Egypt,  Media

Arab media’s not-so-hidden agendas

Guest post by DaveM

It’s amazing how easy it is not to see what’s right there in front of your eyes. For an obscenely long time my primary means of learning Arabic was via satellite TV news, mainly Al Arabiya, as it’s one of the most professional, moderate and accessible of the channels. Though that’s moderate in the relative, not absolute, sense of the word.

Now and again when watching the news I would struggle to make sense of what I was seeing and hearing. Not so much the words and grammar, although my vocabulary is constantly widening, but the piecing together of information into some sort of coherent whole. I’d experience what can only be described as info dropout where information, which to me was critical to understanding what’s going on would be totally absent.

A recent example of this is found in this report on New York Jets lineman Oday Aboushi. He’s a Palestinian American who has been subject to attacks from the bizarro right wing website Frontpage Mag— a website with the slogan “Inside Every Liberal Is A Totalitarian Screaming to Get Out”. As Stan Lee would put it “’nuff said”.

The Al Arabiya report starts with with how thrilled Aboushi and his family are that he’s been drafted by the Jets, how going to Palestine had a profound effect on him, but when it deals with the aftermath of the attacks from Frontpage Mag things get a bit blurry.

Mona Ashaqaqi (Al Arabiya): “Aboushi takes part in Palestinian-American conferences and on his Twitter page he re-tweets articles about the hardships which Palestinians are subject to. Even to where he visited Palestine a few years ago and talked about the effect it had on him”.

Oday Aboushi “Prior to my visit to Palestine I hadn’t left the US. I went there and saw the hardships and the laws which the Palestinians were subject to and the restrictions which force them to live under its oppression, they’re oppressed.”

Mona Ashaqaqi “Aboushi says that he’s an athlete and he doesn’t want his politics to dominate his career path, nor does he express any controversial views on the issue. However that hasn’t prevented some rightwing Zionist websites from attacking him and accusing him of being an Islamic extremist. A sports website repeated these accusations, and an official from one of the other sports organizations tweeted a comparison between Aboushi and another athlete accused of murder. But he later deleted his tweet and apologised”.

The report finishes with Raed Jarrar of the ADC talking about people who want to maintain negative image of Arabs in the US.

Yet the report leaves out this critical piece of information which can be found on the New York Jets official website:

“It is upsetting to see people try and tarnish my reputation without even knowing me, but I appreciate all the support I have been getting from people of all backgrounds across the city and the country. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I hope that both sides make peace and live in prosperity.”

Some of that support came from Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who issued his own statement.

“There’s a lot of exaggeration and hyperbole in all the talk about Jets lineman Oday Aboushi,” Foxman said. “Absolutely nothing in the public record suggests that Aboushi is anything other than a young American athlete who takes pride in his Palestinian heritage. His participation in a conference organized by the El-Bireh Society, a Palestinian community organization that was until recently defunct, should not be used to tar him as an extremist.

“Allegations claiming that he is affiliated with other extreme groups are similarly unsubstantiated and appear to be exaggerated for the express purpose of smearing Aboushi.

“There is nothing wrong with someone being proud of their ethnic or religious background, and this should be true regardless of one’s chosen profession. Even if one disagrees with the agenda of the groups whose events he has attended, it is unfair and farfetched to cite those as evidence that he is an extremist.

“Being pro-Palestinian does not mean you’re an anti-Semite or an extremist. The record simply does not show that Aboushi has crossed that line.”

Surely that’s the story? A whacko far-right website attacked Aboushi, and the Anti Defamation League immediately came to his defence. Al Arabiya missed a great opportunity to broadcast to the Arabic-speaking audience an example of Jewish /Muslim, Israeli/Palestinian coexistence and mutual support. There’s no way that could have been accidental.

Until recently I put this down to Arabic satellite news stations being partisan, much like US AM talk radio. It looks like I hadn’t quite figured it out. Lee Smith points out that the job of the pan-Arabic news media isn’t to provide the news in the same way the BBC or ITN does. The primary function is to project the power, influence and foreign policy aims of nation states. These news channels are a form of soft power with the news function being secondary.

Yet up until the beginning of the uprising against Syria, the Sunni-owned press was anything but unified. The purpose of the Arab media is to advance the interests of states, regardless of what those interests might be from moment to moment. Where the old Arab media was directly owned and controlled by states, today’s Arab newspapers and satellite TV stations are owned either by the ruling families of Arab states, or by powerful people whose political and financial interests are tied to states, who can afford the nicest studios and the largest production budgets for their ventures, and whose profits are measured in influence rather than dollars.

The difference between stations owned by states or by wealthy individuals who run states or are dependent on states may not sound important—but it is. Before the advent of broadcast media, Arab rulers were largely able to ensure that their subjects knew only what the local state-controlled media wanted them to believe. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the information barrier walling off individual Arab states from the rest of the world was crashed—by an Arab ruler, Gamal abd el-Nasser of Egypt. Nasser was the most charismatic Arab leader of modern times, but his voice wouldn’t have carried from western North Africa to the Persian Gulf if it weren’t for American technology and the financial assistance of the CIA. Nasser’s Voice of the Arabs radio station was broadcast on a powerful frequency that allowed the Egyptian leader, who came to power in a military coup, to reach into homes, cars, and coffee shops across the region where he often stirred up local populations against their rulers—in Iraq, Jordan, and especially Saudi Arabia. Nasser used radio to advance Egyptian foreign policy, while damaging the prestige of his rivals whom he often painted—ironically, for a president speaking from a media pedestal built by the CIA—as American stooges.

If some Arab states eventually learned how to block information dangerous to them and advantageous to their rivals, two new technologies changed the game once and for all: satellite television and the Internet. If Arab regimes were incapable of deterring the global flow of information, the new information technologies also made it possible for them to project influence and power far outside their borders. The media revolutions of the past 15 years in the Arab world turned every local Arab potentate into a potential pan-Arab leader.

Where I got it wrong was assuming that Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, along with the others, were independent news channels albeit with government funding, and as long as they didn’t criticise the Saudi or Qatari governments they were free to do what they wanted. However it’s become clear that it isn’t that their editorial policy is aligned with the foreign policy of the states which fund them; rather it’s the foreign policies of these states which decide the editorial policy of the news stations. They don’t even aspire towards objectivity because very few nation states operate a foreign policy based on neutrality. It is a minor but significant detail and is central to understanding the output of these channels.

While America also has partisan news channels it’s important to remember that they’re independent, and unlike their Arabic equivalents, both CNN and Fox make vast profits so are not beholden to governments or billionaires who are in turn dependent on government patronage networks.

Some people either still don’t get it or object when some Arab states change their foreign policies, taking their sponsored news stations with them.
The UAE’s Sultan Al Qassemi and the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole lament what they perceive to be a decline in Al Jazeera’s standard of journalism and professionalism. This is of course nonsense; it just that the station currently supports a group they don’t like. There was a time when it was practically the Osama Bin Laden channel. Then it went through a stage where it morphed into Al Manar Mk. II when it came to Lebanon. Their Lebanon bureau chief at the time Ghassan Bin Jeddo (who left the channel and went on to launch Al Mayadeen) used to softball Hassan Nasrallah so much that a Selena Gomez interview would look like Frost/Nixon in comparison.

If Qatar washes its hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, you can be sure that Al Jazeera’s editorial position will march in in line with the county’s foreign policy. Maybe Assad, Hezbollah or Al Qaeda will have a second chance at being flavour of the month? Who knows.

Smith ends his article with a warning about the proliferation of these “news” channels, reminding us that not all of them are Arabic, and the importance of seeing them for what they are, not what they look like.

The rise of a new generation of state-controlled media outlets with Western production values would be less alarming if it didn’t also coincide with the demise of America’s own for-profit newspapers and television stations, which can no longer afford to maintain bureaus in the Middle East, for instance, or in Moscow. The absence of experienced correspondents who draw their paychecks from traditional news organizations means that the reporting we have from these places is being produced by outlets that are often owned by the people they are supposed to be reporting on—relationships that most Americans and many reporters are ignorant about. When it comes to foreign news, that means that American opinion-shapers and policymakers are often flying blind—or worse.

While over here there’s a misunderstanding of how the Arab media operates, over there there’s a simmering resentment towards the Western and US news media, one which flares up now and again.

This resentment only makes sense if the Arab world sees our news as being some sort of soft power akin to theirs rather than just being the news. Otherwise surely the only response would be to change the channel?

This time it was CNN’s turn to get it in the neck because during the overthrowing of Morsi it accidentally captioned protestors in Tahrir Square as being Morsi supporters and described what was happening as a coup. Which it was. Not that I’m losing any sleep over the Muslim Brotherhood being toppled but it was a coup.

Rather than accept that captioning mistakes do happen in newsrooms and that CNN doesn’t have to take its editorial cue from protestors, a lot of Egyptians took offense. They found their inner Rush Limbaugh and protested against CNN, Morsi and erm, Obama Bin Laden.

Al Arabiya covered this very well, with its Washington bureau chief Hisham Melhem explaining that far from being some omnipotent puppet master manipulating Egyptians to serve its interests, America was (and still is) playing catch-up. Notice that the first thing he does is separate the United States government and CNN. It seems that assumptions on the limits of power and how the free world operates, things which you and I take for granted, aren’t common currency in the Arab world. If they were, Melhem wouldn’t have to spend five minutes on air via a satellite link explaining to the viewers something which should be self evident.

Taher Barakeh (Al Arabiya news anchor) “A large number of the youths of the 30th June revolution have criticised both the US Government and CNN’s positions towards their revolution and the naming of it a military coup. They also condemned the discrepancy between the way America dealt with the Jan 25th revolution and how it’s dealing with the current one.”

Reporter “The American position hasn’t met with the approval of the Egyptians who went out in protest against the rule of the ousted president Muhammed Morsi”.

Egyptian anchor Tahrir TV “Right now, CNN is broadcasting the people in Tahrir Square saying that they’re supporters of Morsi”

Reporter “US station CNN depicted the demonstrators in Tahrir Square as being followers of the ousted president Morsi. This prompted the Egyptian TV station at-Tahrir to write in large script, in the centre of the screen, in English, live on air that the revolutionaries here are against Morsi.

(Egyptian anchor introduces next clip pointing out that it’s in English)

Reporter “Sada Al-Balad was another tv channel which resorted to using English to put its point of view over to those who don’t speak Arabic. Shadi Tahal, a member of the National Association of Change did the commentary in English for the video of the children being killed in Sidi Jaber in Alexandria which was shown on the channel. He did this as an implicit message so as not to change the course of events.

The demonstrators in Egypt’s squares had a different way of expressing their views, as a number of Egyptians didn’t spare any effort in devising new means of expression. The placards were out in force in the squares protesting against the American stance and that of news channel CNN which was still calling what took place in Egypt a military coup.

Social media websites were also filled with objections. A group of Egyptian youths sent their protesting messages, accompanied with pictures, to Obama’s Facebook page, and they also set up a number of pages on the same website.”

Taher Barakeh (Al Arabiya news anchor): “Now with us from Washington is Hesham Melhem, a researcher in American affairs, welcome to Final Hour. Some people, as you heard, or are hearing, are condemning the American administration’s way of dealing with what happened. Was there a deficiency? Is it possible that we can say there was some confusion or bias as some would say. And others would say that all that took place was bound by the criteria (or regulations) of US rule, regulations which govern the way of understanding the political systems in the world and the radical changes which took place.”

Hisham Melhem (US Bureau chief): “It’s possibly all of the above. Though let me make a distinction between CNN’s stance and that of the US media, and I think there is a bias with CNN and if we have enough time I’ll touch on it, and between the official US position. To a certain extent the official US position is incomplete, it’s a bit vague. The US maintains that the situation in Egypt is in a state of constant flux or as they say in English it’s a fluid situation.

“This reflects America’s desire not to make a huge error in assessing what took place in Egypt. As you know US law states quite clearly and frankly that if a military group, anywhere in the world, topples a regime or an elected president, then that means an immediate cessation of US aid to that regime.”

Taher Barakeh: “That’s correct.”

Hisham Melhem: “The US, as is clear in the statements from the White House, and specifically today, is probably leaning towards considering what took place in Egypt as not being a military coup in the traditional meaning of the term.

“There have been indications on a number of occasions from White House spokesman Jay Carney where he’s referred to the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets rejecting what they called Morsi’s undemocratic rule.

“It’s worth bearing in mind that the US, via its legal consultants, is studying what took place as it has to come out with a position on the matter. In the next few days the White House may have to officially decide if what took place was a coup, gentle or soft coup as they say in English, or something more complex than that.

“We also noticed that despite last week falling on Independence Day, the 4th of July, up to this point it’s become clear that the US president doesn’t want to directly speak about the situation. The foreign minister John Kerry also hasn’t commented publicly on the situation and has settled for issuing written statements along with relying on the White House spokesman and and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

“The US wants to give itself some time so it can emerge with a clear position which wont harm its long term interests. The White House spokesman said today that a quick cutoff of US aid to Egypt doesn’t serve its interests. It should be pointed out that there’s a big discussion going on in Congress, in the US media and in the research centres about what took place in Egypt. There are those who view what took place as being a coup, that despite the mistakes President Morsi made he was legitimately and democratically elected. Then there are those who regard the millions of people who took to the streets as representing a type of legitimacy and that Muslim Brotherhood rule would lead to a more totalitarian regime. The White House isn’t able to ignore this discussion which is going on in the US.”

Taher Barakeh: “From a strategic aspect, it’s inevitable that changes will occur in US administration’s way of dealing with what happened, the revolutions, the first one and now, we’re not sure if it’s a second one, if that’s the correct phrase. What’s being said about what has transpired strategically with regards to the way the US will deal in the future with all that’s going on in the Middle East? We know that there is what has been described as a project of Muslim Brotherhood rule in some of the areas which have experienced revolutions and they still have a popular base.

“Are there any indications that the US might change direction after what happened in Egypt?”

Hisham Melhem: “That depends on what will happen in Egypt, to the Egyptian body politic and what will come out of this uncertainty and confusion which exists in Egypt right now. After the ousting of Morsi there is a temporary leadership which hasn’t yet named a prime minister. In the view of several observers there are indications of splits in and a breakup of this temporary alliance. Washington will wait and see what will happen on the ground [before responding]. I think that at the end of the day America will adopt a quote/unquote pragmatic position.

“With the situation in Egypt, there are a majority of Egyptians who want to direct these changes in Egypt in a specific direction, one which doesn’t serve the Muslim Brotherhood, and America will go with this. Yet at the same time I think that the US will recommend both publicly and privately, specifically in its contacts with officials including the military leadership, that it must not isolate the Muslim Brotherhood as they’re still a political force on the ground.

“Today this is what we see from the American statements– condemnation of the violence carried out by the Brotherhood movement but at the same time appeals to the armed forces to maintain the utmost level of self control in order to make sure there isn’t any violence. In general, there’s American anxiety because Egypt, a country known for its stability, is on the brink of a very dangerous period and that peace in Egypt could be threatened in an unfamiliar way.”

He didn’t get a chance to deal with what happened to CNN but did explain to the Arabic speaking audience how US foreign works in regards to the Middle East. Basically, if nobody in Egypt can give a coherent answer as to what’s actually going on and they’re all winging it then why should the US government try and mind-read to second guess the outcome? Since when was Professor X a member of the White House staff?

It’s still odd that such an obvious point has to be spelled out live on air; however I’m glad it was and Melhem’s analysis is a refreshing change from the the usual polemic, denial and obfuscation which I keep coming across when channel hopping.

The Arab world is a place where nothing is as it initially appears and clear, objective and precise information is in very short supply. In order to make sense of anything you have to also figure out what you’re not being told and what information is being withheld from you.

It’s also a place where the primary function of news channels isn’t to inform but to market nation-states and their proxies, all of whom are fighting it out with one another over the airwaves. I guess this finally explains the huge number of microphones you sometimes see at press conferences– a phenomenon which puzzled me for almost a decade.