, Al-Jazeera's February 2005 coverage of the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices highlighted the report's criticism of Saudi Arabia - while completely ignoring what the report had to say about Qatar.

In addition, Al-Jazeera allots considerable airtime to Saudi oppositionists, particularly Islamists - including prominent Al-Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who are virulently opposed to the Saudi regime and present a real threat to Saudi Arabia. As Fandy quips, Qatar has "given the airstrip to the U.S. military and the airwaves to Osama bin Laden, who has become its super-gun against Saudi Arabia." In fact, Fandy says, Qatar has allowed Al-Jazeera to be virtually taken over by Islamists - lending the station a blatantly pro-Islamist bias. This bias, he explains, serves Qatar's interests not only because it weakens Saudi Arabia, but also because it boosts Qatar's religious credentials vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Iran - the two major sources of religious authority in the Islamic world.

Continuing the historical narrative, Fandy states that Saudi Arabia's news network Al-Arabiya was founded in 2003 as a response to Al-Jazeera, that is, as an instrument for advancing Saudi Arabia's political agenda and especially for countering Al-Jazeera's attacks. The book notes that Al-Arabiya often focuses precisely on what Al-Jazeera ignores - namely on issues that show Qatar in a negative light, such as Qatari human rights violations, its internal strife, and its royal family's sex scandals. It also likes to draw attention to Qatar's close alliance with the U.S. (while ignoring the close Saudi-U.S. relations), and to alleged contacts between Qatar and Israel.

The Saudi-Qatari rivalry is also apparent in the disparity between the two channels' coverage of important events in the Arab world, such as the 2006 Hizbullah-Israel war. While Al-Jazeera called the war "a pre-planned plot against Hizbullah," reflecting the channel's pro-Islamist bias as well as Qatar's alliance with the Syrian-Iranian-Hizbullah axis, Al-Arabiya cast it as an "uncalculated risk" taken at great cost to Lebanon - an outlook reflecting Saudi Arabia's status as head of the more moderate Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian bloc.

Following an improvement in Qatari-Saudi relations in late 2007, the two channels predictably toned down their mutual antagonism - again reflecting how closely tuned they are to their respective regimes. Fandy concludes that only when they criticize their own governments will Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera merit the label of "free" and "independent" media.

Mechanisms of State Control over the Media: The Case of Egypt

Focusing on the Egyptian media as an example, the book outlines the mechanisms used by the authoritarian Arab regimes to control and restrict media. Unlike Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt has opposition-sponsored media. However, Fandy shows that all Egyptian media - whether affiliated with the government or with other elements - are closely supervised and restricted by the state. He points out that Egypt's national media are directly owned and controlled by the authorities - either by the government itself or by the Shura Council, which is dominated by the ruling party, and in fact serves as a front for the president's office, while the opposition-sponsored and "independent" papers are kept in check by indirect means. These means include stringent licensing regulations, allowing the authorities to withhold a media license from certain political elements, or to revoke the license of media that take too many liberties. Even so-called private media are subject to government control, for example through partial government ownership or via business ties between their owners and the ruling elite.

These mechanisms are supplemented by legal measures. Although Egypt's constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of expression, the country's penal code includes many laws providing for restrictions on the media - from bans on defaming the president and maligning the authorities to prohibitions against "exciting public opinion" and "spreading false news." Moreover, Egypt's Emergency Law - which has been in effect since 1939 - gives the president sweeping press censorship powers. Throughout modern Egyptian history, these mechanisms have been used to close down papers and to persecute journalists who go too far in criticizing the established order. Fandy adds that the regime is not above using tactics such as threats, kidnappings, and assaults against journalists who refuse to toe the line.

In this context, Fandy points out that Arab media are paradoxically more free in occupied Arab regions than they are in Arab lands. Despite the hardships and pressures to which journalists are subjected in occupied regions, reporting from such areas as the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Iraq is more vigorous than that from bureaus in Damascus or Cairo. This is because the Israeli and American forces do not enjoy the same privileges that the Arab autocrats enjoy in their own countries - namely, the privileges of jailing, kidnapping or killing troublesome reporters. Threats of vengeance from authoritarian regimes, Fandy says, make many journalists and media organizations shy away from "balanced reporting."

However, Fandy also points out that the Arab regimes are careful not to gag the media completely. They permit some criticism of the regime, as long as it does not cross certain lines. They know that every society needs a place to air its grievances - thus, the regimes use the media not only as a tool to advance their aims, but also as a safe, tame "virtual space" where certain groups can express their views without significantly threatening the established order.

Arab Media and Intra-State Conflict - The Case of Lebanon

At this point, Fandy considers whether the politicization of media is a phenomenon restricted to authoritarian countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. To answer this question, he turns his attention to Lebanon, which has a multi-party democratic regime, albeit a troubled one. He finds that the Lebanese media are indeed subject to less rigid government control than the Qatari, Saudi or Egyptian media. However, he argues that despite this fact, and although it is wholly private, the Lebanese media nevertheless function primarily as political institutions. This is because each outlet is affiliated with - and stringently controlled by - one of the political, ethnic or religious groups that make up Lebanon's fragmented society. Thus, rather than function as free or apolitical media, they serve as tools in the political struggles among these groups, and among the Arab countries with which they are allied.

The chapter substantiates this claim by examining four major Lebanese TV channels: the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), associated with the Maronite Christians; Future TV, owned by the Al-Hariri family; Al-Manar TV, owned by Hizbullah; and Amal TV, also known as the National Broadcasting Network (NBN), owned by Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Beri. As an example, it shows the direct correlation between the political line taken by Future TV throughout the 1990s and the twists and turns in the political career of its founder and owner, Rafiq Al-Hariri. From 1992 through 1998, during Hariri's term as prime minister, the station refrained from any substantial criticism of the government. But in 1998-2000, when he was no longer prime minister, the channel began to champion the cause of "free speech," and to level harsh criticism at his successor, Selim Al-Hoss. The station's attitude towards Syria has likewise mirrored the position and interests of the Al-Hariri family. During Al-Hariri's premiership, the channel took a pro-Syrian line, in keeping with the position of Al-Hariri's government; since his assassination, however, the channel has become the chief mouthpiece of the anti-Syrian bloc in Lebanon. Needless to say, throughout its years of existence, the channel has consistently refrained from voicing any criticism of the Al-Hariri family itself.

Journalists as a Transnational Force

Another chapter in the book examines the influence of the journalists themselves on the Arab media. Fandy argues that the orientation of various media outlets depends not only on the states that control them, or on the particular political or ethnic faction with which they are associated, but also on the journalists that staff them. This is because many media outlets are staffed by influential cliques of journalists from certain countries or from particular ideological camps. These journalists are allowed to pursue their own agenda as long as it serves, or at least does not contradict, the agenda and aims of the outlets' patrons and owners. Consequently, they have a great deal of impact on coverage and programming.

One very influential force is represented by Islamist journalists, who dominate many media outlets, including Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera has been virtually hijacked by Islamists, who hold many key positions in the station as editors, reporters, and anchors. Fandy argues that their presence is largely responsible for the station's pro-Islamist bias, and for the prominence it gives to Islamic causes, leaders and organizations. It is no coincidence, he says, that statements by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for example, get more air time on Al-Jazeera than statements by Mahmoud Abbas or other Palestinian Authority officials. According to Fandy, the Islamist presence is also responsible for the Arab media's tolerant attitude towards Islamist governments and groups, such as Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Howie lives in Thailand or the Taliban, whose tactics and atrocities are rarely criticized.

Fandy further states that the pan-Arab media are dominated by journalists from a few specific countries - namely Egypt, Sudan, the Palestinian areas, and Lebanon - and that their national background colors their reporting and significantly impacts the orientation of Arab media as a whole. For example, Lebanese journalists are very dominant at the Saudi-owned London daily Al-Hayat, and, says Fandy, are largely responsible for the anti-Syrian rhetoric prevalent in the paper - which both reflects their own views and serves the interests of the paper's Saudi sponsors. Similarly, Palestinian journalists are partly responsible for the prominence of Palestinian issues in the Arab media. At the same time, these issues' popularity is also due to the fact that they are "safe": They appeal to the Arab public and do not threaten the regimes.

Anti-Americanism in Arab Media

Finally, Fandy addresses the phenomenon of anti-Americanism in the Arab media. He points out that anti-American rhetoric is almost universal in Arab news coverage - not only in countries like Syria, which are openly hostile to the U.S., but also in countries allied with it, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. There are several reasons for this, he says: One is that antagonism towards the U.S. is shared by nearly all sectors of Arab society. The nationalists resent the U.S. for undermining Saddam Hussein's Ba'th regime; the Islamists hate it for promoting Western values and for fighting the Taliban and bin Laden; and the ruling elites in the Arab countries resent it for pushing reform and democratization, which threaten their power. Since anti-American is common to all these rival forces, it is not surprising that it percolates into society at large.

In addition, the Arab regimes use anti-American rhetoric to deflect the blame for their own failures. In other words, they blame "colonialism" or the "imperialist West" for the problems of Arab society, as a way to avoid taking responsibility for them.

Finally, Fandy points out that the journalists themselves tend to favor reports critical of the U.S., since they are easy to write and are also sure to pass regime censorship - unlike criticism of the regime. In other words, criticizing the U.S. is always a safe and easy option for Arab journalists.

Fandy concludes that, given all this, anti-Americanism should not be expected to vanish from the Arab media any time soon.


The media are often called a force that can bring change to the Arab world. However, Fandy concludes that the Arab media is more of an obstacle to change than an agent of reform, because in its present state, it serves as a safety valve for the regimes. The media function as "virtual spaces" that allow various social groups to air their grievances in a controlled and harmless environment. To confuse such media with the free media of democratic countries, Fandy says, is to fall into the trap set by the authoritarian regimes themselves.

However, according to Fandy, this does not mean that the Arab media are not a hopeless case. All it means is that change cannot occur through the media. Quite the opposite: Change must happen on the ground before it occurs in the media. For there to be significant reform in the Arab world, laws must change and regimes must relinquish their chokehold on society. Only then can we hope to see balanced, free, and independent media in the Arab world.

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