< Arab Media Politics


Friday, February 10, 2006

BOB GARFIELD: If the recent Democratic ascendancy of Hamas weren't enough evidence, then the proof came this week. After days of violent protests over provocative political cartoons, the familiar phrase kept roaring back. [RADIO BROADCAST - MUSIC]

MAN: Welcome back to Hardball. Is this cartoon violence just the latest chapter in a global clash of civilizations?

MAN: Osama bin Laden has said that he wants a clash of civilizations.

MAN: All of Europe is now talking about a clash of civilizations.

BOB GARFIELD: If it is a clash we're talking about, you might say that As'ad AbuKhalil is watching it play out from both sides. With two satellite dishes, seven or eight Arabic-language newspapers and a number of Internet magazines, AbuKhalil is awash in media from the Middle East, from his home in California. A native of Lebanon, AbuKhalil teaches political science at Cal State Stanislaus. He knows more acutely than most what our respective media are saying, and he joins me now for some analysis. As'ad, welcome back to the show.

AS'AD ABUKHALIL: Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD: Taking the Arab media in aggregate, and I understand this requires some generalization, what do they get most wrong when covering the United States?

AS'AD ABUKHALIL: That's a very good question. It's not that you find a lot of attention to the bad sensational stories in the United States. Some Arab nationalists, like the Iraqi Baath party, which is now defunct, used to do a lot of that kind of coverage that you used to see in the Soviet newspapers during the Cold War - you know, attention to crime and prostitution and things of that nature. That is now scant in the Arab media. But there is another problem, which is this: Because there is such close affinity between many Arab governments and the United States, the coverage, perhaps to your surprise, is largely sympathetic to the administration in power. The United States makes sure, given that most Arab media are controlled by the Saudi royal family, that the coverage in no way hurts its image among Arab people. And because the United States failed miserably in making a success out of the taxpayers funded propaganda TV called Alhurra TV, there is now much more reliance by the Administration on Saudi-funded networks, especially Al-Arabia TV, which is a main rival for Al-Jazeera. And there is a reluctance on the part of these media to be independent - I'm not saying critical, but independent of the agenda of the administration.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's look at the current controversy over the Danish cartoons that were perceived to be blasphemies and insults to Islam. To what extent are Arab media fanning the flames, and to what extent are they trying to put it in perspective of, you know, this sort of secular notion of a free press completely separate from government?

AS'AD ABUKHALIL: There is no question that the media, at the behest of the government, are encouraging this story to perpetuate, especially when they know the public is very angry about Israel and the United States. But, you know, the government wouldn't dare upset those two, so let us now upset and provoke Denmark and Norway. On the other hand, to be fair, most of them do quote and interview individuals and clerics who tend to insist to the viewer that protests should be peaceful and democratic and it shouldn't spill over into violence against places of worship, as in Lebanon, or against even embassies and so on.

BOB GARFIELD: We've often heard it said over the last few days that the teeming Arab streets simply cannot grasp the concept that what a single Danish newspaper does, does not speak for the sentiments of the Danish government or even the entire Western world. Is it true that the Arab world is so accustomed to state-controlled media that it just doesn't understand the separation of press and state?

AS'AD ABUKHALIL: Oh no, that's absolutely not true. That is a misrepresentation of Arab public opinion, which is much more sophisticated, even though we pejoratively here still refer to it as a street, for reasons that are not clear to me. People are aware, by and large, of the democratic nature of government, but they are also very aware of something that you and I know, which is there are no absolute freedom of expression, whether here or there in Europe. They are very aware that there are limits, sometimes legal and sometimes self-exercised by media, in order not to offend sensibilities of various groups. But when there is a tendency to mock one religion and then you express extreme respect for other religions, there is more than a tinge of bigotry that is being manifested. And that's what people in the region are looking at. We should also underline that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Syria and Iran are in no position to offer lectures to anybody about what is offensive and what is not, given a very atrocious record by the media of those governments, whether it's anti-Semitic articles or cartoons or whatever else.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, let's flip the question around. I want to ask you about our media, I should say western media. Do you think that the western press in general does a pretty good job in understanding the dynamics of the Arab political world?

AS'AD ABUKHALIL: I find a huge difference between European media and between the American media on the coverage of the Middle East. I mean, I can think of very few, if any, American journalists who deliver the news from the Middle East to us here, whether in visual media or print media, who really know Arabic or Hebrew or Persian or Turkish. That is not the case in European media, and it shows. You find a much more in-depth understanding on nuances of politics and society that is missing from the American media. In America, we are accustomed to a correspondent who stays like three weeks in Lebanon, and then the person is back in Washington, DC and he may be covering or she may be covering Michael Jackson, and then we send them to Germany and then to Iraq. I mean, it's a mess.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, given the demagogic tendencies of government as we're witnessing in the current crisis, have the media done their job in the Arab world, or is there some culpability in the Arab media for not shedding the light of truth and perspective on the situation?

AS'AD ABUKHALIL: No, I would definitely give very low marks to the Arab media over the last seven weeks, including Al-Jazeera TV, which I think usually is much better than the rest. I think they have given way too much attention, way too much coverage to the story of the cartoons. I mean, people are entitled to their own outrages. Perhaps it's my own biases here, and this issue doesn't rank high on my long list of outrages. I would say that what's happening in Darfur in the Sudan and what's happening to the Palestinians should rank much higher as an outrage and as a news story then those 12 cartoons in some Danish newspaper. And it seems to me in that respect, the Arab media failed.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well As'ad, thank you very much.

AS'AD ABUKHALIL: Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD: As'ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at Cal State Stanislaus. He is the author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia from Seven Stories Press, and he blogs at Angryarab.blogspot.com. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up after the break, more on the cartoon controversy. This is On the Media from NPR. (FUNDING CREDITS)